Stereotypes about American Indians

HUman races 1842

Poster of the human races from F.E. Wachsmuth, Leipzig, 1892

The More the Buckshot, the More the Brains

[Today I’m sharing with you notes from a talk I gave this week at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia. My notes serve as a foundation for the talk, which was less scripted and more extemporaneous—sometimes even impromptu.]

In the 1800s, European and American scientists studied the human mind by examining its container: the skull.

The skull yielded rich data for phrenologists, who argued that personality is housed within pockets of the brain.

The contours of the pockets—the depth and width and lumps and bumps—can be identified by close examination of the skull.

Phrenologists like Samuel George Morton collected skulls from around the world (Morton acquired more than 800, now on display in Philadelphia) and agreed with the sentiment that five races of humans existed.

For phrenologists, the skull determined the race:






The contours of the skull indicates racial type, based on shape, size and proportion: including the individual’s personality and intelligence.

So-called “white” skulls were judged as the most symmetrical and beautiful, and hence, Caucasians were positioned highest on the human ladder.

What You See is What You Get


Image of Franz Joseph Gall, from the website Pixels

Morton took his lead from Franz Gall, a German scientist who studied the personalities of residents of an asylum for the insane in the 1700s.

Gall, who would become the Father of Phrenology, noticed that one resident of the asylum who was considered “combative” also had a thickening behind his ear.

So Gall began to look at other combative tenants of the asylum and found they, too, had more pronounced bumps behind their ears.

Gall created a list of personality characteristics, ranging from combativeness to kindness, and identified more than two dozen features that comprised personality.

He then mapped the features on a rendering of the skull, according to his observations at the asylum.

A thickening of the skull would indicate more of the personality feature, while a crevice would show less.

Morton Boosts Beliefs with Empirical Evidence

Samuel Morton took phrenology to the next level by elevating its gravitas through his measurements of hundreds of skulls representing individuals from across the globe.

One noteworthy method he developed involved measuring the mass of the brain.

Morton would boil a human head and scoop out the interior.

Once the skull was clean and dry, Morton turned the head upside down, poured lead-shot into the cavity, up to the rim, and then dumped the shot onto a scale.

The heavier the scale, the heavier the brain.

Hence: the more the buckshot, the more the brain.

Philadelphia, where Morton made his home, was a bustling port and harbor in the 1830s.

Discovery of coal deposits throughout the state of Pennsylvania enabled entrepreneurs to harness energy to create steam engines, which, in turn, fuelled growth of industry of the time, particularly the building of locomotives, boats, and heavy-industry factories.

Philadelphia became a mecca for entrepreneurs, including two brothers: Orson and Lorenzo Fowler.


A Fowler phrenological head

The Fowler brothers were drawn to phrenology—quite popular at the time—and became true acolytes.

While Morton perfected techniques for measuring intelligence, the Fowlers brought a material level to the science: they took the show on the road.

A few blocks from where Morton lived with his family, the Fowler Brothers—along with their sister and brother-in-law—opened a shop called The Phrenological Cabinet on Chestnut Street.

Here you could find a pamphlet or book about phrenology, buy a ceramic bust labelled with human traits, or you could have your head examined.

For $1, the Fowlers would trace the lumps on your head and determine your personality.

Black Hawk’s Skull

The Fowlers expanded their operation and opened up offices in London and New York, and began a thriving publishing house (where Walt Whitman, another acolyte, published Leaves of Grass).

They began publishing a journal dedicated to phrenology: The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany.

The journal described phrenology as a “bona fide science” replete with facts, truths and evidence, and is considered today the most long-lived phrenological document, published (with various titles) from 1838 to 1911.

The Fowlers wrote:

The object of this work [the journal] will be to preserve from oblivion the most interesting of  the very numerous facts, confirmatory and illustrative of the truth of phrenology; to show the true bearings of this science on education, (physical, intellectual, and moral), on theology, and on mental and moral philosophy … Our facts we pledge ourselves shall be bona fide.

One noteworthy contribution to the journal was an analysis of the head of Black Hawk, a Sac warrior and headman who had been captured by the U.S. military and kept prisoner in the 1830s.

The Fowlers visited Black Hawk in New York, where they created a plaster cast of his head.

Armed with the tools of their trade—calipers, rulers and Gall’s map of personality etched on a skull—the Fowlers investigated Black Hawk’s plaster head and confirmed Morton’s analysis that Indigenous Americans are savage, war-like and unwise.


