Navigating tropes

What informs us?

Close your eyes for 30 seconds: what comes to mind when I ask you to think about American Indians and their colonizers? The word “colonizer” is loaded right up front, and you probably envision explorers—what some would call them invaders—to the New World. Maybe you imagine Christopher Columbus or John Smith, but the point is that years of story-telling have created tales steeped in stereotypes (English majors call them tropes) about the relationships between settlers and denizens of the North American continent.

You know the tropes: cowboys battle Indians–and the natives, even if they win a battle like Little Bighorn—eventually end up surrendering to the white militia, cavalry or politico with the authority to sequester Indians onto parcels of land called reservations that they don’t want or need.

The stories prevail even in modern discourse—we just can’t break away from the tired, old tropes. Truth is, at some weigh station in our psyches, we love the stories. We love stories so much that toy companies today—in 2010—still manufacture tiny plastic Indians and cowboys so school kids can create their own war games. And while most cities would refuse to tolerate a sports team called the Blackskins or Yellowskins, our nation’s capital embraces a home football team that goes by the name Redskins. And Hollywood invents and reinvents tales of American Indians that bear little resemblance to the true-life denizens, whether the story is Disney’s Pocahontas or Twilight’s Jacob, we flock to the multiplex to watch the yarns.

Here’s the problem: most folks have little contact on a day-to-day basis with American Indians. In the absence face-to-face experiences, television, films and books fill in for first-hand knowledge, according to the research conducted by communication scholars. In other words, if you don’t live and work with Native Americans, chances are what you know—or think you know—is informed by mass media. Most movie and TV scripts about Indians leap from the imaginations of scriptwriters and become dull reflections of a pseudo-reality. The same is true with news stories about Indians—they often invoke stereotypes that circulate in discourse rather than impart knowledge.

When contemporary conflicts arise that affect Indian communities on issues that engage concern over the environment, health and science, most of us will learn about them from mass media reports. Notions of science undergird a litany of issues that impact native peoples, most often through the privileging of conventional, western ways of knowing over traditional, indigenous ways of knowing.

Conventional western science approaches problem-solving in a reductionist vein, meaning, components of the problem are separated into discrete bits: the better to envision each piece of the puzzle. The assumption is that, by unlocking segments of a problem, scientists will be better positioned to uncover essential truths. In contrast, American Indian knowledge systems arise from the connections between the puzzle pieces: how the segments fit into place undergirds indigenous ontologies. In other words, relationships are key to understanding Native American logic. Missing in most of the social discourse about issues in Indian Country is a discussion of such linkages.

I argue that contemporary issues—like Kennewick Man—pit knowledge systems against one another in another version of entitlements. The Indian perspective–that ancestor should be returned to the tribes as justified in NAGPRA—was roundly dismissed by critics in news coverage as backward, regressive and superstitious. For example, one newspaper editorial described returning the skeleton to the tribes as “bad science” and as the “head-in-the sand attitude of a pre-literate society”—a thinly veiled insult to Indian tribes.

A better approach would be to resist thinking about different sciences confronting one another, but rather different ways of constructing knowledge.


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 framing, Indian, Native Science, science. Bookmark the permalink.

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