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Q&A: Little Bear offers a different view of science

March 21, 2011

7 p.m., March 24
Heard Museum, 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix

Leroy Little Bear wants to change the way you see the world. Download Full Image

Imagine, he invites, being suspended above Phoenix, looking down at the scene below. What would you see? Movement? Flux? The big picture?

Little Bear asks us, metaphorically, to suspend ourselves in this way. Doing so will allow us to see that the hierarchies and patterns we see as “natural” – from the linearity of time to the ordered world of mathematics – have, in fact, been imposed upon nature by Western science. Asking us to rethink existing definitions of “science,” which he argues, are dependent upon the worldview of the definer, Little Bear invites us to see the powerful possibilities for change that arise through the collaboration of Native science and Western science.

Little Bear will present his theories in a public lecture, “Native Science and Western Science: Possibilities for a Powerful Collaboration,” at 7 p.m. March 24 at the Heard Museum’s Steele Auditorium in Phoenix. The lecture is the spring installment of the Simon Ortiz and Labriola Center Lecture on Indigenous Land, Culture and Community, presented by Arizona State University.

Little Bear is a member of the Blood Tribe of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Canada) and head of the SEED Graduate Institute, which seeks to integrate existing fields of learning, including science and cosmology, with indigenous worldviews. He is also the former director of the American Indian Program at Harvard and Professor Emeritus of Native American Studies at the University of Lethbridge where he was department chair for 25 years. In 2003, he won the prestigious National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Education, the highest honor bestowed by Canada’s First Nations community.

Simon Ortiz, a professor of English and American Indian Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU and in whose honor the lecture series is named, explains that Little Bear’s ability to look at things from this wider perspective actually helps develop new knowledge. “Call it acumen, insight, uu-tuunieme'h (a Keresan word meaning "what and the way one knows"), it has to do with visionary expressiveness.” According to Ortiz, this is “a honed skill having to do with presenting and conveying ordinary knowledge so that extraordinary understanding is achieved.”

Little Bear demonstrated this acumen in a recent interview in which he elaborated on the powerful possibilities he sees in a collaboration between Indigenous and traditional sciences.

Question: Can you say more about the differences you see between Western sciences and Native sciences?

Answer: Western society has a particular way of looking at things, best exemplified by the linearity of time. We look at life in linear, hierarchical terms. These hierarchies have been built into “classical physics,” Newtonian science. For example, for Western scientists, the Big Bang is a creation story of linear progress. However, the relatively new science of quantum physics invites a different way of looking at science, a more holistic way. This way of looking at science is more like Native American science, which sees flux, movement, simultaneity. There are areas of overlap between quantum physics and the Indigenous way of thinking.

Q: Generally speaking, the Western mind resists the kind of flux you describe. Why do you think that is?

A: Part of it is fear. We are fearful of the unknown. We would rather keep what we know, what we think we can control. The notion of control is built into Western ways of thinking. In Genesis, a Christian creation story, the world is as God made it and God’s work is perfect. Yet men like Copernicus and Galileo introduced imperfection into this creation story by saying it wasn’t quite like what [the Church] described. We have a vested interest in the existing system. Modern technology, our ways of doing things, are all based on linearity. We don’t want to fool around with it. As Einstein said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” We don’t want to mess up the picture, God’s picture. In contrast, consider the Navajo Sand Painting ceremony. At the end of the ceremony, the artists erase the sand painting. We Westerners want to save the painting. We take pictures, saying, “It’s so beautiful. Don’t destroy it.” The Navajos say, this painting is only for this ceremony not for all things. There is a greater willingness to see ebb and flow in the universe.

Q: What do you see as necessary for the paradigm shift you describe to occur?

A: One way to create change is for people to stand back and reflect, to look at the big picture. When we look at the world linearly, we look at specifics. We see only tiny little aspects of the big picture and not the picture itself. This leads to our seeing things in isolation, disconnected. If you allow yourself to see a more holistic picture, you’d see things in flux. That’s what the quantum physicists do. They are trying to tell us something about the world, but we are too busy texting and emailing to hear them. Native American science has existed for ages, but we aren’t making any use of it. Integrating it with a Western worldview would allow us to do things differently, to resolve our problems. For example, why does everything start at 8 a.m.? This causes, among other things, traffic congestion. Why not stagger business start times? Some could start at 8 a.m. Some at 9 and some at 10. Traffic congestion would go away. Existing notions of linearity have led us to the idea that things must start at 8 a.m. Something as small as staggering start times could have a big change.

Q: You describe science as “the pursuit of knowledge.” Traditionally in Western science, art and literature are kept separate from “pure” science. Do you see room for art and literature in this “pursuit of knowledge”?

A: Absolutely. Western science is all about measurement. The English language has a hard time explaining some scientific phenomenon, so it adopts the language of mathematics, the language of science. Art and literature, therefore, get dropped from the picture. Nobody wants to learn a new language, so most people hate math. Native American languages are better able to express these ideas. There is more flexibility, more room for possibilities, more room for art and literature. There is math in Native American science; Western science, however, imposes a mathematical grid on nature, arguing it was there all along. Like the land-survey system that divides lands into townships and sections. Though superimposed on the land, we start to believe that such division is the nature of the land. It is not. Can we say nature is math? I’m not sure we can. We make nature mathematical. It is our way of understanding it to control it.

Q: You differentiate between science and technology. Can you explain?

A: Most people mix science and technology. Technology is not science. Technology is the application of what is already known. Science is the pursuit of knowledge. If we can draw a line around how much we know, science pushes beyond that line. It finds new ways of knowing. iPads, iPhones, the knowledge to make those has been around 50 or more years. They do not reflect new knowledge. We are just now putting that knowledge to use.

Leroy Little Bear’s talk is free and open to the public. Sponsors include ASU’s American Indian Policy Institute; American Indian Studies Program; Department of English; Faculty of History in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies; Indian Legal Program in the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law; Labriola National American Indian Data Center; Women and Gender Studies in the School of Social Transformation; and the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

For more information visit"> />Written by Sarah Fedirka.

Media contact:
Kristen LaRue, kristen.larue">">
Department of English
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences