Monday, November 25, 2013

When the World Was Square

Yesterday a DJ on our local community radio station played Andrew Vasquez' idiotic recitation about "the days when the world had four corners --
the age when the young maiden
and the distinguished warrior defined
the perfect union
which I hadn't heard in a few years, and it wasn't long enough.

Then today I was reading Kenneth L. Feder's Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaelogy (7th edition, McGraw-Hill, 2011), which I'd stumbled on at a library book sale.  The book was written as a college-level textbook, and it's not bad, despite Feder's simplistic picture of science.  He even surprised me pleasantly by referring respectfully and accurately to the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who's something of a bogeyman among scientific fundamentalists.  On the other hand, Feder also refers constantly to biblical "literalism"; well, nobody's perfect.

But Feder also answered a question that has been on my mind ever since I read Scott Richard Lyons's X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent (Minnesota, 2010).  Lyons, an Ojebwe/Dakota professor of English at Syracuse University, recalled 
.. several arguments I had as an instructor at Leech Lake Tribal College with culture cops who wanted to shut down our science programs because they taught evolution. "Nothing in our oral traditions says that we came down from trees." Science was considered suspect because its origins lay outside an Ojibwe epistemology; because the latter was deemed suspect and pure, it had to be protected from contamination. My side eventually won the day, though not (as one might expect) through our claim that we needed to teach science to produce more local doctors and nurses. It was only after we successfully argued that our clan origin story could be read as a kind of proto-evolutionary theory that the culture cops backed off [96].
This story made me wonder about the existence of Native American Creationism, a traditionalist rejection of Darwinian theory, not because it teaches that "we came down from trees," but because current evolutionary theory has concluded that human beings originally emerged in Africa, and current archaeology concludes that human beings migrated to the Americas across a land bridge between present-day Siberia and present-day Alaska.  That would conflict with American Indian creation myths, which put human origins in the Americas.  And according to Feder, sure enough,
Some Native Americans object to the Land Bridge scenario because, as one told me directly, "It makes us immigrants, no different from you and your ancestors."  Maybe that is the case, but the most conservative scientific view places Native Americans in the New World more than 13,000 years ago -- "immigrants" they may be, but certainly not latecomers! [109]
(Have I mentioned that Feder has the same hearty chalk-talk style I've complained about before in certain academic writers addressing a lay audience?)
Indian activist, author, and historian Vine Deloria, Jr. (1995), made this issue the core of his book Red Earth, White Lies.  His argument was that the Bering Land Bridge model cannot be proven.  Besides, Indian religion maintains that native people in the New World have always been here; they were created here and did not come from anywhere else.
Feder points out that there are many different Native American creation myths, so which one is the true one?  He quotes Deloria's answer to the question:
Tribal elders did not worry if their version of creation was entirely different from the scenario held by a neighboring tribe.  People believed that each tribe had its own special relationship to the superior spiritual forces which governed the universe.  (Deloria 1995: 51-52)
I'll have to read Red Earth, White Lies.  (It's in the public library!  And it looks like Deloria took on the subject of creation vs. evolution more than once.  This could be interesting.)  Deloria, who's most famous for Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969) and God Is Red (1975), is right that the Land Bridge hypothesis can't be proven -- scientific knowledge, unlike mathematics, is never proven with absolute certainty -- but there's no more reason to take Indian creation stories as fact than there is to believe their many Old World counterparts.  And if the discrepancies between differing "versions of creation" can be dealt with, I don't see why the myth of a Bering Land Bridge represents a problem.

Years ago, in the 80s I think, I heard a Lakota elder on a PBS program declaring sententiously, "God gave the land to the Human Beings."  I gave him credit for saying "God" instead of "Great Spirit," but noticed the ethnocentric use of "Human Beings" for his own nation as opposed to others.  (You can find the same ethnocentrism in the biblical book of Daniel, where the evil pagan kings are symbolized by beasts, and the faithful remnant of Israel is the One Like a Son of Man.)  It was the first time I realized that indigenous religion is no more respectable than that of the European invaders.  Which doesn't justify the invaders' cruelty and violence, of course.  But indigenous Creationism is no answer to it.