Native American Science

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NATIVE AMERICAN SCIENCE . A comprehensive understanding of Native American science presents a challenge because it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from the ideas, practices, and observations of hundreds of separate societies. Adding to the challenge is that Native American traditions were oral.

The Validity of Oral Traditions

The oral histories of American Indians are knowledge systems about the natural environment and how they sustain a social structure of mutual dependence that ensures the survival of future generations. These oral narratives lay out a background on which further descriptions weave a picture that originated in the minds of the ancients. The ability to visualize the narrative provides a sturdy framework on which to build an age-old lesson of ideologies and conceptual understanding. In this way Native Americans passed on a culture that sustained life for thousands of years. These narratives were not passed on by rote. Rather, they provided knowledge that was experienced and became embedded in the conscience. Often, skillfully articulated Native American knowledge was associated in complex ways with ritual or ceremony. The inhabitants of the Americas before European contact, in hundreds of distinct societies, maintained knowledge banks of such sophistication that modern scholars who study human antiquity are mystified as to the origin of such a keen understanding of nature.

Confidence in the historical authenticity of ancient narratives is seen to be weak because of a lack of written evidence, sanctioned genocide, and removal of children to missionary and government boarding schools thereby distorting American Indian cultural traditions. Yet faulting oral traditions because they are not set in stone is applying too high a standard. Even in contemporary interpretations of translated ancient texts there are frequent conceptual misunderstandings. Misconceptions arise from struggles with foreign vernaculars expressing foreign worldviews and are compounded by provincial colloquialisms lacking modern equivalents.

Two Ways of Understanding the Natural World

The scientific method provides its practitioners with the authority to validate knowledge as objective truth. Objectivity, based on the absence of personal bias, is the foundation for the integrity of Western science. Some would argue, however, that objectivity is not a strength of the scientific enterprise; rather, it is its greatest weakness because it allows the experimenter to do "science for the sake of science," unencumbered by a subjective personal bias consisting of ethical and moral considerations. Advocates of science use the preemptive disclaimer that benefits outweigh risks to justify profit-driven research even where there are negative outcomes. As long as "objectivity" is equated with integrity, one can justify anything with equal impartiality, even making a nuclear bomb to destroy evil. The western scientific mind, in just a few hundred years, leaves behind the most imposing legacy of all time, a world full of side effects that generations to come will be forced to cope with, not the least of which is environmental degradation on a global scale.

Native Americans for thousands of years maintained a completely different worldview of ancient systems of subjective knowledge, orally transmitted. In these traditions, respect for life and caring for the land was and is a cultural imperative to insure the survival of future generations. Despite bloody conflicts and the loss of land, integral to the survival of a society and its customs, many groups maintained some semblance of their ancient knowledge systems by means of their traditions of oral history. Skilled orators have preserved ancient knowledge to the present. Now Native American scholars convey knowledge in images using the written word, despite the difficulty of precisely illustrating a concept. The orator, who has many visual props at hand, can be sure of precisely illustrating a concept for an audience, whereas the writer most likely will never know this about the reader.

In the spirit of the scientific method, the following hypothesis offers a tangible approach to begin piecing together an understanding of how oral history might work at the physiological level. Modern cognitive neuroscientists, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), map brain activities associated with the movement of limbs, the five major senses, thought, perception, and memory. Ancient wisdom endures as thoughts and perceptions of the mind, not as squiggles of a pen. The physical manifestations of thought and even perception remain elusive (we cannot put either in a petri dish), but fMRI at least reveals the location in the brain of the activity of mental imagery or visualization. One might intuitively associate such activity with the visual cortex, but this is not the case. The fMRI data indicate that mental imagery and visualization are more closely associated with the seat of memory in the brain.

It is tempting to conclude that using imagery and visualization enhances the memory of details. The evidence seems to confirm that the mental image relays specific knowledge in the telling of a story. By letting an image do the talking rather than a narrative memorized by rote, orators, when called upon to relay the knowledge, are free to pass on the tradition in their own words. The Western scientific mind is uncomfortable with this practice because the orator has freedom of expression to embellish or omit key features of the knowledge. However, the trained orator knows that if the person on the receiving end has not grasped the idea to the fullest, if an exact copy of the image has not transferred from one mind to the next, it could compromise the very survival of the tribe. Even if the information that the orator learned in one day took several days to paint for the mind's eye of the receiver, the transfer was precise.

Humans within a community are drawn down different life paths. As an example, one person might be an excellent astronomer and will hone that skill, while another might have a talent to heal and will pursue that career path. Celebration of each milestone in life, from the time of birth, through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age, is ceremonially guided, thus maintaining the continuity of knowledge and a sense of community. Ultimately, community members serve the needs of the community not solely for purposes of that day or season but rather because they operate within a framework designed to insure the survival of generations into the future.

