One Story at a Time

NMAI article winter 2010_11 Coleman Herman
I advise my students when they are presenting their research to tell a story. In our inner-most hearts, what we crave is hearing a good tale. It’s not about discovery or novelty: it’s your ability to strike a chord. Nobel Laureate William Nunn Lipscomb Jr., who died this week at age 91, said in an interview that “It’s not a disgrace in science to publish something that’s wrong. What’s bad is to publish something that’s not very interesting.”

So when one of my graduate students, Erin Dysart Hanes, wrote a class paper several years ago about the unearthing of an ancient skeleton that Native Americans wanted returned, I was hooked.

Erin and I ended up publishing our research about news coverage of Kennewick Man, and Erin spent several months on a Chautauqua conversation tour telling the story while I continued to write about how news covers science in Indian Country.

Audiences find the story riveting.

In 1996 two college students literally stumbled on a skull in the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. Turns out a nearly complete skeleton was dredged from the site. The skeleton is referrred to as The Ancient One by local tribes, but the moniker Kennewick Man stuck.

Over the next nine years, Indians and scientists battled in court over who should have authority over the skeleton. While Indians demanded its return, scientists argued that they needed to study the bones. The court decided the scientists could examine Kennewick Man and the skeleton was ensconced at the Burke Museum in Seattle.

In researching news coverage about American Indians and science, I decided to expand my knowledge base and applied for a fellowship to work with folks who are experts in science and Indians. I landed a gig at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and worked with Douglas Herman, a geographer deeply invested in Native Science.

My summer in Washington forever changed by perspective of science.

Thanks to Doug’s guidance, I discovered that Native people approach science from a much different vantage point than what we learn in public schools. In fact, most Indigenous languages don’t even have a word for science, according to Gregory Cajete, who is among a handful of scholars who examines Native Science. Cajete points out that there’s no word for religion, either. Science, religion, life: it’s all connected in the traditional Native worldview, not separated into discrete bits and bytes.

Yet the Kennewick Man news coverage relentlessly centered on science and religion. In other words, the news approach was strictly from a traditional mainstream Western perspective. Doug and I spent hours talking about how to infuse Native Science into popular discourse.

Truth is, I’m not certain how to accomplish this except one story at a time.

I began this blog during my summer in Washington DC to track my thoughts about Native Science in a popular niche, and I continue to write about Kennewick Man in the scholarly field. I finished a chapter for a new textbook on American Indians and popular culture, and Doug and I wrote about science and ways of knowing for the National Museum of the American Indian magazine, which I will upload on this blog, with permission from the magazine’s editor.

And I’d like to make a pitch for the magazine: it’s a gem, rich with stories about and by American Indians, which comes free when you join the museum. The current issue has a heart-rending article about my tribe, the Osage (Wah-Sha-She), and I urge you to support the museum.

Just link to


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, Indian, journalism, Kennewick Man, Native Science, Osage, risk, science, science communication, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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