Explaining Native Science

Spending stolen moments writing a research grant in Native Science is a little crazy-making. The grant is aimed at folks sequestered in the humanities. Problem is, I’m a social scientist.

I don’t understand the grammar that humanists use. It’s as though they went to a special graduate school where they say words like hegemony, interrogate, negotiate, decode and simulacra.

A fundamental difference—in addition to the foreign dialect—is that, for the humanities, it’s perfectly acceptable to critique and “interrogate” a phenomenon. But in the social sciences, we beg for more than mere description.

Sure, you can learn something from gutting it: from getting into its belly and sloshing around. But I want to know more: I want to know why the honeybee’s wing makes a reverse rotation and which genes predict schizophrenia.

The grant application specifically states it will not fund empirical social science research. But that’s what I do!

I look at empirical evidence—markers in mass media, politics and organizations—that influence how information is constructed. My schooling led me to believe that bundles of facts help us understand what causes behaviors and can even help us predict behaviors.

But my investigation into how we talk about science also tells me that how we attach meaning to words and deeds is, at its heart, a humanistic endeavor. So when I try to get down to the very kernel of what I do, it’s that I’m interested in how we humans construct meaning and how the meanings unfold in written, public forms about science: news reports, websites, treaties, poetry and pulp novels and films about and by American Indians.

The problem isn’t that Indians and non-Indians define science differently. The problem is that the very construction of meaning arises from different approaches to embracing the world and our place in it. I argue it’s not that Indians “don’t get” science. Loads of Indians “get” science and empiricism.

We have lawyers, biologists, physicians, engineers and astronauts in our ranks. Our ancestors (recent and long-passed) saw the world in a holistic vein, where science, art, storytelling and language sprung from the same roots.

Writer Gregory Cajete notes that most tribes have no word for science. That’s not because we don’t respect science: rather, we don’t traditionally separate it from the places where we construct meaningful relationships with the world. Science is interwoven in everything we do; we just don’t extract it from other relationships to analyze it. And, with that in mind, I can describe my work as humanistic at its core. My methods, however, are social scientific.

The problem is that the paradigms we call Humanities and Social Sciences have carved out distinct empires in the intellectual landscape. What we need are bridges between the paradigms that will nourish pursuits like mine, that embrace both scientific and cultural ways of knowing.


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, film, human origin, Indian, journalism, Native Science, risk, science, science communication, social media, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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