The Indian Brain

How much of our prejudices worm their way into our thoughts about American Indians?

Folks thought that brain structures determine how people think and act, and scientists in the 1840s looked at Indian skulls to determine their behaviors.

At the root of the issue was an assumption that brain size and shape dictated intelligence. Because Indian skulls were smaller, folks assumed Indians were less intelligent.

And that gave way to predictions like Indians could not be civilized.

But I can’t help but wonder if such thinking still permeates contemporary discourse.

Sure, the scientists from the 1840s had their theories replaced by new models where Indians can be civilized and educated. Bleached white.

Problem is that stereotypes framed hundreds of years ago still stick.

Indians are still seen as close to nature, as resistant to change, and as less intelligent.

So when a conflict arises that pits American Indian beliefs against other viewpoints, the Native perspective is often downplayed as antiquated.

Indians that have fought to have their burial grounds kept sacred or their ancestral bones returned. But their views continue to be disparaged, echoing the view that American Indian minds would “seize with avidity on simple truths, while they reject whatever requires investigation or analysis,” according to Robert Bieder.

Even being exposed to civilized European settlers “scarcely effected an appreciable change in the manner of life; and as to their social condition, they are probably in most respects the same as at the primitive epoch of their existence.”

Such views continue today.


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, Native Science, repatriation, science, science communication, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Indian Brain

  1. savageindian says:

    Most Native American tribes uses oral history for their past. They did not write them down, but was passed down in stories from one to another. Could this also have been a reason for them not thinking we were intelligent? What is intelligence?
    Native people lived a simple life, living off of what the land gave us. We were taught to not take more than we needed. We were taught to take care of our elders and family. When I lived on the reservation, i would go out fishing with a gill net to catch Salmon on the Skeena River.
    The first people we took care of was our elders. Then we took care of family members that did not have the money to get a boat and net. Then we took care of other poor people who needed fish for the winter, and last but not least, we got our own fish for the winter after everyone else was taken care of.
    I sit back and wonder a lot about how this earth would still be if all people still lived in such a way? I wonder if we would have the issues we have now? I would ponder over things like homelessness and hunger. It’s a sad world sometimes when you really think about the issues that bother everyone. How long will resources last? People over indulge, taking more than they need.

    Thank-you again for an insightful blog post.


    • A really good example of a “civilized” people whose lands were overtaken despite the supreme court ruling to let ’em be: Andrew Jackson defied the court and the trail of tears ensued. Awful.


      • savageindian says:

        If there were really people I could hate, one of them would be Andrew Jackson because of his total out right hatred for the Indians. I live not far from Nashville and he has a plantation here called “The Hermitage”.

        I have gone there before I knew what he was all about, and that is something I will never do again just of that reason.


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