The Fowler brothers made a plaster bust of Black Hawk’s head and studied it prodigiously

Morton wrote that the American Indian is:

Marked by a brown complexion; long, black, lank hair, and deficient beard. Americans have black and deep set eyes, the brow low, the cheek-bones high, the nose large and aquiline, the mouth large, and the lips tumid and compressed. The skull is small, wide between the parietal protuberances, prominent at the vertex, and flat on the occiput. In their mental character the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war.

When assessing Black Hawk’s skull, the Fowlers noted his “animal qualities,” and added:

His temperament is bilious-nervous, combining great strength with great mental and physical activity, and power of endurance. The great size of Combativeness, and the domestic organs, is indicated by the immense breadth of the head.

[The area] behind the ears give the head a full, spherical, bulging appearance [from] the organs of Combativeness, Destructiveness, Secretiveness, Cautiousness, and Acquisitiveness.

These organs, when large, or very large, always give great energy and force of character, and, in a savage state, would give cruelty, cunning, and revenge [and] would make an Indian the bold and desperate warrior.

Does Modern Discourse Reflect Phrenology?

Researchers who study discourse—information in books, news, advertising and other media—agree the fabric of racism and prejudice continues today, but in more subtle ways than in the 1800s.

I wondered if modern news media invoke phrenology when the issue of science is raised, particularly concerning American Indians.

I found that, although phrenology is referred to as a “pseudo” science today—replaced by the fields of neurology and neuroscience—the idea of racial types continues in discourse.

And discourse about Indigenous peoples continues to invoke stereotypes about personality and intelligence.

The reason I investigate issues about science (and health, risk and the environment) is because discourse traditionally places Western, empirical science above other knowledge systems.

And I’m interested in how this comparison plays out.

When indigenous knowledge systems butt heads with Western science, some of the underpinnings of phrenology seem to surface to the top layers of discourse.

Take, for example, news coverage that followed the unearthing of a 9000-year-old skeleton in 1996.

The case of the ancient skeleton—called Kennewick Man by reporters—continued until 2017, when the bones were finally returned to Native tribes.

When the skeleton was pulled from the river, local Indigenous communities expected the remains would be given to them, according to a Federal law that protects Native graves, peoples and belongings.

But scientists sued to study the remains, arguing that re-burying the bones would “harm science.”

The legal case lasted nearly 10 years, and the battle to return the bones lasted more than 20.

News Coverage of Kennewick Man

Reporters were intrigued when the skeleton was unearthed because it is among the oldest, intact remains ever found in North America.

But the story took a swift turn a few weeks after the discovery when an anthropologist told reporters the skull looked Caucasian.

Without presenting evidence or data to back his case, the expert—James Chatters—told reporters the skull “looked” Caucasoid—not like any Native American skull he had ever seen.

That is, like the phrenologists of the 1800s, Chatters found the shape, size and girth of the skull revealed its origins.

Chatters told the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“He’s got a narrow face and a long, narrow braincase, and the cheekbones aren’t really broad,” Chatters said. By contrast, he said, American Indian cheekbones “are tremendously wide. They have wide, round faces and rounded skulls.”

Another reporter interviewed Chatters for an Australian magazine and wrote:

Modern day Indians, who typically have prominent cheekbones and flat, roundish faces, stem from Mongolian stock. The narrow Caucasoid features of Kennewick Man suggest a possible connection to Japan’s aboriginal people, the Ainu. Did early Caucasoids from Asia travel by boat around the Pacific rim? Kennewick Man may even indicate migration from Europe, via boat along the Arctic ice cap, a theory backed by similarities between stone tools from the eastern US and the Solutrean culture of France and Spain.

Reporters seized on the notion that the Kennewick Man skull looked more Caucasoid than Mongoloid, echoing language used by phrenologists decades earlier.

But the connection of the skull to “white” individuals wasn’t made clearly until Chatters announced that Kennewick Man looked like the actor Patrick Stewart: a non-indigenous denizen of the British Isles.

According to the Washington Post:

Jim Chatters was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation on television when it came to him. For months he had been walking streets and staring at strangers, looking for a face and head shape that matched what he saw in Kennewick Man’s skull. To him, the skull had contours that “you typically find in Europeans,” as he recalls. “I was looking hard” … then onto the TV screen strode Captain Jean Luc-Picard, the British actor Patrick Stewart. Eureka! “I said, ‘Whoa, that’s the closest I’ve seen’.”

