How Science Ignores The Livingworld

An interview with Vine Deloria by Derrick Jensen
Vine Deloria is one of the most important living Native American writers. For more than a quarter century, he has produced an extraordinarily readable critique of Western culture. Central to Deloria's work is the understanding that, by subduing nature, we have become slaves to technology and its underlying belief system. We've given up not only our freedom, but also our relationship with the natural world.

Deloria was born in 1933 on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. For many generations, his family has straddled white and Indian cultures. One of his ancestors, the son of a fur trader and a Yankton Sioux headman's daughter, had a vision that his descendants would serve as mediators with the dominant society.

His book titles alone testify to his directness in confronting the arrogance of eurocentric culture: Red Earth, White Lies (Fulcrum Books) won the 1996 Nonfiction Book of the Year Award from the Colorado Center for the Book; Custer Died for Your Sins (University of Oklahoma Press) brought accounts of the trail of broken treaties up to date; and God Is Red (Fulcrum Books) remains one of the best books written on Native American spirituality. [ Derrick Jensen]

Jensen: What would you say is the fundamental difference between the Western and indigenous ways of life?

Deloria: I think the primary difference is that Indians experience and relate to a living universe, whereas Western people, especially scientists, reduce all things, living or not, to objects. The implications of this are immense. If you see the world around you as a collection of objects for you to manipulate and exploit, you will inevitably destroy the world while attempting to control it. Not only that, but by perceiving the world as lifeless, you rob yourself of the richness, beauty, and wisdom to be found by participating in its larger design.

In order to maintain the fiction that the world is dead and that those who believe it to be alive have succumbed to primitive superstition, science must reject any interpretation of the natural world that implies sentience or an ability to communicate on the part of non-humans. Science insists, at a great price in understanding, that the observer be as detached as possible from the event he or she is observing. Contrast that with the attitude of indigenous people, who recognize that humans must participate in events, not isolate themselves.

Ironically, although science prides itself on being a search for knowledge, Indians can obtain knowledge from birds, animals, rivers, and mountains that is inaccessible to modern science. And Indians can use this knowledge to achieve better results. Take meteorology. Scientists know that seeding clouds with certain chemicals will bring rain, but this method of dealing with nature is wholly mechanical and forces nature to do our bidding. Indians achieved the same results more peacefully by conducting ceremonies and asking the spirits for rain. The two methods are diametrically opposed. It's the difference between commanding a slave to do something and asking a friend for help.

Being attuned to their environment, Indians could find food, locate trails, protect themselves from inclement weather, and anticipate coming events thanks to their understanding of how all things are related. This knowledge isn't unique to American Indians. It's available to anyone who lives primarily in the natural world, is reasonably intelligent, and respects other life-forms for their intelligence. Respect for other life-forms filters into our every action, as does its opposite: perceiving the world as lifeless. If you objectify other living things, then you are committing yourself to a totally materialistic universe which is not even consistent with the findings of modern physics.

The central idea of science, as it has been developed and applied, is to get machines or nature to do the work human beings don't want to do. This is immensely practical, but in a shortsighted way.

Jensen: How so?

Deloria: Developing the automobile, for example, allowed people to get quickly from place to place, but at what cost, both in terms of accidents and of damage to the natural world? And what effect have automobiles had on our spiritual life?

In a capitalist system, whoever supplies the money determines the technology. This means that science, as it's applied, is never really for the good of humankind, but instead for the good of the financial elite or the military. It also means that science will be dominated by the authorities who have found institutional favor, whether they have the best evidence for their beliefs or not.

When beliefs and knowledge harden and become institutionalized, we turn to institutions to solve all our problems: people purchase food grown by others, settle their conflicts in courts and legislatures rather than by informal, mutually agreed-upon solutions, and wage extended and terrible wars over abstract principles instead of minor battles over the right to occupy land for hunting and fishing. Similarly, beliefs about the world are processed into philosophical and rational principles rather than anecdotal experiences, and religion is reduced to creeds, dogmas, and doctrines.

