Native science & rhetoric

Phrenologist’s mapping of Black Hawk’s skull

An elder once told me, “Traditional knowledge is thousands of years of applied science.”

Those words came from one of the speakers at the Indigenous Environments conference I was fortunate to attend this week in Norwich, England.

She points out a fundamental problem with the way we carve out our everyday understandings.

We understand–or we think we understand–that indigenous people ignore or reject science.


It’s a matter of semantics. Rhetoric.

For example, when I studied the concept of native science with colleagues at the Smithsonian, I learned there is no traditional word for “science” in Osage or Lakota.

And there’s no single word for “religion” or “spirituality.”

Many native peoples have traditionally considered science, art, culture and community as active, not static features of everyday living and thinking.

Carving out “science” as a discreet aspect of knowing results in a separation of science from other knowledge systems.

When we discussed at the conference the mainstream notion that returning Native ancestral remains and cultural items to tribes would mean “a loss for science,” we asked: what does it take to raise awareness that we all lose when Indian values are ignored wholesale?

Framing the debate as a loss or win hides the political entailments that Indian tribes get to make their own decisions–whether it’s about elections, religions, customs or ancestral remains.

Scientists–and others who fail to grasp indigenous agency–can’t wrap their heads around sovereignty: that Indian tribes have the right to self-governance.

We get to make our own decisions.

A colleague attending the conference, Timothy Petete, weaves the idea of language with the concept of agency, and frames the issue as “rhetorical sovereignty.”

When a researcher claims that returning belongings to the tribes “harms science,” she uses the rhetoric of the overlord: Machiavelli’s prince.

When tribes demand the return of ancestral bones, the rhetoric of sovereignty is clear:

The decision is ours.



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 american indian, authenticity, communication, Indian, Indian remains, Kennewick Man, native american, native press, Native Science, repatriation, rhetoric, science, science communication and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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