Media outlets carried an image of the Kennewick Man clay model next to a photo of Patrick Stewart, visually cementing the hypothesis that the 9000-year-old skeleton was Caucasian.

stewart kenny

Actor Patrick Stewart was presented as Kennewick Man’s twin in news coverage of the case

So: questioning the idea the ancient remains were native to the Pacific Northwest sowed enough doubt that the judge ruled the scientists could study the bones, rather than repatriate them to tribes, as required by law.

The 2014 book, based on the scientists’ findings, claims the skeleton looks Polynesian.

Authors Douglas Owsley and Richard Jantz write that although Kennewick Man’s skull closely resembles Polynesians, his relatives “are like those of the Moriori of Chatham Islands.”

Reason versus Religion

News coverage also echoed phrenological views that the larger and bigger Caucasian skulls endowed their holders with greater reasoning power.

In contrast, Native Americans were described as ill-equipped for rational and abstract thinking.

Reporters characterized arguments in binary terms–as reason versus faith:

To the scientists, the chance to examine the remains was self-evidently a triumph for reason. “It comes down,” says Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian, “to the right to ask questions of the past.” –Newsweek magazine

“The saddest aspect of the threat to scientific study of Kennewick Man is the risk of forfeiting conclusions based on rational deduction,” Chatters said. –The Guardian newspaper

Faith, reason clash over remains. –The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec)

 The Indian as Object

 Another way contemporary coverage reflects phrenological attitudes about Indigenous peoples was the depiction of Kennewick Man as a “treasure” and a “gift.”

While local tribes described the skeleton as an ancestor, some

scientists objectified the remains.

James Chatters, for example, told a national news program:

From a scientific point of view alone, he’s just an absolute treasure.

Later, Chatters wrote in his book about Kennewick Man:

I was given a gift from the past.

Kennewick Man Returned: Finally

While scientists in the United States were gathering material for their 2014 coffee table-sized tome on Kennewick Man, a group of researchers in Denmark was hoping to quantify the DNA they had extracted from a piece of the ancient skeleton.

With help from members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation—who gave the Danish team samples of their DNA—the geneticists eventually found a connection between the 9000-year-old skeleton and modern tribal members.

In 2015, the team announced in the journal Nature that Kennewick Man was assuredly Native American and not Caucasian.

With the new information in hand, tribal members worked with state leaders to have the skeleton repatriated, and, in February 2017, Kennewick Man was laid to rest in an undisclosed location in the Pacific Northwest. ###

6 December 2019

 With gratitude to the Snuneynmuxw First Nation, keepers of the land on which I write this story.

 And with thanks to the students, staff and faculty at Vancouver Island University for hosting my fellowship at their remarkable place of learning.























Posted in nativescience | 1 Comment

Smuggery and Consumption


Local mushrooms


As the busiest shopping day of the year approaches, I take a deep breath.

I’m as guilty as any shopper.

If I can get an item delivered to my door in 24 hours, I’ve saved time and pennies.

I’m smug.

Spending a few months out of the country has been therapeutic.

I’m unable to order a book or shampoo at cut-rate prices and have them arrive with lightening speed.

Instead, when I order-by-computer, I pay local taxes and federal taxes plus delivery charges—there are no bargains—and items take weeks to arrive.

That means I check the Library for books instead, and borrow my husband’s dandruff shampoo.

That also means a warehouse of worker-bees gets to spend time with families instead of sorting boxes in the mailroom.

As my smugness wanes I scan the New York Times for articles that are uplifting and guide me toward self-betterment.

I find an article on how to brighten your winter and lift your spirits.

Great news: the sun here doesn’t rise until about 7, and sets about 4:30.

And while I get up earlier than the roosters, I feel dead tired before supper.

Hoping to lift the seasonal veil, I dig into the story.

Every article of advice comes wrapped in a product-for-sale.

Want to chase the winter blues?

Buy a bright light.

Want to eat better?

Get a new-fangled blender.

Want to sleep better?

Invest in a sleep mask.

Each chunk of advice has a link to a product you can buy to improve your life.

The articles leaves me dispirited at the linkages of happiness to purchases.

My cure is a walk through the woods behind out house.

In the woods you can breathe and hear birds, and traipse over moss and mushrooms.

Sure: I’m still a little smug. But the smugness comes from the company of the forest, not from the mall.


And maybe we’ll see some deer on our walk

29 November 2019

Vancouver Island

National Native Heritage Month USA















Posted in nativescience | Leave a comment

This University President is Indigenous


My doctoral regalia adorned with Osage ribbon work

Regalia Regalia

We got an invitation to attend the inauguration of the university president at Vancouver Island University in November.

