Indigenous Epistemology

Craven, Jim jcraven at
Mon Sep 13 12:08:57 MDT 1999

>From "Spirit and Reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr. Reader", Fulcrum Publishing,
Golden CO, 1999

"...In 1920 George Sibley, the Indian agent for the Osages, a tribe in the
Missouri region of the country, tried to convince Big Soldier, one of the
more influencial chiefs, of the benefits of the white man's way. After
enthusiastically describing the wonders of the white man's civilization,
Sibley waited expectantly for the old man's response. Big Soldier did not
disappoint him:

     ' I see and admire your manner of living, your good warm houses; your
extensive fields of
    corn, your gardens, your cows, oxen, workhouses, wagons and a thousand
machines, that
    I know not the use of. I see that you are able to clothe yourselves,
even from weeds and grass.
    In short you can do almost what you choose. You whites possess the power
of subduing
    almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves.
Everything about you is in
    chains and you are slaves yourselves. I fear if I should exchange my
pursuits for yours, I
    too should become a slave.' (Jedidiah Morse, A Report to the Secretary
of War on Indian Affairs (1822),   p. 207 quoted in Vine Deloria Ibid. pp

  "Many centuries ago the Senecas had a revelation. Three sisters appeared
and informed them that they wished to establish a relationship with the
people, the 'two-leggeds'. In return for the performance of certain
ceremonies that helped the sisters to thrive, they would become plants and
feed the people. Thus it was that the sisters' beans, corn and squash came
to the Iroquois. These sisters had to be planted together and harvested
together, and the Senecas complied with their wishes. The lands of the
Senecas were never exhausted because these plants, were also [part of and
formed] a sophisticated natural nitorgen cycle that kept the lands fertile
and productive. The white men came and planted only corn and wheat and very
shortly exhausted the soil. After exhausting scientific experiments, the
white man's scientists 'discovered' the nitrogen cycle and produced tons of
chemical fertilizer to replace the natural nitrogen. But recently we have
discovered that there are unpleasant by-products of commercial fertilizer
that may have an even worse effect on us than they do on the soil... ( p.

   For every scientific 'discovery', then, there may exist one or more
alternative ways of understanding natural processes. But we cannot know what
these alternatives are unless and until we begin to observe nature and
lsiten to its rhythms and reject the idea of articifially forcing nature to
tell us about herself. But science carelessly rejects alternative sources of
information in favor of the clear idea, an absurd abstraction if ever there
was one. Lacking a spiritual, social, or political dimension, it is
difficult to understand why Western peoples  believe they are so clever. Any
damn fool can treat a living thing as if it were a machine and establish
conditions under which it is required to perform certain functions--all that
is required is a sufficient application of brute force. The result of brute
force is Slavery, and whereas Big Soldier, the Osage chief, could see this
dimension at once, George Sibley and his like have never been able to see
the consequences of their beliefs about the world. Reductionism is about the
least efficient way to garner knowledge." (p. 13)

Jim Craven

James Craven
Clark College, 1800 E. McLoughlin Blvd.
Vancouver, WA. 98663
(360) 992-2283; Fax: (360) 992-2863
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