29 November 2007

American Indian Creationism

The American Indians are from America.

If you're like me, you read that and immediately thought about the Bering Strait, and how they came to the Americas some 10 to 40 thousand years ago via a land bridge. The American Indians aren't from America, they walked here and settled it from somewhere else.

Are the Chinese from China? Did they not also walk there from elsewhere to settle? If you're like me, that thought doesn't occur to you at all when you think about those people in those places. Why, the Chinese have 6000 years of recorded (written) history and culture, which is a really long time.

So is 10 to 40 thousand years.

Where is the difference coming from, then? All through grade school here in the U.S. (and probably Canada), we are taught that the native Americans came to the Americas via the Bering Strait. Scientifically speaking, this is not in dispute, because every human being on Earth originally came from Africa. But somehow this has turned into the notion that the native Americans are not from America and have no claim to their own land. (Just think about that one. Do the Chinese "have claim" to their land?) It's a notion that isn't based in science at all, but in politics, and specifically in something called Manifest Destiny.

Meanwhile, according to the American Indians, they have always been here. God gave them Turtle Island when the world began. This has led to a form of creationism that is every bit as irrational and anti-science as Christian and Muslim creationism, and focuses mainly on attacking the Bering Strait theory.

I'm a scientist. I can happily mock Christian and Muslim creationism until the cows come home. But from the American Indians, it just makes me sad that I can't think of a respectful way to defend myself.

So I won't, because I would rather agree with them.

Manifest Destiny was wrong. The American Indians are from America.


Janiece Murphy said...

But from the American Indians, it just makes me sad that I can't think of a respectful way to defend myself.

Me neither, although I suspect some of it comes from not wanting to kick them while they're down.

MWT said...

Yeah. And also that the root of the problem is us wronging them, not science at all. I'm hoping this post helps with that a little.

John the Scientist said...

Is this about Kenniwick Man?

MWT said...

No, not that I know of.

I'd appreciate if you provide links to references to things (or just explain everything outright) so I don't have to go around googling every time you say something. It would greatly speed up the pace of conversation.

John the Scientist said...

I was somewhat confused because the Manifest Destiny of the 1840s predates the Bering Straight theory by almost 100 years. One has nothing to do with the other. Manifest Destiny did not displace natives because they were somehow thought to be not truly native, it was a pure culturist assumption that since Europeans could put the land to better use than the natives, that the natives should be displaced. No American of the Westward Migration thought of the natives as non-native or non-American (in the continental sense), they thought of them as savages who needed to be moved for their own good.

To my mind, it is perfectly possible to believe that the natives were shamefully treated, and to at the same time expect them to get with the 21st century if they are to have a future in this world at all.

Kennewick Man is where the rubber meets the road in terms of science versus native tradition, and I tend to agree with the guy over at the Panda's Thumb:

But remains that are clearly thousands of years old, not part of an established gravesite, nor culturally continuous with the native populations that resided in the area at contact…well, that’s a bit like the north Italian villagers getting up in arms over the disrespect shown to their “fellow” villager, the nine-thousand year old fellow who melted out of the glacier.

MWT said...

Kennewick Man sounds like the kind of big legal mess I wouldn't want to touch with a 40 foot pole. I looked it up on Wikipedia to see if anything new had developed since 1998, and it looks like they decided it most closely resembled a south Asian, the Indians lost the legal battles for custody, the scientists are studying it, and it's at the Univ of Washington. However, someone is actively working on that article right at the moment, so all that might change - I'm quite happy to be lazy and let someone else do all the research and writing for something that's only tangentially related to my original post. Which brings me to...

To answer your original question, no, my post didn't have anything to do with Kennewick Man. I wrote it in response to this essay.

Regarding whether or not the concept of manifest destiny has anything to do with the kind of mental disconnect that I described in my first four paragraphs: well, if that wasn't it, then where did the difference come from? Because the existence of that bit of mindless bias seems to be at the root of the complaint. If you sort past all of the arguments against science, all they want is for people to acknowledge that they're from here, and to not immediately say "well tradition has it that they're from somewhere else" - which a lot of people seem to do automatically, including me before I read that essay.

I suppose another part of it is just that we aren't really taught any American history from the time period between Bering Strait and 1492. That's several thousand years' worth of historical gap. All we get is the part after the Europeans arrived, and from the European/early U.S. point of view.

and to at the same time expect them to get with the 21st century if they are to have a future in this world at all.

Well, I'd say it's possible to live in the 21st century without giving up all cultural identity at the same time. Which they seem to be doing, as far as I can tell, unless you're referring to something in particular?

John the Scientist said...

Did you mean where did the defensiveness about natives also being “immigrants” come from? I’m not sure. The only place I’ve really seen it put forth as any kind of argument in favor of displacing the natives has been on White Supremacist websites such as the Aryan Nations and their softer, more disguised brethren. I haven’t seen any legitimate groups within mainstream culture making any point of it. And it most definitely was not at the forefront of anyone’s mind during the Westward Expansion – the Bering Straight theory only emerged in the 1930s.

