Why Native Americans do not separate religion from science

A Menominee Tribal biology class
A Menominee Tribal biology class in Green Bay, Wis. Department of Agriculture, CC BY

(The Conversation) Last year five Native American tribes in Washington state managed to repatriate the remains of the “Ancient One,” as they called him, or “Kennewick Man,” as scientists called him. The Conversation

For the tribes, the Ancient One is to be revered as a human ancestor. But for the scientists, the rare specimen of a 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man was important to understanding the history of North America. After a 20-year court battle, the tribes finally reburied the Ancient One. However, this could be done only after scientists had created his multi-dimensional model for future study.

For a long time, the relationship between Native Americans and scientists has been a contentious one. It would appear from this case that what matters most to Native Americans are religious beliefs and not science.

While this might be the case with human remains, which are a sensitive issue with most tribes, scientific endeavors are very important to Native Americans.

That is why indigenous scientists and scholars including myself are supporting the March for Science this Saturday, April 22.

Native American traditions blend science and religion.
Carling Hale, CC BY-NC-ND

Sacred ecology

Scientists began thinking and writing about how Native Americans understand the natural world in the 20th century. Instead of seeing a conflict between Western science and Native American knowledge, they started thinking about ways to learn how Native Americans addressed environmental and ecological issues differently.

Ecologist Fikret Berkes pointed out these distinctions in his seminal book “Sacred Ecology,” where he noted that both Western and indigenous science can be regarded as “the same general intellectual process of creating order out of disorder.”

He provided his own research as an example. He stated that the Native Americans he worked with knew far more than he did about aquatic ecological systems, even though he had academic training. He noted their knowledge was both scientific and viewed through a religious lens.

“One important point of difference is that many systems of indigenous knowledge include spiritual or religious dimensions (beliefs) that do not make sense to science…. This is ‘sacred ecology’ in the most expansive, rather than in the scientifically restrictive, sense of the word ‘ecology.’”

Traditional knowledge

Native American scholars are now writing about this blending of science and religion.

Native American scientist Robin Kimmerer, for example, tells her story as a trained botanist learning about Native American worldview in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” She describes how she learned words in her native language, Anishinaabe, that explained biological processes better than Western science could in English.

As a Native American scholar, I, too, have spent the past year at the intersection of science and religion at Harvard Divinity School, researching “ethnobotany” and “ethnopharmacology” – the scientific study of the medicinal qualities of plants and Native American belief.

I learned from my grandmother, Annie Mad Plume Wall, who was regarded as a “doctor” on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, that certain plants were medicine. She understood the ethnopharmacology of plants that were used as analgesics, antibacterials or anti-inflammatory agents. She knew which plants to use when one of her patients was ill.

The knowledge of the medicinal qualities of these plants clearly grew out of a process of observation and experimentation. She learned how to distill the essential elements of a plant to create an extract of its medicinal properties. In fact, her refrigerator was filled with bottles of extracts.

However, some of these plants also had mythological stories that spoke of their origin in the supernatural realm. These stories instructed the Blackfeet how to communicate with the plant, to care for it, how to protect its ecosystem, restrict knowledge of the plant and its over-harvesting.

My grandmother believed that a powerful supernatural being, “Ko’komíki’somm,” gave humans certain plants to use as medicine. She also understood, based on their scientific properties, that a plant was indeed a medicine.

Alternative paradigm

It is true that Western science and Native Americans have a complicated history, as the struggle over the Ancient One attests. Anthropologist Chip Colwell discusses in “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture” that the problem is that the items scientists consider “objects” for study, such as human remains, Native Americans would view through their own worldview, their own belief system.

More recently, there has been a better recognition of the role of indigenous sciences. In 2016, a U.S.-Canada joint statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership recognized the importance of both Western science and indigenous science to help solve global issues. It urged that both “science-based approaches” and “indigenous science and traditional knowledge” be incorporated in efforts to both address commercial interests in the Arctic, such as oil and gas development and shipping lanes, and protect the Arctic and its people.

Native American scientists and scholars have also weighed in on this debate. For the March of Science, many Native American scholars, including Kimmerer and myself, have written a declaration of support that states:

“Let us remember that long before western science came to these shores, there were scientists here….Western science is a powerful approach, but it is not the only one. Indigenous science provides a wealth of knowledge and a powerful alternative paradigm.”

For many Native Americans, like my grandmother, myth and medicine, religion and science, are not viewed as separate, but are interwoven into the fabric of our lives.

(Rosalyn R. LaPier is a research associate of women’s studies, environmental studies and Native American religion at Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article)

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Rosalyn R. LaPier


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  • John 14:6 – Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

  • Actually, Jesus did not utter these words. Some conclusions by the experts:

    From Professor Bruce Chilton in his book, Rabbi Jesus,

    “Conventionally, scholarship has accorded priority to the first three gospels in historical work on Jesus, putting progressively less credence in works of late date. John’s Gospel for example is routinely dismissed as a source……
    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_John#Authorship

    “Since “the higher criticism” of the 19th century, some historians have largely rejected the gospel of John as a reliable source of information about the historical Jesus.[3][4] “[M]ost commentators regard the work as anonymous,”[5] and date it to 90-100.”

    “The authorship has been disputed since at least the second century, with mainstream Christianity believing that the author is John the Apostle, son of Zebedee. Modern experts usually consider the author to be an unknown non-eyewitness, though many apologetic Christian scholars still hold to the conservative Johannine view that ascribes authorship to John the Apostle.”

    And John 14:6: Said passage is a single attestation found no where else in the NT making it historically unreliable. e.g. http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?title=210_Place_of_Life

    See also Professor Gerd Ludemann’s conclusions in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 535-540.

  • Actually, experts say that Jesus did say that. They were willing to die for what He said and actually did, with Peter being hung upside down on a cross because He believed what Jesus said. So, your “experts” seem to be mistaken.

  • The martyred apostles ran afoul of Roman political and religious authorities because they preached, healed, and baptized for the conversion (and profit) to a non-Roman way of life. This support of an anti-Roman cult resulted in the typical murder/crucifixion of the cult leaders. The apostles’ conversions also caused a dramatic drop in Roman/Jewish temple appearances and contributions and just like Jesus’ Jewish temple outburst, it resulted in added punishment to include crucifixion.

    Also please note, Paul’s death appears to be heavily
    embellished. See Professor JD Crossan’s book, In Search of Paul, p. 401 for a
    good review of the history of his martyrdom i.e. Paul (as was Peter) was
    rounded up along with many Christians in Nero’s purge of the cult using the
    great fire of Rome as the pretext for the executions. No special death wishes
    granted. It was a group execution.

  • Actually, they believed what Christ said enough that they died for it. Are any of your authors willing to do the same?

  • Why would anyone want to die for mythical words?? Might want to read the studies of the pertinent 1st-3rd century documents about Christianity akin to the studies of Professors Crossan and Ludemann before making anymore comments.

  • They died because the words were not mythical. They had been with the Man. Are your authors willing to do the same?

  • If indeed these exegetes believed that your bible was the inerrant word of your god, I am sure they would.