The Universe is Alive

… and it is personal


In writing about science, reasoning, and power of place, two scholars observe:

“The universe is alive, and it is personal.”

Vine Deloria Jr. and Daniel Wildcat make a strong case in their book that Native American peoples extract meaning from their experiences, much in the way that Western scientists glean information from their experiences.

Problem arise, however, when we ignore the cultural underpinnings of the way we see our experiences.

Too often we forget Western science is fraught with mythical and magical thinking.

This weekend I learned my new chapter on the cultural divisions in scientific thinking is hot off the presses.

I talk about how discourse—news, books and media—shows ruptures arise in scientific and cultural reasonings in Western thinking.

Doing science—what I call “sciencing”—is often mistaken as the only avenue for sound reasoning.

Reasoning and rational thinking are profound in American Indian cultures, even though we may not call it “sciencing.”

For example, Osage writer William Least Heat Moon observed that Indian tribes consider the buffalo gourd mon-kon-nee-ki-sin-gah: human being medicine.

Moon says the seeds, flesh and pulp can be used for cleansing and healing.

But the non-Indians consider it “a goddamn” weed.

Just because settlers don’t understand the vine has healing powers doesn’t make the vine a weed: the settlers just don’t have the required knowledge.

Cultural and ethical entailments should guide science, our new book, Ethics and Practice in Science Communication, suggests.

Recall the case of Kennewick Man.

Indian tribes in Oregon and Washington insisted the 9000-year-old skeleton extracted in the Columbia River in 1996 is an ancestor.

“Sacred human remains are not artifacts. They are what they are—sacred—and they are our ancestral remains, and they need to be treated as such,” Armand Minthorn told journalists.

The courts ignored the cultural and ethical dimensions of indigenous arguments, and instead demanded proof of tribal affiliation of the ancient bones.

The courts honored the scientists’ claims rather than tribal claims, and turned over the bones to anthropologists.

Twenty years later a team of Danish scientists found a DNA match with the skeleton and the Colville people, and Kennewick Man was finally returned to his homeland.

But Native people continue to battle policy-makers over ethics and rationalities.

While Federal laws are designed to protect Indian lands and ancestral remains. values that enshroud greed lay waste to Indian claims.

This week we learned that protected land in Utah called Bears Ears—held sacred by the Navajo, Hopi, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni peoples—will be opened for oil and gas development by the United States’ current administration.

Despite Federal laws that protect the some-100,000 cultural and archaeological sites, the US Department of the Interior has held secret meetings—in violation of open records laws—to allow mineral extraction at the National monument at Bears Ears to, according to the New York Times.

Policy-makers tried to hide their actions, but the New York Times sued to obtain records that show lawmakers were intent on reversing the Obama administration’s actions to protect Indian territory, and that the Trump scalliwags were keen to open up Bears Ears without public deliberation.

In short, Indian claims are often trumped in favor of Big Business.

Our claims are dismissed, as one scientist observed in the case of Kennewick Man’s return:

“The fact is that, hey, there was a big war. The world has had a lot of these issues of conquered peoples, and you know, one doesn’t like that sort of thing, but that’s the reality. It happened.”

The speaker continues:

“Can we resurrect and make history right? I don’t think so…I mean, hey, life goes on.”

I disagree. There is always a reason and a time to make right: the universe is alive, and it is personal.


4 March 2018








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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