When some values prevail and others fail

Scientific supremacy

Writing a book chapter on mass media and American Indians brings sharply into focus our western love of science.

I’m a believer, too. I love the clean lines of the scientific method, the deductive and logical journey to discovery. My colleagues who embark on studies of a more qualitative nature seem to meander along a path of uncertainty.

I read somewhere that those of us who grew up with a childhood steeped in uncertainty favor rules. It makes sense that if you color within the lines then you’ll be rewarded. Those who invent their own drawings, who chart their own course, remain uncertain of the outcome.

Obviously the more certain approach offers comfort while the more creative approach is fraught with mystery. I’ve always been a little embarrassed about my love of science and—to some extent rules—until a high-ranking American Indian official, who is a lawyer by training—confessed in a public lecture that he “loved rules.” At first, I thought it was the attorney talking. But then I remembered the old saw about certainty and childhood, and wondered if we shared the same perspectives about rules and science and certainty.

This doesn’t mean Indians are uncertain if they eschew the scientific method. I love the statement that Umatilla spokesman Armand Minthorn gave to 60 Minutes when asked about the court battles over the 9,000 year-old skeleton Kennewick Man. The reporter asked Minthorn why he rejected science, and why he didn’t want the bones to be examined instead of returned to the earth. Minthorn said:

“We know what happened 10,000 years ago. I know what happened 10,000 years ago at home along the Columbia River, because my teachings from my older people tell me how life was 10,000 years ago. And the scientists cannot accept the fact that just because it’s not written down in a book, it’s not fact. It’s fact to me, because I live it every day.”

The Kennewick conflict pitted scientists against Indians, at least in the news coverage. But the dual perspectives—one Western and one Indigenous—were never accorded equal weight. Science largely reigned supreme, with the Native perspective aligned with faith. Overlooked is the linkage between faith and science in Indian ontology. Reporters also ignored the values entrenched in Western science, glossing over the assumptions that progress is good and that discovery of information—in this case, Kennewick Man’s DNA—trumps all other views. When the court battles unfolded in news coverage, scientific spokesmen bemoaned the repatriation of the skeleton as a “loss for science.” Neglected in coverage was the Indian view that exhuming an ancestor for the sake of science tears away at the very fabric of Indian values.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, framing, Indian, journalism, Native Science, news bias, repatriation, science. Bookmark the permalink.

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