Tag Archives: metaphysics

American Indian Metaphysics (PDF)

American Indian Metaphysics
Vine Deloria, Jr.
American Indian Studies
University of Arizona, Tucson

For many centuries, whites scorned the knowledge of American Indians, regarding whatever the people said as gross savage superstition and insisting that their own view of the world, a complex mixture of folklore, religious doctrine, and Greek natural science, was the highest intellectual achievement of our species. This posture of arrogance produced some classic chapters in the history of the western hemisphere: Ponce de Leon wandering around the southeastern United States vainly searching for the Fountain of Youth, Swedish immigrants on the Delaware River importing food for thirty years because they could not grow anything in this country, and the Donner party resorting to cannibalism because of their fear of the local Indians.

In recent years, there has been an awakening to the fact that Indian tribes possessed considerable knowledge about the natural world. Unfortunately, much of this appreciation has come too late for anyone, white or Indian, to recapture some of the most important information on lands, plants, and animals of the continent. In a parallel but unrelated development, Indian religious traditions are now of major interest to whites whose own religious traditions have either vanished or been swamped in reactionary fundamentalism Fluctuating between a recognition of practical knowledge about the world possessed by Indians and outright admiration for their sense of the religious is unsettling and nonproductive; it does not attribute to Indians any consistency, nor does it suggest that their views of the natural world and religious reality had any more correspondence and compatibility than do western religion snd its science. Instead of talking of an Indian “science” or even a Indian “religion,” we should focus our attention on the metaphysics possessed by most American Indian tribes and derive from this central perspective the information and beliefs which naturally flowed from it.

Metaphysics has had a difficult time regaining its intellectual respectability in western circles. Its conclusions were greatly abused by generations of Europeans who committed what Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” which is to say that, after they reached the conclusions to which their premises had led them, they came to believe they had accurately described ultimate reality. Metaphysics need not bear the burden of its past, however, if we understand it as simply that set of first principles which we must possess in order to make sense of the world in which we live. In this sense, the Indian knowledge of the natural world, of the human world, and of whatever realities exist beyond our senses has a consistency which far surpasses anything devised by western civilization.

The best description of the Indian metaphysics was the realization that the world, and all its possible experiences, constituted a social reality, a fabric of life in which everything had the possibility of intimate knowing relationships because, ultimately, everything was related. This world was a unified world, a far cry from the disjointed and sterile world painted by western science. Even though we can translate the realities of that world into concepts familiar to us from the western scientific context, such as space, time, and energy, the Indian world can be said to consist of two basic experiential dimensions which, taken together, provided a sufficient means of making sense of the world. These tow concepts were place and power, perhaps better defined as spiritual power of life force. Familiarity with the personality of objects and entities of the natural world enabled Indians to discern immediately where each living being had its proper place and what kinds of experiences that place allowed, encouraged, and suggested.

Western scientists frequently suggest that the Indian way of looking at the world lacked precision because it was not capable of nor interested in mathematical descriptions of nature. But, as Carl Jung pointed out with respect to the so-called primitive mind, once a person knew the places of things, a mere glance was sufficient to replace counting and, in most instances, was more accurate. The Indian mind was considerably more interested in learning the psychological characteristics of things than in describing their morphological structure. Hence, in some instances when defining common personality traits which men and animals shared,the Indian seemed to be talking nonsense. Today, as western science edges ever closer to acknowledging the intangible, spiritual quality of matter and the intelligence of animals, the Indian view appears increasingly more sophisticated.

Indian students today are confronted with a monolith of western science when they leave the reservation to attend college. In most introductory courses, their culture and traditions are derided as mere remnants of a superstitious, stone-age mentality which could not understand or distinguish between the simplest of propositions. Additionally, they are taught that science is an objective and precise task performed by specialists who carefully weigh the propositions which come before them. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Western science traditionally represents the consensus of the established scientists who almost always reject new ideas out of hand. Much of the progress made by western science has been made by amateurs and martyrs who have been derided and cursed in their lifetime, only to be canonized by a new generation which has learned to accept the smallest of changes with more grace than their fathers and teachers.