Now, every society needs educated people, but the primary responsibility of educated people must be to bring wisdom back into the community and make it available to others. Because of hierarchies, European thinkers have not performed their proper social function. Instead, science and philosophy have taken the path already taken by Western religion and mystified themselves. The people who occupy the top positions in science, religion, and politics have one thing in common: they are responsible for creating a technical language incomprehensible to the rest of us, so that we will cede to them our right and responsibility to think. They, in turn, formulate a set of beautiful lies that lull us to sleep and distract us from our troubles, eventually depriving us of all rights including, increasingly, the right to a livable world.

Rather than trusting our own experiences and senses, we often
look to scientists for explanations of the world. In giving explanations, these scientists defer to the dogma and doctrine they learned in universities and colleges. It's gotten to the point where almost anything anyone with a Ph.D. says is taken as gospel, rather than as someone's opinion.

One example of this credulity is the widespread acceptance of the notion that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait. Newspapers and textbooks say that archaeologists have proven there were waves of people moving to and fro across the Bering Strait, but they haven't proven anything of the kind. Assuming that carbon dating is anywhere near accurate, and that the researchers didn't throw out as "noise" any results they didn't agree with, all they can prove is that a group of people lived in such-and-such a place, however many years ago. Everything else is just theory and speculation.

Jensen: So you view the theory that human beings came to North and South America across the Bering Strait as an article of faith, rather than as fact?

Deloria: I've yet to see any remotely convincing evidence to support it. It's a doctrinal belief that institutional science has imposed on us.

The effort to deny that Indians are native to this land really started with the old Spanish clerics, who tried to identify Indians as either survivors of Noah's flood or members of the lost tribes of Israel. So modern scientific theories are part of an entrenched line of thought: a Judeo-Christian insistence on seeing the world through Eurocentric eyes. Indians cannot simply be Indians. They have to have come from somewhere in or around Europe.

Jensen: Why is this issue of deep origins important?

Deloria: People want to believe that the Western Hemisphere, and North America in particular, was vacant, un-exploited, fertile land waiting to be cultivated according to God's holy dictates. The hemisphere thus belonged to whomever was able to "rescue" it from its wilderness state. We see the same rationalization at work today in the Amazon and elsewhere. If the Indians were not the original inhabitants of this continent but relative latecomers who had barely unpacked when Columbus came knocking on the door, then they had no real claim to the land and could be swept away with impunity. Thus, science justifies history and eases the guilt over five centuries of violence. Even today, I hear some non-Indians say, "Well, aren't we all immigrants from somewhere?" The short answer is no. By making Indians immigrants to North America, Westerners are able to deny the fact that this is our continent.

Another way science has assuaged Western guilt is by claiming to prove that Indians are just as destructive as Westerners. You've probably heard of the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis, which states, without any real evidence, that as soon as Indians "arrived" here, they started killing everything in sight. When the hypothesis was first proposed some fifty years ago by Carl Sauer, it was shot down almost immediately by Loren C. Eiseley, who raised numerous concerns that have never been refuted. One is the fact that not only large mammals disappeared during the Pleistocene Epoch, but also birds, mollusks, and frogs, which could not have been hunted to extinction. Also, there is no evidence that tribal hunting groups using ancient techniques could exterminateor even significantly alter an animal population, unless the hunters and prey were restricted to a very small area. The example of modern tribes who still use Stone Age methods supports this.

So the overkill theory remained dead in the water until the 1960s, when it was revived by a book called Pleistocene Extinctions. Since then, as the destruction of the natural world has become ever more difficult to ignore, Westerners have needed ever stronger salves for their consciences, so the theory has risen up again in full force. Although there is still little real evidence to support it, its ideological function to prove that destructiveness is part of human nature, and not just the result of a destructive way of living in and perceiving the world is important enough to justify its admission into the scientific canon.

There's even a new theory that Indians were responsible for the near extinction of the buffalo. According to this argument, Indian winter encampments deprived the buffalo of feed, and so the population plummeted.

Jensen: How could anyone make that claim?

Deloria: Simple: by ignoring all evidence that contradicts the thesis, such as 1870s newspaper reports of white hunters shipping out trainloads of buffalo hides. In the Dodge City area alone, hunters killed 3 million buffalo in three years.

Jensen: If Indians didn't cross the Bering Strait, how did they come to inhabit this continent? What do the Indians themselves say?

Deloria: That last question isn't asked often enough, and points out another problem with the scientific tradition. Somehow it is presumed that scientists, and thus Europeans, know better than the Indians themselves how Indians got here and how they lived prior to Columbus. That attitude is patronizing at best. Instead of digging and analyzing, why don't researchers just ask the Indians? And then, having asked, why don't they take the answers seriously?

