Western Science vs. Native Science – Cultural Imperialism


vernon-masayesva1Vernon Masayesva, Founder and Director Black Mesa Trust

Western science operates by taking things apart and analyzing the pieces.  This reductive process has produced enormously important technological and medical advances.  Because of the scientific method, Western science appears able to control the environment and provide greater human comfort, and its successes sometimes make it appear infallible.

Native science operates by observing the whole and the interaction of the parts.  This method, also an organized belief system, has sustained Native peoples and cultures for millennia against nearly overwhelming odds.  But, because of this world view, traditional peoples often find themselves ill-prepared to protect their own best interest.

Western science separates the human from the environment and then studies the parts separately as if they had little to do with one another.  The Western European scientific tradition is one in which each piece can be isolated and separated from the larger context.  The model is mechanistic and the human runs it (or thinks he does) in the same manner that an engineer operates a train.

Native or indigenous science recognizes the essential interdependence of all of the disparate elements—air, water, land, species of plants and animals, and the human. However, because humans have no independent existence “free” of sunlight, water, microbes in the soil, pollinating insects, etc. they do not reflexively receive absolute priority in Native thinking. From this indigenous perspective, a culture develops with interdependence (or as the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Han describes it—“interbeing”) ingrained in all its practices and beliefs.  Hopi belief is that everything is always in a state of vibration and that the central role of religious practices is to keep the universe vibrating in balance and harmony.  The world is sacred and humans are stewards, not masters.

Because of these cultural differences, and because of prejudices against the intuitive in Western Science, Native people, largely untrained in Western science until recently, have been at a disadvantage when representing their own interests and seeking to protect their lands, cultural values and the creation of sustainable economics for their tribes and nations.

The federal government has recognized this disadvantage and created a special trust responsibility with regard to the indigenous people of the United States.  It has promised to take special care, to insure that Native peoples are not cheated or taken advantage of in dealing with the dominant culture they find so foreign.

Despite those high intentions and statements, more often than not, the United States government has failed to meet even the most rudimentary fiduciary and social responsibilities expected of any legal trustee.  Indeed, more often than not, the Government itself has been party to, and a beneficiary of documented law-breaking, cheating and lying in ways that have impoverished Native peoples, degraded their lands, and disdained their life-ways and sacred responsibilities.

This is surely the case regarding Hopi interactions with Peabody Western Coal Corp (PWCC), an agent of Peabody Energy.  The former Secretary of U.S. Department of Interior charged with regulating mining on Black Mesa permitted John Boyden, who represented the Hopi people in their negotiations with the company regarding water and mineral leases in the 1960s, in strict violation of conflict-of-interest standards. This representation occurred while Mr. Boyden was receiving payments for his expenses from PWCC.   Professor Charles Wilkinson, a Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, called Boyden’s conduct “a blatant conflict of interest”, which has yet to be resolved.

In the Cumulative Hydrological Impact Assessment (CHIA) and Environmental Impact Study (EIS) the federal government has given virtually no standing to traditional Native science, nor to anecdotal evidence of those who are most intimate with the land in question: those who walked it, once swam its washes, and who, today, still honor and care for its scared springs.  In the CHIA, the term “cumulative”: was interpreted by Western science to denote only the physical elements of the environment and excluding traditional observation and concerns with spiritual dimensions and consequences.

Black Mesa, which Hopi call Tuuwanasevi, Heart of Mother Earth, is a holy land.  John Poleahla, a Hopi elder, in a letter to President Obama called Black Mesa “our living museum, cathedral and an academy of our oral traditions.

Similarly, the EIS study which negatively affects the world of plants and non-human animal life and ignores impacts upon the belief systems and practices of tribal people living on Black Mesa.  The technical term for such behavior is “cultural imperialism”—the forcible domination of one culture and belief system by another. The government is at least guilty of having truncated their legal responsibility for those to whom they have duty of the highest trust order. This situation must no longer be perpetuated and tolerated.