Indian students are further misled by outrageous claims made by science which suggest that the various fields of inquiry, if taken together, represent the sum total of humand knowledge. In fact, almost all of western science is reductionist in nature and seeks to force natural experience and knowledge into predetermined categories which ultimately fail to describe or explain anything. The whole process of science is that of finding common denominators which can describe large amounts of data in the most general terms, rejecting anything which refuses easy classification as “anomalous,” existing outside the generally accepted labels and, therefore, not to be given standing or serious attention. This way of gathering information about the world–and ourselves–is, of course, absurd.

One of the most painful experiences for American Indian students is to come into conflict with the teachings of science which purport to explain phenomena already explained by tribal knowledge and tradition. The assumption of the western educational system is that information dispensed by colleges is always correct, and the beliefs or teachings of the tribe are always wrong. Rarely is this the case. The teachings of the tribe are almost always more complete, but they are oriented toward a far greater understanding of reality than is scientific knowledge. And precise tribal knowledge almost always has a better predictability factor than does modern science, which generally operates in sophisticated tautologies that seek only to confirm preexisting identities.

We live in and industrial, technological world in which a knowledge of science is often the key to employment and many times is essential in understanding how the larger society views and uses the natural world–including, unfortunately, people and animals. Western science has no moral basis and is entirely incapable of resolving human problems except by the device of making humans act more and more like machines. Therefore, Indian students, as they study science and engineering, should take time and make the effort to regain a firm knowledge of traditional tribal lore. Even if many of the stories seem impossible under existing scientific explanation of phenomena, Indian students should not easily discard what their tribes have traditionally believed. There is most assuredly a profound knowledge present in many things which the tribes have preserved.

Richard Ford’s article on “Science in Native America” is a good representative piece recognizing the knowledge of Indians. It fairly surveys the various aspects of knowledge which Indians had and gives reasonable explanations of some of the ways in which our ancestors understood natural phenomena. Considering the present state of things, it is important for scholars such as Ford to begin to help us break the ice of ignorance and neglect which has been thrust upon our traditions for nearly half a millennium. Without the voices of respected white scholars, there is little chance that we can get sufficient attention from the scientific establishment in order to plead our own case. But we must remember that every article which attempts to discuss this problem should be understood as a call for each of us to enter into the exchange of knowledge. In this sense, Ford calls us, as Native Americans, to become more truly scientific–to offer our knowledge to the larger benefit of our species.

7 January 1989 Personal Correspondence on the History and Foundations of Science, Technology, and Worldview (PDF)

Jan 7, ’89.

Dear Pam

So you finally pulled off the caper! That is good. I am

glad. Power be with you!

The following are a few comments and afterthoughts.

1. Leroy was saying, in my translation, that the word “Science”

tends to make people imagine “European Science”. We might have to

say something to avoid that.

We are not looking for “something similar to European

science” in indigenous cultures. There is nothing wrong in

identifying “similarity”, “commonness” among Native Sciences. But

the European one is too strong a “standard” for most people that

unless we exercise some care, there is a danger of defining

Science in the European “Fashion” and give recognition to it only

through identifying with the visible European Fashion. But that

is like defining the “dignity” of human beings by the European

Style Clothes they wear. The closer they dress like Europeans,

the more “human” they are!

By saying “foundation of science”, it is partly covered. By

mentioning “metaphysics”, we are implying that there is more to

Science than what is visible. But that might not be enough. So,

let me elaborate a bit.

2. “Science” in a wider sense is a “Matrix” (incidentally “Matr”

in the “Matrix” means Mother and “ix = ics” means a Complex of

Dynamics). It may be better to say that explicitly. The simplest

picture that I can draw about Science is something like below.

Foundation Expressions

Metaphysics Mathematics

Worldview Principles

Cosmic Vision Axioms

Will Knowledge

Love Theory/Theology

Etc. Ideology, etc.

