Making Meaning

I want to return to meaning-making and, again, thank you for letting me think out loud.

I’ve noticed that the use of “science” is sort of a talisman when a conflict erupts in Indian Country. For example, I told you about the Havasupai case in the Southwest, when tribal members knowingly gave blood samples to researchers with the proviso that their research would help the tribe with studies of, for example, diabetes.

A tribal member learned that researchers were looking into a variety of factors revealed by the blood, including information revealed in mitochondrial DNA, which informs scientists about human evolution, allowing them to trace migratory patterns. The current thesis is that North America was populated by individuals from Asia.

Problem is that the Havasupai, like many Indigenous people, share creation stories that trace their origins to their current home. They felt betrayed by the researchers and they sued.

And while the news coverage erupted over issues of trust and ethics, it’s illuminating to unpack how science is constructed.

For example, a geneticist engaged in the Havasupai research told The New York Times in the midst of the conflict last spring, “I was doing good science.” This statement points to science and method, focusing the on the “doing” of science, not its impact and not its ethics.

Similarly, the discourse wars over Kennewick Man engendered the same type of responses. One new article described the U.S. Government’s intent to repatriate the remains to Indian tribes as “bad science” and as the “head-in-the sand attitude of a pre-literate society.”

Comparing the two phrases extracted from the news reports indicates that there’s bad science and good science. In the Kennewick Man case, the Indian coalition of tribes sued, requesting the U.S. Government uphold its commitment to return relics as guaranteed by the NAGPRA law of 1990. From that perspective, the case isn’t about science, but rather the promise to honor American Indian cultural values and practices.

The invocation of science is often played as a trump card in discourse surrounding conflicts that arise in Indian Country. And it’s no exaggeration to state that science, woven into commerce, has been the talisman that accords science its privilege. In the past decade North American tribes have lost their legal battles to preserve sacred burial grounds in favor of the construction of a shopping mall (California) and to prevent a highway passage through ancient petroglyphs (Southwest).


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, health, human origin, Indian, journalism, Native Science, news bias, repatriation, science and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Making Meaning

  1. MaryJean Williams says:

    This story reminds me of a quote I can’t find now. Does anyone remember one that says something like -humanity without science is blind, science without humanity is … tyranny?


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