Powerful Lessons from Indian Country



Vintage postcard of Native fishers on the Columbia River

Infusing Indian Thought in Social Theories

I teach a course for college sophomores on social theories and how they relate to my field: communication.

Writers who set the stage for Western thought—lots of French, German, British, Italian and American theorists—argue that social systems forge the foundation for understanding how meaning is infused into our communication.

Yet one of the most powerful sources of information has been largely ignored:

Indigenous knowledge systems.

Comb through the heavyweights in social theories—Michel Foucault and Emile Durkheim and Noam Chomsky—and you will find that Indigenous ways-of-knowing illuminates how communication unfolds.

For example, Foucault notes perspectives that dominate our social landscape—everything from homosexuality to mental illness—take shape in the arenas of communication.

Those who can harness the reins of communication are better able to shape “truth,” Foucault writes.

Consider the case of Kennewick Man: a 9000-year-old skeleton uncovered along the Columbia River that local tribes fought to have returned under Federal law.

It took 20 years for the bones to be returned, despite laws that guarantee safe return of Indian remains.

Tribal elders argue that a skeleton of this age surely must be an ancestor.

“We know what happened 10,000 years ago–at home along the Columbia River,” Armand Minthorn told reporters.

“The scientists cannot accept the fact that just because it’s not written down in a book, it’s not fact. It’s fact to me, because I live it every day.”

It took 20 years for science to catch up with Indigenous knowledge.

Tests finally demonstrated common DNA links the skeleton with a local tribe.

Foucault observes knowledge that seems buried or forgotten—like Indigenous knowledge–holds little sway when news gets covered in public arenas.

Power, he says, rests with those with access to channels of communication.

In the Kennewick Man case, Indian views were largely ignored by the mainstream.


18 February 2018






About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
This entry was posted in american indian, Kennewick Man, Kennewickman, NAGPRA, native american, native press, Native Science, nativescience and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Powerful Lessons from Indian Country

  1. David liberty says:

    Bio centrism , symbiosis and reciprocity are some of the major tenets of indigenous knowledge from my perspective. These need to be held up more in social theory discussions .

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Erasure is problematic in of itself. In the studio I erase marks often, yet know that total erasure is impossible. No matter what I may do, some evidence of the mark will remain to trouble the composition. Over time I will, if the drawing is to be at all useful, learn how to incorporate he remains of those marks into the entirety of the composition, allowing them to speak for themselves in the process of meaning making.

    Arguing about ancestry with those who have lived in a place for thousandth of years seems a process of wishing away the residues of lived experience, and occupancy. Of course, even the most thorough erasure of the past must leave troubling traces that cannot be explained away.

    Liked by 2 people

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