Ancient Wisdom and the Scientific Revolution

Education in the Western tradition convinces its audience that it is risky to commit a story to memory, say nothing of the workings of a whole society, because it will inevitably suffer corruption. So memory cannot be trusted to represent the truth, whole and entire. Yet Native Americans have devised and orally transmitted superior innovations and inventions that persist to the present day.

Emory Keoke and Kay Porterfield (2002) document hundreds of Native American innovations and inventions demonstrating the superiority of the American Indian intellect at the time of European contact. Old World explorers reaped many inventions and innovations from the highly intelligent inhabitants of the New World. The gifts fostered a greed that, within twenty years, set the stage of a betrayal that spanned five centuries, remnants of which persist today. The dehumanizing stereotype of "savage wild heathens" rationalized European expropriation from the New World of intellectual property in the form of inventions, processes, philosophies, and political or religious social systems. Europeans returned to the Old World and often claimed that innovations were accidental discoveries, thus relieving themselves of the burden of crediting ancient intellectual property as a source. There is evidence of appropriated knowledge in the areas of agriculture, medicine, transportation, architecture, psychology, military strategy, government, and language.

Keoke and Poterfield claim, "A case can be made that contact with American Indians actually served as one of the catalysts for the Scientific Revolution in Europe [during the sixteenth century]" (2002, p. xi). In view of this historical relationship between the Scientific Revolution and ancient Native American knowledge, the modern Western mind is naturally tempted to locate ancient knowledge of natural phenomena squarely in the domain of modern science. Were it otherwise, our tradition would have to teach that the Scientific Revolution is an outgrowth of ancient knowledgea concept that the contemporary scientific community is not likely to embrace. Regardless, at the point of European contact, American Natives had in place meaningful understandings of the function and utility of the natural environment.

Transferring between the Systems

It is intriguing how ancient minds conceived of the innovations. People everywhere, throughout time, have desired to understand the complexities, beauty, and utility of the natural world within a spiritual domain. Intellectual maneuvers within a spiritual domain limit knowledge acquisition to a realm bound by subjectivity. It is in this realm that the ancients as well as moderns operated in the quest for the knowledge of how to sustain both the people and the life-giving environment. However, the objective mind finds it impossible to rationalize the mechanism that reveals knowledge.

Modern anthropologists and archaeologists have put forth several hypotheses of how the ancients acquired knowledge. The two most popular ideas reflect easy-to-recognize attitudes: Perhaps Native Americans stumbled upon their knowledge by accident, since there is no record of their using the European scientific method. Or perhaps Native Americans used a variation of the scientific method over a long period, since it provides a logical way to gain knowledge. Both ideas impose preconceived ideas on American Indians that presume methods foreign to the ancient cultural experience. Neither is adequate to define an entire continent of people. The first idea is a stereotypical assumption that American Indians are intellectually inferior. The second educated guess assumes that ancient ancestors were no more intelligent than the Ken Keyes's hundredth monkey, who learned simply by observing.

But consider this: Einstein himself said that one of the keys to his intelligence lay in his ability to visualize the problems he was working on and then to translate those visual images into the abstract language of mathematics. One of the most famous examples of this is the story that he developed his special theory of relativity out of daydreams visualizing what it would be like to ride through the universe on a beam of light (Cardoso).

With this in mind, an important question arises. Why does the human brain occupy more space than it needs, since by some estimates, the average person uses only ten percent of its potential? If the theory of evolution is true, why has natural selection not phased out the excess folds of our gray matter? Contrary to expectations, the excess gray matter is used for visualization, and visualization, as described by many Native American elders, is a vehicle that reveals knowledge of the natural world, as illustrated by Einstein's daydreams. If the concept of Einstein's daydreams brings forth in the mind of the reader a mental image of a gaze beyond the windowpane, then the reader has acquired knowledge based on mental imagery. This is the whole point of oral history, a tradition rooted in mental imagery and visualization.

Sons and daughters of Manifest Destiny whittle away at a terrible legacy left by their ancestors, as strength returns slowly to the sons and daughters whose ancestors survived. Together, a vision of the future that reveals to the world the inalienable right of full recognition is possible. The right of self-determination and the implicit right to self-govern and unite as a sovereign nation is on the horizon. Native Americans all over the continent are embracing sovereignty on a path leading to the unity of their nations, with the ultimate goal of picking up the chards of a broken vessel and replenishing a parched dream.

See Also

Aesthetics, article on Visual Aesthetics; North American Indian Religions, overview article; Oral Tradition; Poetry, article on Native American Poetry and Religion; Politics and Religion, article on Politics and Native American Religious Traditions; Rites of Passage, article on North American Indian Rites; Shamanism, article on North American Shamanism; Study of Religion, article on The Academic Study of Religion in North America; Visual Culture and Religion, overview article.


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Native American Science

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Native American Science