It is not every day that my husband and I get to witness such an important event.

What made the festivities extraordinary is that the new president, Deborah Saucier, is of Métis heritage.

Her ancestry is European and Indigenous North American.

Soon after arriving for my four-month fellowship in Canada, I learned that the Métis trace their ancestry to marriages of French, English, Scottish, and other settlers, with Indigenous peoples.

My source—a woman of Métis descent who works at the Canadian Museum of History—said the definition of Métis is wobbly.

Métis means “mixed” or “mixture” in French.

Some experts argue that the Cree, Saulteaux, Ojibwa and Chipweyan peoples constitute the Métis—with a capital M.

Other folks with mixed ancestry are also métis—with a lower case m.

Some argue that the definitions are arbitrary.

Regardless of the definitions, Dr. Saucier was officially inaugurated in November at the official gathering place of the Snuneymuxw First Nation: the Longhouse.

The invitation by the First Nations Snuneymuxw was significant: it recognized Saucier’s Métis heritage as important to the community.

The Longhouse in the town we call Cedar is made by hand of local cedar-trees, with auditorium-style benches that hold large crowds.

Two fire pits warm the Longhouse and smoke rises to the openings in the roof.

The invitation asked us to wear warm coats and gloves for the ceremony, and to leave our regalia at home.

As it turned out, I didn’t bring my formal Osage regalia to Canada, because a family member is ill.

It would be disrespectful to my relatives to wear my regalia in the context of a celebration–something I had learned from my elders.

Regalia comes from the term that refers to royal accoutrements, so it seems a bit odd that we—as Indian peoples—refer to our formal, Indigenous clothing as “regalia.”

But we do.

I realized later that by “regalia” the invitation didn’t mean Native dress.

The invitation meant we didn’t need to wear our University robes and hoods: academic regalia.

I was struck that the terms we use carry such different meanings, depending on the context.

When in regalia regalia?

When is Métis Métis?

No matter: we got to see a river of people from a mixture of lives and identities participate in the inauguration that celebrated an Indigenous woman taking the helm of an exceptional university in British Columbia.

An extraordinary event, indeed.


24 November 2019

Vancouver Island

National Native Heritage Month USA

Photo by Scott Emery















Posted in nativescience | Leave a comment

Buckshot for Brains


Phrenologists linked personality to features of the skull

Is all Communication Persuasive?

(Note: My fellowship at Vancouver Island University allows me to meet students and faculty across campus, and I was delighted to talk about how early studies of human skulls and brains affects ways discourse transmits notions of Indigenous identity. Professor Dawn Thompson—who has written eloquently on identity and children’s literature—let me share my research with one of her classes, and, what follows are my notes from the talk).

I came across a statement while reading a treatise that declared all communication is persuasive.

The statement gave me pause.

I turned it upside down: are there instances when communication is not persuasive?

News media critics have long argued that reporters cannot be objective because we ordinary muggles cannot be objective.

To dig deeper I asked a neurologist—a specialist on the brain—whether this sounds reasonable:

Is all communication is persuasive?

The neurologist-by-day, and husband-by-night, invited me to stick out my arm and wriggle my fingers.

He explained that my fingers were grasping, and trying to connect—doing what my brain instructed.

The area of the brain that controls my hand also controls my communication.

So it is possible, he said, that—like the grasping hand—my communication tries to touch, grasp and persuade.

Truth is, we know little about how the brain works.

Continue reading

Posted in nativescience | Leave a comment

Lost, now Found


A shelter in the woods near our house on Vancouver Island

I got lost in the woods.

On my way to and from work I trek through the woods to catch my bus.

The shortcut offers a view of the cedars and firs, and a variety of mushrooms I’ve rarely seen: brown, purple, black and a deathly white.

I jumped off the bus early to wander through the forest and lost my way.

Problem is, I plugged into a new audiobook on the bus-ride, and was still listening as I wandered home.

The award-winning Lincoln in the Bardo introduces readers to a crew of ghosts caught in the liminal space between heaven and hell: the bardo (a Tibetan term).

The chapter I was listening to follows the ghost of Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, the beloved Willie, as he enters the bardo.

Willie died in 1862 of typhoid fever: three years before his father’s death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.

While I was entranced by the story I got caught in my own purgatory.

The path disappeared.

Ahead I found a hand-hewn wooden shelter built from tree limbs and held together by twine.

Candy-wrappers circled the shelter.