(Textbook Science)

Aim Technology

Utility Application

Benefit Routines

Value Skills

Survival Performance

Progress Practical Arts

Happiness Policy



We call the whole dynamics in loop “Science”, not any one

of 4 elements depicted in the picture. Or, in Leroy’s language,

the whole “process” (going around the relations) is the Science.

In Rene Thom’s Language, “Science” is a Verb = “Science-ing”.

Science is not an object, but a “doing”.

[In relation to the picture (mapping of dynamics), I found

a diagram drawn for G. Bateson’s theory on Alcoholism. A

copy is enclosed. Please tell me what you think.]

The “elements” are in a mutually supporting Loop (network)

or “vicious circle”. That is the Dynamics that gives rise to

“Existence” of a science (culture) as “Living Organism” and keeps

it maintaining itself. It is the “Becoming” of the science as a

“Being” (not a Linear sense of becoming a Being, but Feedback

Loop. In Hegelian/Marxist jargon it is said to be “Reproducing


Unfortunate habit of European language is that the word

“Science” is used to refer only to the top-left element and being

understood as such. Actually, the situation is worse in that the

Matrix in different cultures has different media (stylisms) to

express that element. A particular “Medium” (stylism), however,

becomes the identification/identity of the particular science.

(McLuhan said “Medium is the Message”.) I called that “Fashion”.

[It is like naming and identifying a sickness by its

symptom, say like “Red Nose Fever”. How and Why such a symptom

emerges may be traced to the existence of a certain virus in the

sick person. That is like recognizing two elements in the Matrix.

When “medical knowing” comes to trace why the immune system of

this particular person fails and others do not, then it knows

three elements in the Matrix. If the medical science comes to

trace how the disease developed in evolution/history, then they

know the 4th element.

But the above is a Linear model. Only after the Medine has

come to know the “Meaning” of Life-Death,


perhaps it will have a view of the complete Matrix.

At the moment, European Science knows itself by its

“symptoms”. In general, scientists themselves do not know

(do not care to know) why and how its peculiar “stylism”

(medium of expression, visible appearance) has come to be.]

Native Science starts with a different “World View” (Cosmology,

Metaphysics) — say, for example, (1) it does not distinguish

(see) “Human Ego” and “Objects” —. (2) In expressing

“Knowledge”, therefore it cannot use Newtonian Language of

“Objects”. (3) In the Technological applications, it cannot be of

“subjugation/exploitation of Nature as an aggregate of objects”.

(4) it does not satisfy the aim of gratifying Ego. And therefore

(1′) it does not enforce Will To Power. That means, (2′) it does

not Develop the Language (theory/principle/knowledge) of


That is, the dynamics that started with the Native World

View cannot go on the same “vicious circle” of the European


3. I sensed that Boniface wanted to talk about “Technology”

(Science in Practices). European thinking is very much “class

conscious” and discriminatory. It separates “Science” from

Technology. Science in the academic sense is the Superior

intellect. “Technology” is what lower class laborers do by Body.

Technology smells like soil and sweat (if not blood).

In the late 19th century, European scholars came to

recognize that “China had developed a high 1evel of Technology

before Europeans”. But they said that “China has never developed


One ought to think about this distinction/discrimination

between Science and Technology.

Let us, for example, take Time Measuring “Technology”.

European scientists would grant that Mayans had far advanced Time

Measuring Technology as evident in Mayan Calendars. But what

about the Science of Time?

It is easy to grant an advanced “Technology” of Number

Computation to Mayans. But what about “Mathematics”, “Geometry”

(Science of Space-Time)?

Salmons communicate by Electricity. They have sensors

running along their body lengthwise. They have a High


Technology in Radio Communication. That is the Technology of Love

Making. Salmons also use the same technology to communicate with

their Environment. The Science of Salmons, therefore, must be

based on the “way of Knowing” developed in their Love Making.

European culture developed the Technology of “Insulating”

individuals and actually retarded, repressed the Science of

Human/Social relations. The “separation”, “discrimination” served

European Aims (Value), and hence it became the foundation of

European Science. European Science was based on the Way of

Knowing developed in War Making. You note that the notion of

“Defense” is a part of the technology of Insulation/Separation.