Indians' beliefs about their origins vary considerably from tribe to tribe. Many tribes simply begin their story at a certain location and describe their migrations. Others will say they came from another continent by boat. (Of course, archaeologists generally refuse to believe them, because they think Indians couldn't have built boats, which is absurd.) A number of tribes say that they were created here. A few say they came here through a portal from another world. They walked into a cave or tunnel, for example, until it was completely dark, and they continued walking until a tiny light appeared ahead of them. As they kept moving toward it, it grew bigger, gradually revealing itself to be an entrance to a new world.

Personally, I like the Pacific Northwest tribes' idea that, in the distant past, the physical world was not dominant, and you could
change your shape and experience life as an animal, plant, or bird. Then the world changed, and some people were caught in different shapes and became animals, plants, and so on.

Much of the Indian knowledge of origins is revealed in ceremonial settings and involves views of time, space, matter, and cosmic purpose that the scientific perspective considers heretical. Because of this, such accounts are generally dismissed out of hand as superstition: nice campfire stories that have no connection to reality.

Jensen: Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend has said that "whatever fails to fit into the established category system or is said to be incompatible with this system is either viewed as something quite horrifying, or, more frequently, it is simply declared to be nonexistent."

Deloria: That's standard scientific procedure. You throw out the results you don't agree with, turn to the results that "make sense," and say, "See, this is proven." It's nonsense.

Scientists gather data from what appear to them to be similar sources and circumstances and, after much meditation, announce the discovery of "laws" that govern the universe with some notable exceptions we rarely hear about. Sometimes these "anomalies" are acknowledged and become the basis for fruitful discussion, but more often they're simply swept under the rug. The increasing sophistication of scientific measuring instruments continues to reveal flaws in the previously agreed-upon canon, yet this seems not to bother a great majority of scientists, nor the rest of us, who should care far more than we do.

Scientists impose highly restrictive laws upon the natural world, thereby limiting its potential for response. They are asking incomplete questions of nature and, in many cases, irrelevant ones. In my opinion, fields purporting to be scientific should devote considerable time to reexamining what they can really prove and what is speculation, and then restate their principles. Standards of evidence need to be erected. There's got to be some discipline and courage. Scientists should be willing to speak out when authoritative-sounding pronouncements are being made on the basis of questionable or nonexistent evidence.

Jensen: A friend of mine says that science is an even better means of social control than Christianity, because if you don't believe in Christianity, you're simply doomed to burn in a hell you don't think exists, whereas if you don't believe in science, you're presumed to be stupid.

Deloria: I think science has replaced Christianity as the dominant religion in our society. You see evidence of this whenever someone goes to court to try to establish or protect religious rights. If science and religion come into conflict, religion always loses. That's true for everyone from Christian fundamentalists to Indians to Orthodox Jews: anybody who has a religious view that's unacceptable to scientists.

Jensen: What are some better ways of perceiving and living in the world?

I would say one alternative to forcing nature to tell us its secrets is to observe nature and adjust to its larger rhythms. This alternative is practiced by many other cultures, but it scares a lot of people in the West because it derives information from sources that may be tinged with mysticism. For example, many centuries ago, three sisters appeared to the Senecas and said they wished to establish a relationship with "the two-legged people." In return for the performance of certain ceremonies that would help them to thrive, the sisters would become plants and feed the people. The three sisters became beans, corn, and squash. And the soil of the Seneca farmlands was never exhausted, because these three plants, in addition to sharing a spiritual relationship with one another, also formed a sophisticated natural nitrogen cycle that kept the land fertile and productive.

The white man came later, planted only corn and wheat, and soon exhausted the soil. Then, after conducting many experiments, scientists "discovered" the nitrogen cycle and produced chemical fertilizers to replace the natural nitrogen. But now we know that these chemicals have unpleasant side effects that may be even worse for us than they are for the soil.

The point is that, for every scientific "discovery," there may exist one or more alternative ways of understanding natural processes. But we can't know what these alternatives are until we absolutely reject the idea of forcing nature to reveal its secrets and instead begin to observe nature and listen to its rhythms.