I put away my earphones and climbed up a hill for a better view, then retraced my steps.

I was walking in circles.

A light rain began as the sun lowered, and I reached for my mobile phone to call my husband and ask for directions.

I could hear his voice only slightly and hung up, angry, and then realized that the earphones were still plugged in, which reduced the sound.

Earphones unplugged, I could hear clearly.

He asked me to set-up the phone so he could track my movements, and soon found me in the woods: close to where I had begun my trek.

Irony struck when I considered how a electronic device prevented my safe sojourn home, yet allowed my husband to find me.

I never felt frightened or endangered.

But I appreciate the reminder to avoid multi-tasking: something that I urge my students to do.

I’m taking my own advice to heart.


15 November 2019

Vancouver Island

Photo by the author















Posted in nativescience | 2 Comments

The Martians Have Landed


Orson Welles; photo credit CBS

(Note: I was invited recently to speak to a class about mass media, thanks to the kindness of the instructor, Guy Le Masurier, a beloved professor at Vancouver Island University. I’m sharing the draft write-up today, on which the talk was based.)

On the eve of Halloween—81 years ago—one of the greatest urban legends was created that still affects how we view the impact of mass communication.

I will return to the urban legend but—in the meantime—I’d like to tell you about the single most myth surrounding mass communication.

Myth. What you see is what you get.

Many muggles think there is a direct, causal relationship between what is presented in mass media, and how media affect viewers, listeners and readers.

I’d like to talk to you first about the myth, and then follow through with three “truisms” we know about mass communication based on more than 80 years of research.

Truisms about media include:

  1. Newspapers have an agenda-setting effect
  2. People believe others are more likely to be affected than they are themselves (the third-person effect)
  3. Effects of mass media are complicated: they depend on many factors

Let’s go back in time.

The year is 1938.

The place in New York.

  • A loaf of bread costs 9 cents
  • Superman makes his first appearance in a comic book in June
  • The most popular radio show is the Chase & Sanborn Hour with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy-pal, Charlie McCarthy.

Another radio show—but not as popular—is the Mercury Theatre on CBS, which competes for listeners with Charlie McCarthy.

On October 30, 1938, the Mercury Theatre performed an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novelette, War of the Worlds.

Although most American were listening to Charlie McCarthy, those who tuned into the Mercury Theatre got a blow-by-blow account of Martians landing.

The star of the show was a young actor called Orson Welles, who narrated the story.

The show was presented as though it were happening in real time, as a news broadcast–interrupted by reports of extraterrestrials landing in New Jersey.

The evening broadcast of War of the Worlds would become famous for terrorizing folks living in New York and New Jersey, and cementing the myth in mass communication that What you see is what you get.

Because the theatrical broadcast was frightening, listeners mistakenly assumed mass panic seized residents of the East Coast.

The next morning, newspaper headlines exclaimed:



But had mass panic really ensued?

A group of researchers at Princeton University in New Jersey set out the next day to talk to residents about the broadcast.

They went door-to-door, interviewing folks who had listened to the broadcast.

They discovered that most people who heard the program knew it was theatre, not news.

Most listeners heard the station identification at the breaks, and caught Orson Welles’ sign-off at the end–that the show was a story adapted for radio.

Listeners who heard that the Martians’ spaceship emitted an eerie glow looked outside their windows or doors, and found nothing unusual.

The researchers did discover one thing that “believers” had in common: those who though Martians landed had a greater belief in religion than other listeners.

So why is the War of the Worlds broadcast from 1938 important today?

The urban legend continues: we still believe that the broadcast created a mass panic among residents of New York and New Jersey.

One rationale is that we believe mass media created a panic because the show was frightening.

What you hear is what you get.

And the next day, newspapers described listeners as panicked.

The agenda-setting effect.

In reality, some people thought the broadcast was real, but most listeners knew it was a Halloween story.

For more than 80 years we’ve assumed that the broadcast caused panic, and one reason is that we tend to think other muggles are susceptible to the power of the media.

The third person effect.

And, finally, how people responded depended on many factors:

  • Whether they sought confirmation of Martians landing by looking outside
  • Whether they heard the entire broadcast (which included station breaks)
  • Whether they were highly religious

I invite you to turn a critical ear to assumptions about how people think mass media is all-powerful.


2 November 2019



















Posted in nativescience | Leave a comment

Native American Heritage Month


My relative, Mahto Tatonka

November ushers in Native American Heritage Month in the United States.