“Sciences” are relative to Aims as such and their expressions are

shaped by the Technologies which serve the particular Alms for


I imagine it is necessary and “educational” to have a

discourse on “Technology”.

4. Interestingly, once we get into “Technology”, we would soon be

talking about “Appropriate Technology” etc.

But, the phrase “Appropriate Technology” contains a

patronizing notion (paradigm). It is good that CIDA has learned

(from bitter experiences) that Transplantation of European

Technology does not work. But it seems that the European Aid

Agencies and Experts still think that they can teach “Appropriate

Technology” to the people in the Developing countries. Just lower

the standard. That will do.

[This kind of idea appears often in various contexts. In

science education, physics teachers often said to “make

science easy” for female students so that they would take

physics course.

I am afraid, but not surprised, to find some

“educationists” thinking like “make math easy for Native

Math Education”. That may be called “Appropriate Math”?]

What is “Appropriate” or not is relative to the “Aim”, or

“Value”. For what does any people wish to have an “Economic

Development”? Is it because Canadian Banks want to get Interest

paid? Or is it for European Trade to expand its market?

What if the Aim, Value, Utility of the Native Science,

Technology and Economy happened to be achievement of “Justice”

rather than “materialistic wealth”?


The Native might value Love Life to be of the Supreme Value (say,

the Tahitians). What then is the “Appropriate Technology”?

It ought to be noted that even the European Economy that

dictated Technology and, hence, Science was not purely

“materialistic”. Rather, it was “Pride”, in my view. There are

scholars who did “Psychoanalysis” on Capitalism. E.P. Thompson.

Fo1klore, Anthropology, and Social History. Indiana Historical

Review vol. 3. no. 2. (1977); Poverty of Theory and Other Essays

(1978); J. C. Scott. The Moral Economy Of peasant. (1976); F.

Braudel. Civilization Materielle, Economie et Capitalime. ( ); K.

Po1anyi The Great Transformation (1957); etc. are the examples.

If you like, I can present a meta-picture of the worldview

like below;

Value Knowledge

Ideology Science

Polity Law-Norm

Welfare Bureaucracy

Economy Technology

Utility Works

Unfortunately, Economists (Social Scientists) in general do

not pay much attention to “Peasants”. But, there are, however,

several publications on Latino American Peasant Economy, such as

Ernest Feder The people Of The Peasantry. Anchor Books 1971.

Florentia E. Mallon. The Defense of Community In Peru’s Central

Highlands: Peasant Struggle And Capitalist Transition 1860-1940.

Princeton U Press 1983. [See also Gerald Walsh. Indians In

Transition. McClelland 1971 for a comparison.] And studies of

Latino-American Peasantry give rise to Liberation

Pedagogy/Liberation Theology. It will come to Liberation Science,

eventually. In a sense “Science” is a Pedagogy, except it is

“self-learning” not “teaching”.

At this level of “Holistic View”, we come to see that

Native science is a part of Native Liberation. It has to do with

how the Native Community comes to Peace, and thereby leads the

entire World to Peace.

5. It may be my error in perception, but I sense a certain Fear

or Apprehension in going forward with Native Science. I sensed

Defensive Thinking here and there.

I understand and respect genuine Fear that we might

misrepresent Native Science and disgrace it in the public.


die. It comes to the question of accepting Death as a part of the

process/dynamics of Birth. That is the meaning of Sun Dance. We

die once any way sooner or later. If we die in Love

process/dynamics, like salmons do, We should be happy in that.

When you waved your hand, I had a moment of imagination

that I was sending off my friend who was taking off on a Kamikaze

mission. Actually, I had never sent off friends on a Kamikaze

mission. But that does not matter. I am sending off the Brave

Sou1s. They are to give away all they got. In a sense, it does

pain me and I feel something sad. I try to protect you, but in

essence, I cannot do anything for you in your love affair. That

is entirely yours to live and die.


Sam K.