Jensen: I've heard about South American tribes who can take a poisonous plant and, by some complex process, boiling it three times, skimming off the froth, and so on, turn it into medicine. Usually, the tribes are assumed to have arrived at these processes through trial and error, but this seems ludicrous to me, because the original plant is a deadly poison. By contrast, you've written that "getting information from birds and animals regarding plants is an absurdly self-evident proposition for American Indians."

Deloria: There are plenty of Indian stories where a plant will appear in a dream and speak to someone, or a person is walking through the forest, and suddenly a plant will say, "I'm edible, but you've got to do these various things in order to eat me."

When I was much younger, I would bring Indian plant knowledge to scientists for them to investigate. But they always wanted to take the plant apart, break it down to see what its constituents were. Their efforts were pointless, because that's not the way the medicine men use it. They use it whole, and then they get the natural product out of it by making a tea, or a poultice. You can't chemically disassemble it, because it's the whole of the plant that cures, not any one ingredient.

Jensen: This seems to get at the heart of the fundamental difference between Western and indigenous cultures: seeing the plant as a whole and letting it literally speak to you, versus putting nature, as Francis Bacon said, "on the rack and extracting her secrets from her."

Deloria: That's true, although most of the greatest scientists dabbled considerably in spiritual matters and believed that mystical and intuitive experiences provided them with knowledge. This is true even of Descartes, the first materialist, who is famous for articulating the mind/body, human/nature split. He said an angel came and explained things to him. Heisenberg, Einstein, and Bohr all had sudden insights. What's the difference between that and the Indian performing a ceremony and hearing the plant say, "Do this"?

Jensen: I've heard of ceremonies in which Indians would sing to the corn. How does that help? What does singing do for the plant?

Deloria: We're giving energy and respect to the plant. It's kind of like when you're trying to teach your kid how to play basketball, and even though he can't hit the hoop, you say, "Hey, that was really a good one." You're not only telling the plant, "We respect and appreciate you"; you're also making a fuss over the fact that it's growing. It's a straight transfer of energy.

Any fool can treat a living thing as if it were a machine and compel it to perform certain functions. All that's required is sufficient force. But the result of force is slavery, both for the victim and for the wielder.

Jensen: In one of your books, you cite the Osage chief Big Soldier on this: "I see and admire your manner of living. . . . You can do almost what you choose. You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves. Everything about you is in chains, and you are slaves yourselves. I fear that if I should exchange my pursuits for yours, I, too, should become a slave."

Deloria: That's the best thing any Indian ever said. I teach at the University of Colorado, and so many of my students are convinced that they are free, yet they act just like everyone else. They all do the same things. They all think alike. They're almost like a herd, or clones. They're enslaved to a certain way of life. The thing is, once you've traded away spiritual insight for material comfort, it is extremely difficult ever to get it back. I see these kids hiking in the mountains, trying to commune with nature, but you can't commune with nature just by taking a walk. You have to actually live in it. And these young people have no way of critiquing the society that is enslaving them, because they get outside of it only for the occasional weekend. They may see beautiful vistas and develop an aesthetic appreciation of this other world, but they're not going to get to a metaphysical understanding of who they really are.

In this sense, poor Appalachian whites and rural blacks are much closer to the natural world than my students, because they live in it twenty-four hours a day. These groups also have in common their oppression by industrialization and the destruction of the land on which their lives depend. Their connection to the natural world teaches them who they are. And it's not just an abstract connection, but a relationship with a particular tree or a particular mountain.


Jensen:How does being in one place for a long time teach you who you are?

Deloria: If you live in one place long enough, you begin to lose the defenses you've erected in order to survive in industrial civilization, and you fall into the rhythm of the land. You develop a different sense of the natural world and no longer have to think of things in the abstract. You think, instead, of how the land looks and what it's telling you. I would think many Appalachian people have this sense, especially the ones who've lived back in the hills for five or six generations. They have begun to adjust to the land, as opposed to forcing the land to adjust to them. If you talk to them, you'll find they don't have many of the abstract concerns that so-called civilized people have.

Jensen: What sort of abstract concerns?

Deloria: Always wondering who you are. Always trying to prove yourself, to prove that you are good enough, strong enough, rich enough, good-looking enough. Always trying to define yourself in terms of what you do for a living or what your hobbies are or what you can buy. I can see how that would be an effective survival technique in New York City, but if you live in a place where you're not always having your identity called into question, you don't need to worry about those things. You can simply be yourself.