In fact the Indians were taken for granted as being native in the Old West. If you want a really good idea of what European settlers thought of the Indians, take a gander at the chapter on the “Goshoot Indians” in Mark Twain’s “Roughing It”. There is no mention of primacy of place, simply the scorn of the civilized man for the savage. The Trail of Tears was in fact one huge case of Eminent Domain, overlaid with some really ugly past history like the smallpox blankets.

A lot of the Aryan Nations stuff seems to be happening out West where the majority of reservations lie, and local proximity to that BS is perhaps one reason why Native Americans seem so defensive about the “you are an immigrant, too” rhetoric. Here is a really well-reasoned native response to that. I think Orrin shows that you don’t have to acquiesce to native superstitions in order to sympathize with them.

I suspect that there is something else going on with Two Forks’ rhetoric, and that it is an echo of the so-called Science Wars of the 1990s, which culminated with Alan Sokal showing that some of the pre-eminent scholars in the humanities could not tell cow shit from cake batter when it was served in a silver bowl.

A key part of the post-modernist argument against science was that non-Western “ways of knowing” are just as legitimate a means to enquire into Nature as is science. This allied humanities scholars with a lot of the political activists such as the Afrocentrists. Two Forks seems to be an offshoot of this, with his insistence that scientists take into account native myths in formulating hypotheses, and even to give primacy to that mythology over properly formed, testable hypotheses. He even copies the Christian Creationist rhetoric of “just a theory”.

A good primer on all this nonsense is Gross and Levitt’s “Higher Superstition”, which is the book that made me leave the formal study of Russian Lit forever (at one time I wanted a dual Ph.D. in Chem and Russian so I could teach at a small school). I concluded that I was a child of the Enlightenment and could not peacefully co-exist with the forces of post-modernism that had taken over the Humanities in general and literary criticism in particular.

I refuse to accept that Native Americans are mental children who can’t deal criticism of their creationism via the scientific method. Chinese people have no problem participating in larger society and in simultaneously keeping their culture in smaller self-selected groups. Most Chinese I know maintain their separate identity while pursuing that most Western of disciplines: science. You see a little of the FOB / ABC and Chinese / Banana stuff, but in general, the Chinese in America remain identifiably Chinese. Even my part of the rural NE has a local Chinese school.

But the Chinese around me don’t pretend that they can only maintain their identity by insisting that I take patent nonsense such as Feng Sui seriously. Modern Chinese didn't lose their cultural identity when they cast off past superstitions. In fact the only people in my area I know who do take Feng Sui seriously are what my wife terms “dumb Americans”. Chinese leaders in China have systematically waged war on that kind of superstition, both under the Kuomintang and the Communists, dragging their people (sometimes kicking and screaming, or at least spitting) into the worldview of the Enlightenment so that the nation can participate fully in the modern world. Native American leaders need to do the same, and from what I can see of the Mohawk nation up here in the NE, the responsible ones do.

MWT said...

I like Orrin's statement. It says what I was trying to say, except from the non-native scientist side of the disagreement.

On the Manifest Destiny concept, I think it's more about the concept itself and how it has affected our ways of thinking in modern times (and the slant of history teaching in the classrooms), rather than the literal historical roots of it and how it affected thinking in the 19th century.

I refuse to accept that Native Americans are mental children who can’t deal criticism of their creationism via the scientific method.

I'm not sure where you're getting the idea that I want to treat them that way. I'm not conceding that the science is wrong, because it's clearly not. But I also refuse to get into the science vs. creationism argument with them in the first place, because it's the wrong argument to have. The point of my essay was to attempt to find the underlying source of contention (which is not science per se but how that science is being used) and make peace.

Why make peace with Two-Hawks in particular? Because he says a lot of other admirable things elsewhere, and I'm a fan of his performance in Nightwish's Creek Mary's Blood. When I encountered that particular essay, it threw me for one helluva loop. So I had to say something.

John the Scientist said...

"I'm not sure where you're getting the idea that I want to treat them that way."

I didn't. I got from your piece that you wanted to side-step an issue that would make you look bad in some people's eyes if you said what you really thought with all the snarkiness of Scalzi.

The majority of people I've met who do treat non-Westerners that way are, ironically, in the ethnic studies departments that infest the Humanities these days.

Sorry I should have made it clear that that statement flowed from my paragraph about being a minor soldier in the Science Wars of the 90s.

MWT said...

Well, that was certainly not an interpretation I was expecting either...

I wrote exactly what I actually think on it. Snark isn't high on my list of fortes or ways of thinking. It has its place, as Scalzi abundantly demonstrates, but there are also places it doesn't belong. And I have a lot of respect for the man (and by extension his people) I was addressing.