What is required for both cultures to survive and prosper is a deepened regard for the spirit of laws and trust responsibilities, to successfully guarantee indigenous peoples’ spiritual concerns. Furthermore, beyond scrupulous legal attention to the letter of the law, simple justice demands that those in power attend the way these words are understood by their legal charges: those most affected by them.

To most Native Americans and certainly to Hopi, words such as “cumulative” and “comprehensive”—when co-opted and re-defined to describe hydrological impacts—exclude non-material effects upon the physical world, leaving Native people vulnerable to unintended, but nevertheless very consequential impacts on their life-ways and religious practices.

Failure to address such impacts compromises not only their religious freedom and practice, but the spirit and intention of the U.S. government’s laws as well.  When springs cease to flow because of groundwater extraction; when religious pilgrimages to these sites consequently become meaningless, our Constitutional rights are abridged in the same way yours would be if Native people were in a position to allow you to visit your churches, but to make no mention in them of Jesus, nor carry out any service.  Religious environments, which do not allow religious purpose and expression, are stripped of meaning. To Native People our highest church is the land itself.

To most Hopi and Navajo people directly impacted by mining, “public comment” on the PWCC mine plan (fulfill their requirements of “consultation” and extend mining to 2044) cannot possibly be served by the simple publication and limited distribution of massive technological reports.  Arcane documents require sensitive explanation, translation, and community discussion under the best of circumstances.  In Native American issues—where English is often a second language; where distances are great and travel is difficult; where knowledge of advanced Western science is limited—the need to assure access and understanding cannot be overstated.  Indeed, the want of such intervention is tantamount to the denial of due process.

Consider, for example, the use of the word “mitigation” as it applies in the phrase—“mitigation of impacts during the operation of the Mine.”  To PWCC this phrase means reducing the negative consequences of mining operations.

For Hopi, the same phrase implies that if a burial site, kiva or remnants of ancient villages are encountered in mining, the operation would be moved to protect the ancestral site.  (An archaeological field school, hired by Peabody, mapped over 2,500 historic and prehistoric sites on lease area. We have no knowledge of how many burial sites were discovered ad destroyed.)  This is understood by them as a ‘promise’ because not to include such protection is inconceivable to people for whom the veneration of their ancestors is a cultural keystone.

In fact, the opposite is true. To their shock and horror, Hopi have learned that the exposed bones of grandparents are routinely crated and shipped (without religious supervision, prayers or ceremonies) to museums, while the ancient stones of kivas and homes of those long passed are scooped up by massive earth moving equipment and dumped in more convenient (to Peabody) locations.

How would European people feel if a golf development were to be built on the grounds of an old ceremony and the bones of their ancestors were disinterred and shipped away for ‘study’ by strangers, without any religious observance? The repercussions would reverberate throughout the halls of Washington and back, but this is precisely what is being done, without fanfare, alarm, or compensation, to Native communities and in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act and SMCRA, which defines a cemetery as “any area of land where human bodies are interred “(30 U.S.C Paragraph 1272 (e) 2010).  Black Mesa is a cultural landscape containing thousands of archaeological burial sites, rock art and religious shrines and is therefore unsuitable for strip-mining.

In summary, the requirements of a trust relationship to inform land use and environmental laws relating to Indian people continue to be overlooked weakened, or ignored.  Such violations must not be allowed to continue.  The U.S. Office of Surface Mining, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Secretary of the Interior, must be called to account, and required to enforce the spirit as well as the letter of National laws intended to protect everyone’s natural resources, and specifically, Native religious sites, as well as our distinct identities and our inalienable right to self-preservation as unique individuals and cultures.

Similarly, the human rights groups, the archaeological societies, religious and historical organizations have moral and ethical responsibility to speak out against the desecration that is still going on in slow motion.  Black Mesa is a “cultural landscape” that deserves protection.

For these reasons the comment period on the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) and the Kayenta Mine Complex to extend the operations to 2044 should be extended to give Hopi and Diné people more time to study the applications to be better able to offer more informed comments, and to come up with a reasonable ways to create a sustainable, permanent and safe homeland.

© Copyright 2014 Investigative Media, All rights Reserved. Written For: Investigative MEDIA

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