Because of the industrial machine, no one really has an identity anymore. So you have to keep giving people numbers and meaningless ways to define themselves. If you look at the bestseller list, you see all these books offering to tell you how to be yourself. Well, when the land gives you a foundation, you don't have to struggle with that question. If you live a long time in one place, you have an ongoing experiential context. If you don't, your life is limited to little disconnected experiences. To really feel alive, you've got to grab as many of these experiences as you can. Thus, you've got MTV and malls and discos.

Jensen: Why do you think the West destroys every traditional culture it can reach?

Deloria: I don't think those in power want it known that there are other ways of living, because for the industrial state to succeed, all the citizens have to be part of the economic machine. If you have people living out in a rural area pretty much self-sufficiently who spend their time singing and writing poetry, it tempts those who are still part of the machine to try to seek better lives themselves. If you saw the lack of stress in indigenous people, and then looked at the stress created by the industrial machine, you'd realize that the whole system has gone crazy. We don't control machines; they control us. So the system has got to crush any alternatives.

This is the legacy of Christianity. The stated Christian ethic is to "love thy neighbor," but, historically, Christians have been afraid and suspicious of any neighbor unlike themselves. And if those neighbors won't change, they've simply killed them. Certainly, millions of Indians were given the choice of Christianity and enslavement or death. The same thing happens today, but it's generally couched in economic terms, rather than religious ones.

Jensen: I'm friends with an Okanagan Indian, from British Columbia. I once asked her where dreams come from, and she said, "Everybody knows the animals give them to us." How would you answer the same question?

Deloria: You have to remember that the Indian relationship with the land is not abstract, but very particular, tied to one piece of ground. My people come from the plains, so we say dreams come from the spirits, not from animals. This is because, if you look around the Great Plains, you see only three large wild creatures: the buffalo, the bear, and the wolf. And you don't run into them all the time. On the other hand, in the Pacific Northwest, where your friend's from, there are so many living things that a person is in danger of disappearing into the crowd. So if she says the dreams come from animals, she's absolutely correct - for her area. If I say dreams come from spirits, I'm correct, but only for the plains.

Jensen: It seems pretty clear to me that if the dominant culture has its way, it will destroy the planet.

Deloria: No question about it.

Jensen: What can we do, then?

Deloria: So long as we perceive science to be a cure-all for everything and a means to overcome nature, there's nothing we can do. Our answer to increasingly violent weather, for example, is to build cement bunkers to protect us from tornadoes. We're adjusting to the destructive system rather than abandoning it.

Jensen: You've suggested the beautiful possibility that extinction might not be forever, but that, instead, the endangered creatures go away and come back when their habitat is once again being treated properly.

Deloria: About ten years ago, I spoke to members of the Society for Ecological Restoration. I told them that traditional Indian knowledge says that beings never become extinct. They go away, but they have the power to come back. I predicted that, in their restorations, if they were preparing the area right, plants they thought were extinct would begin coming back unaided after four or five years. Plants would come back first, and then animals and then birds.

Of course, my audience thought I was crazy. But later, when I went to get a cup of coffee, several people followed me. They said, "You're right. We're seven years into a swamp restoration in Wisconsin, and all the original plants are coming back."

This is not as extraordinary as it might sound. The elders tell us that the buffalo used to go back and forth between two worlds. In the summertime, people would find themselves in the middle of a big herd for weeks. But in the wintertime, there would be only a few buffalo down in the river bottoms, or up in the grasslands. Where were the huge herds? According to the Sioux, they were underground. There were about ten places where they went in or came back out.

When I first heard that, I didn't believe it. Then I talked to some of the elders, who said, "Of Course," and showed me the buttes where the buffalo used to come out in the springtime. I thought, this is insane, so I scoured the literature, but I couldn't find any accounts of big buffalo herds in the wintertime. Then, come June, the damn plains were so covered with buffalo. In the fall, they started disappearing again.

I'm still working on this one. But that's what life is all about. You take disparate facts, bring them together, and say, "Now, what's the real question?" And so often you're amazed to find that the matter is much deeper than you ever imagined. But the point is to ask the questions, and keep asking them.