Over the next 30 days, local schools will host events and federal institutions like the Smithsonian will sponsor celebrations that bring into focus the history and currency of being Native.

Frankly, I get rather cross when I think about celebrations underway, against the backdrop of efforts—sanctioned by the federal government—to strip Native Americans of our rights and harm our communities.

The federal government’s crusade to open sacred lands to mining and oil exploration is beyond reproach.

And the thought of the White House honoring Native peoples for photo opportunities this month, while ravaging consecrated ground purloined for profit, exemplifies hypocrisy.

And it is cowardly.

Government officials and their corporate cronies lack the courage to meet tribal peoples face-to-face to hammer out how to best manage natural resources that belong to Native communities.

What Indigenous people lack in 2019 is equal footing at the bargaining table: recognition of our rights as sovereign people.

Each November, I write stories where I encourage readers to take an Indigenous perspective—to view events, issues and ideas through a Native lens.

One of my friends from British Columbia—a Native individual—tells a story where his people met with federal officials–on their homelands–to hammer out policies.

Native denizens requested the visitors address them by their traditional names.

That single act of respect turned the discussion upside down, because the visitors were asked to step into the framework of the Native peoples.

I encourage you to find moments in November when you can adopt a Native lens to view your journey.


1 November 2019

British Columbia















Posted in nativescience | 1 Comment

Feels like Camping


vehicle in woods

Settling into our new neighborhood

When we moved to Canada for my four-month fellowship, we packed up the car, leaving a lot of room.

You can tell a lot about a person by what she packs for 16 weeks.

I took one small suitcase: a carry-on.

So did husband.

We packed a stash of gear we need for work: computers, ipads, and a printer.

I took a few books and a few documents, knowing that most of my written material is tucked away in my computer or on some hard drive.

For the kitchen, I packed my two best knives and the fancy ultra cooking pot—a sophisticated version of the crock pot.

At the last minute I figured we better pack pillows, a blanket, sheets and towels—just in the case the furnished house didn’t include bedding and bath items.

We made sure we had walking shoes and trekking poles: Vancouver Island is a haven for hikers.

Turns out we feel like we’re camping.

The house has many modern essentials: heat and light, gas and electricity, hot water and refrigerator, and washer and dryer.

And there are beds and sofas and chairs and tables and dishes and silverware and pans and microwave.

But it feels like camping when you don’t have a water pitcher, a colander or a potato peeler.

We found no storage containers for leftovers and had no clue where to stash trash and recycling.

When we buy packaged items, I save the plastic and cardboard: now I have makeshift tubs for storage.

I’ve repurposed shot glasses and drinking mugs for pens and toothbrushes.

Like camping, you learn about yourself when you move away from your home.

You learn what you take for granted.

I really miss my cast-iron skillet, handy for sautéing and oven-baked vegetables.

I miss my outdoor gas grille where I braise fish and chicken.

I miss the birds who chirp each morning and the crows that alight on our roof on their way to the Columbia River.

I miss having coffee with my chums.

I miss bicycling: we left our bikes at home because our house sits high on a steep hill.

But that steep hill also means I get to see deer every morning while I walk through a cedar wood with neatly forged pathways.

And we get to meet new friends when we try coffee and pastry at local cafes.

We greet new critters mid-morning: Steller jays and woodpeckers, and sweet little finch-like foul that hide in our neighbors’ trees and flutter when we walk by.

We walk past homes with campers, and I take a photo of one that looks like it is rooted to the ground.

My husband swears that the Canadian crows speak a different dialect than the ones back home.

Makes sense to me.


20 October 2019

Vancouver Island

Photo by the author













Posted in nativescience | 3 Comments

What can I do and how can I make a difference?

Note: This is the script I wrote for a talk I gave this week at the Gathering Place, an inviting spot for Indigenous students and the campus community at Vancouver Island University, where I am ensconced for the semester. When I talk or lecture I write up my notes in advance. I don’t read them to the audience—I use the exercise as a guide, and then just…talk.

osage blanket

A traditional Osage blanket shows the open hand

What can I do and how can I make a difference?

I read these words–What can I do and how can I make a difference–a few weeks ago in an opinion piece written in the Globe & Mail by Jody Wilson-Raybould from British Columbia, a First Nations writer and politician who is currently an independent member of Parliament in Canada.

I found her words inspiring, and decided to spend my time today talking about the questions she posed (above), which serve as a useful guide for me.

Before I dip into the lecture, I’m going to ask you to look at your hand.

Now: think about three things, and as I go through my talk, we will discuss the three things.

