No Word for Science

I’ve been listening to Osage language tapes since I returned from Greyhorse this summer.

You can tell when some of the words have been imposed by Western constructs. For example, the days of the week aren’t likely indigenous. Sunday, for example, is day-plus-God: Hompa Wakonda. Some of the days just add numbers: day-plus-two (Tuesday) and day-plus-three (Wednesday).

It gets tricky when it comes to Native Science. One of the leading scholars on the topic, Gregory Cajete, writes that spirituality undergirds all Indian ways-of-knowing; that there’s no separation between spirit and life.

Cajete says there’s no word for religion in Indian languages. Sure enough, there’s no “religion” in my Osage dictionary: it was overlooked or never existed in the first place.

Along the same lines, there’s no word for science in the Osage dictionary.

So it becomes difficult to talk across cultures when it comes to religion and science. And it’s not as if Indians aren’t exposed to science: popular culture, schools and medicine are replete with scientific-ways-of-knowing, and more than half of American Indians live in urban areas, far from the reservation.

But when it comes to conflicts over land, water and history, the tensions between science and spirituality rise to the surface. I argue one reason for the tension stems from differences in moral judgments.

In the case of Kennewick Man, for example, battles waged over laws and rights are superficial: it’s not that they’re not germane; it’s just that they mask the morality behind the judgments. The anthropologists who wanted to study the skeleton argued that publics have a right to know about history, while the Indian tribes argued that laws protect Indian artifacts and belongings.

Hidden from view is the deeply held belief that bones should never be removed from their place. That unsettling fact trumps all other arguments, which are reframed in the courts and press as religion versus science, or belief versus fact.

But if there’s no indigenous word for religion, and no word for science, then where do we tether the discussion?


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.
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