How do Indians Reclaim Science?

Periodic Table

A handful of scholars—many of them American Indians—have been writing about science from an indigenous perspective, offering ammunition to counter the charge that Indians are anti-science.

It comes as no surprise that some American Indians distrust approaches endorsed by science.

The most recent brouhaha occurred over blood samples used to study the Havasupai.

Tribal members, who agreed to give blood to help scientists learn how to manage diabetes and other illnesses, sued after learning that their blood was being examined for clues to trace genetic origins, which was never disclosed to the tribe.

The history of Western scientific approaches to problem solving that affect American Indian communities is peppered with heart-breaking stories, ranging from grave robbing of human skulls for scientific study to forced sterilization of Indian women.

So one method scholars and advocates have used against “being studied”—meaning, being the object of study—is to offer Indian science and Indian ways-of-knowing as counterpoints to Western Science.

As a result writers like Gregory Cajete (Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, 1999) and Roberto Gonzales (Zapotec Science, 2002) have offered example after example of Native American scientific perspectives as a foil to Western worldviews.

While not always labeled as “science,” such perspectives nevertheless use empiricism as the basis for knowledge, whether it’s choosing which herb to treat a rash or using the stars to guide your way home.

Missing in the discussion, however, is the intersection of Western science with indigenous science: how to we cope with the confrontation when one worldview meets the other?

Somehow Indian ways-of-knowing require more gravitas to compete with empiricism and scientific methodology. Rather than science-vs-science, I wonder whether we would be better off using our efforts to enrich the landscape of broadcasting “what is knowable.”

For example, tribal people can point to myriad forms of knowing, whether through traditions, stories, data or shared histories. The litmus test is whether such ways-of-knowing can reside cheek-to-jowl with Western scientific empiricism.


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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