Open your palm.

For the Osages, an open palm means you welcome visitors: you have no weapon. Your palm is empty.

Now think of your hand and imagine you have a few pebbles or stones in them. Think about what the pebbles would feel like.

And third, note that your fingers can make many signs, and one of the signs I want to show you is my index finger.

With my hand I’m going to make the sign of “one.”

I do this to help you remember the third thing I’d like you to think about.

Sometimes, all you need is …  just one thing.

Just one smile.

Just one sunny day.

Just one good friend.

In Osage, we greet each other with an open hand and say, How-Wey.

My family is from Grayhorse, one of the villages in the Osage reservation in Oklahoma.

And because I’m a visitor to the Island, here in British Columbia, I would like to acknowledge the people of Nanaimo, on whose land my boots are now centered, and to thank them for the opportunity to be here today.

Speaking of boots, when my husband and I drove up to Vancouver Island from Portland, Oregon, we each brought one bag. And I packed four pair of shoes—two pair of sneakers (I wore one pair), one pair of boots, and one pair of dress shoes (just in case).

Ever since we arrived at the beginning of September, I spend each day fishing out pebbles and stones from my shoes.

Maybe it’s because Nanaimo has great sandy beaches or maybe it’s because I walk through the woods to catch my bus.

But every single day I have to stop and shake out my shoe.

The reason I mention this is because of Susan Power’s book, The Grass Dancer, which follows the stories about Sioux families over time in South Dakota.

One of the characters is a budding medicine woman and something of a trickster. Her name is Anna.

Anna plays tricks on a non-Indian woman, Jeanette, who teaches in the local school.

One of Anna’s tricks is that she takes a bit of grit, roots around in the teacher’s closet when she’s not at home, and Anna places dirt in the teacher’s shoe.

Anna reasons that, when the time comes, Jeanette will be tied to the earth: she can’t leave the reservation, even if she wants to.

When I empty the pebbles from my boots I wonder: is this a message that I need to stick around the Island a little longer?

*  *  *

Let’s return to the questions: What can I do and how can I make a difference?

On my way to graduate school in the 1980s—I moved from the Pacific Northwest to the Eastern part of the United States—my family and I stopped to visit relatives in Oklahoma.

I asked my auntie, who lives in Grayhorse, what I can do that will make a difference, now that I am embarking on new studies?

In that quiet and subtle way of many of my relatives, she simply smiled and said:

You will know when the time is right. 

My major was communication, and I was keen on understanding the intersection of communication with mass media, governance and democracy.

In my first semester, I learned how mass media influence elections, and I was determined to find out more about how Native Americans voted, and how our votes count.

I jogged up to the Library—this was before the heyday of the Internet—to scout for research on Indigenous voting in the United States.

Guess what?

I found nothing.

I could not find one source in scholarly literature that addressed the issue of the Native vote.

I tried popular literature.


But I continued to study mass media and governance.

And I soon learned that a mining company was eyeing a small town in Northern Wisconsin, planning to build a copper mine on traditional Ojibway lands.

The local tribe—the Lac Courte D’Oreilles—(the French called them “short ears”) occupied the land long before the United States said it would take the territory and hold it “in trust.”

That meant the Native people could hunt, fish and gather on the territory, but they lost the ability to make decisions about the land.

When the tribe learned that a copper mine was planned on their traditional land, and that effluent from the mine would be discharged into rivers the tribes used for their livelihood, they sued to stop the construction.

The Ladysmith copper mine controversy gave me an opportunity to discern how the conflict was communicated in newspapers throughout Wisconsin.

I discovered news framing depended on where the newspaper was located.

The newspapers that were more likely to give voice to Native American viewpoints were the mid-sized papers that were distant from the copper mine.

The large mainstream newspaper paid the mine less heed because it was concerned with other statewide issues.

And the town paper?

The Ladysmith newspaper read like a newsletter from the mining company. The local newspaper treated the company as though it owned the newspaper.

The paper did carry comments from the Lac Courte D’Oreilles tribal chairman, but tended to bury the stories deep within the paper and situated them without context.

But that I mean the Native viewpoints read like opinion pieces, and they were bracketed—set apart.

There was no analysis or back-and-forth between tribal viewpoints and the mining company.

Meantime, the mining company acted in good faith, from a propaganda viewpoint.

The company bought a fire truck for the town and launched a “save the owl” campaign in local schools.

And the mine was built.

I shared my findings in as many circles available—both academic and journalistic. I published my research and presented talks at meetings.

I reckoned that the way I could make a difference is by sharing my research.

The next time someone wanted to study how mass media cover conflicts in Indigenous communities, she would find at least one soul working on the issue.

I reasoned that sometimes it takes just one person.

*  *  *

Once I had studied the construction of a mine on Indigenous land, I couldn’t get away from issues that embroil Native tribes over their resources: earth, water and air.

My next adventure concerns an ancient skull and skeleton that was discovered in the Pacific Northwest in 1996.

The bones–discovered on territory that is home to Native tribes–turned out to be thousands of years old.

First, you need to know the US has a law that protects Indigenous remains and artifacts—the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

So when the skeleton was unearthed, naturally the local Indigenous tribes believed the ancestor would be returned.

What else could explain the origin of the 9000-year-old being?

A freelance anthropologist who sent off a chunk of bone for carbon dating called a press conference when he learned the skeleton’s age shortly after it was pulled from the Columbia River.

He said the skull looked just like Jean-Luc Picard, a fictional character on television and films, from the future, played by an English actor.

The news reported that the skeleton was Caucasian.

Not Native American.

The discourse favored the scientific view: the skeleton’s ancestry needed to be investigated.

Meantime, local tribes urged the government to release the skeleton to their care and so that he could be returned to the earth.

A group of scientists sued the US government to study bones.

After nearly a decade in court, the judge ruled that the scientists could study the skeleton.

For the last 20 years I’ve been studying how the discourse about this conflict has unfolded.

The issue, from the Indigenous perspective, is that Native people need a seat at the table.

They want their concerns taken seriously.

They want their culture taken seriously.

But you wouldn’t know this from the public discourse.

Indigenous concerns were treated as exotic, superstitious, and framed as “religious.”

This stands in opposition to the scientific rationality of objectivity.

Indian people were framed as anti-science.

And that didn’t seem right to me.

Then, in 2016, a group of geneticists from Denmark developed new techniques to assess DNA, and they linked the skeleton’s genes with members of the Colville peoples in Washington.

*  *  *

To investigate further, I applied for a fellowship to study at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, where I could talk to the scientists who sued to study the skeleton, and where I could meet with staff members at the National Museum of the American Indian.

I learned there are two separate worlds: one for the scientists. One for the Indians.

When you go to the Natural Museum of History, you can find an exhibit that features scientists who study bones.

Written in Bone—the name of the exhibit—looks and feels like a scene from the television franchise CSI: Crime Scene Investigations.

Scientists are characterized as forensic explorers, on the hunt for bones “that tell stories.”

If you walk over to the National Museum of the American Indian, you can learn how Native people use science in every day, by learning how to navigate by the stars, and figuring out which wood makes the best boat.

The difference is that, at the Native exhibits, you learn that science is woven into daily life.

In Osage, there’s no one word for science.

There’s no one word for religion.

It’s all wrapped together.

At the history museum, there are separate silos: there’s science, which is separated from art, and which is separated from literature, which is separated from politics, which is separated from …

So when I think about the ancient skeleton, or the copper mine in Ladysmith, I think about how scientists and politicians placed their concerns in a separate packages: one for science, one for fishing, one for health, one for copper, one for beliefs, one for laws.

In contrast, the Native Americans embroiled in the conflict talk about the whole package: a way of life. A way of thinking.

In closing, I find I have the privilege of studying discourse.

My contribution is to share what I learn across a range of interests: academic, journalistic and community—Native and non-Native alike.

I’m just one person.

I can show you what that looks like on my hand: one finger.

And I hope that this one person can make a difference.

Thanks for listening.



Hay ch œa.


9 October 2019

Photo credit: Gilcrease Museum

Dedicated to the people of Vancouver Island 







































Posted in nativescience | Leave a comment

Stripping down to the basics

nanaimo sunset

Nanaimo sunset

The weight has lifted

As we settle into our new—albeit temporary—life on Vancouver Island, many encumbrances melt away.

We’re renting our home, so we don’t worry when the air conditioner fails and we don’t even take out the rubbish—our comforts are woven into our housing agreement.

We get very little mail: newspaper subscriptions and most of our magazines have been converted to online channels, except for the beloved New Yorker and Economist which have now arrived in paper form.

My e-mail correspondence has been reduced to a trickle and I have yet to hear from anyone at my new campus after work and on weekends.

Seems my Canadian counterparts are better at separating work-life from home-life than my American colleagues—including me.

Continue reading

Posted in nativescience | 3 Comments