Ancient Stories and Science: How Do They Fit Together?

This is one angry man.

When he spoke at Stanford University on the Indian relationship with the land, his first question from the audience was “a person asking whether I didn’t think running hundreds of buffalo over a cliff was wasteful” (113).  He found the question to be snide, disrespectful, and full of assumptions, as if he and his friends had recently done so.  He writes, “Since the only recent slaughter of buffalo that I could remember was the Super Bowl, I took offense and refused to answer any more questions” (113).  He’s angry.

But he has every right to be angry.  Vine Deloria, Jr., (1933–2005) was a professor of history, law, religious studies, and political science at the University of Colorado in Boulder.  He was also a Native American.  In his book, Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact, he argues that science isn’t always accurate, and that science should take Native American stories and folklore into account when studying the earth’s geology and history.

As somebody who is fond of storytelling myself, I tend to agree with him.  Stories are important.  Stories have meaning.  Stories are passed down orally through generations, and their information can be just as accurate, useful, or interesting as information gathered through scientific research.  This is essentially Deloria’s argument, and although I didn’t agree with everything he said, I understood his point.  I heard him.  I am somewhat convinced.

Deloria confronts many scientific theories about the formation of certain geological formations in the Americas and theories about how long ago and by what manner the Americas were inhabited.  He holds Native American knowledge up against these theories, exploring both similarities and weaknesses in the myths and the science.  He focuses only on Native American stories that are in print, which he says accounts for “only 10 percent of the information that Indians possess” (11).  This is intriguing to me.  I took a few folklore classes in my undergraduate days, and this sort of information gathering and cultural knowledge is fascinating.

Because Deloria presents his information most eloquently, I will share with you some of his thoughts in his own words.

“The stereotypical image of American Indians as childlike, superstitious creatures still remains in the popular American mind―a subhuman species that really has no feelings, values, or inherent worth.  This attitude permeates American society because Americans have been taught that ‘scientists’ are always right, that they have no personal biases, and that they do not lie, three fictions that are impossible to defeat” (20).

He goes on to give the example of sports teams that use demeaning images of Native Americans as their mascots.  When people complain about this, others ridicule them for it.  Sports writers even dare suggest that pretty soon Lions, Tigers, and Eagles will begin protesting their use as mascots, suggesting that Native Americans are somehow akin to animals.  This is all unfair.  This is probably one of the reasons Deloria is angry.

His thoughts on religion in America are just as angry.  He says, “Religion, in any usual meaning of the term, ceased to exist in America long ago.  Indeed, any high deity exists for Americans can only insofar as he or she can guarantee great sex, lots of money, social prestige (read celebrity), a winning football team, and someone to hate.  American denominations are busy frantically trying to appeal to the unchurched by redefining sin” (21).

He goes on to explain why this angers him.  It’s because Indian religions are constantly attacked and told what they can and cannot include in their ceremonies according to law.  He states, “America was once a nation where religious freedom was guaranteed.  Now it is guaranteed to everyone except the original inhabitants, who have never demonstrated religious intolerance at all” (28).

The best part of this book is Deloria’s tone.  Yes, I mentioned angry.  But he’s also sarcastic and funny.  He probably offends at times, but I enjoyed a look into the mind of a person that I probably wouldn’t rub shoulders with on a regular basis.  Here are some examples of his tone.

“Appointment to Senate or House Indian subcommittees has been a fate most politicians avoid like virtue.  (It would be absurd to describe an American politician avoiding sin)” (29).

“This report is one of the few times that I will try to believe a government agency’s results” (72).

“This nonsense, readers, passes for scholarly discourse” (75).

“At the rate ‘scientists’ are reducing the time required to have extinguished the megafauna, we will soon be told that a single Paleo-Indian glared across the Bering Strait and thirty-one species of megafauna fell over dead” (217).

“Lest scientists begin to hemorrhage, these citations, in my mind, have nothing to do with the validity of any religions―Indian, Christian, Islamic, or Jewish” (234).

“We have become so accustomed to bowing down before scientific authority figures that we have lost the ability to understand what they are saying” (238).

As you can see from these quotes, Deloria is both passionate and hilarious about his subject.

He also tackles evolution with this same skepticism and sarcasm.  He’s not convinced.  He says, “Read any book on evolution and you will discover a surprising number of modern species that stopped evolving millions of years ago.  In addition, even the most sophisticated of modern scientists, in explaining the fossil remains, finds that species in rocks are distant relatives to each other, not direct lineages” (40).  He doesn’t see evolution the way most people think of it, and neither does Stephen Jay Gould.  He also asserts, “If we could find an honest scientist and have him or her make up a complete list of animals, fish, birds, reptiles, bacteria, and plants that ‘stopped evolving’ millions of years ago and are found alive and kicking in the modern world, we would have a pretty good inventory of contemporary fauna and flora” (240).

A few weeks ago, I heard an interesting discussion on fraud and plagiarism on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.  Inevitably, scientific frauds were discussed, mentioning that some scientists have been caught manipulating or making up data, either under pressure to publish or to make money.  The most famous example of late is Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who falsified his results of vaccines and autism, spreading false information about the cause of autism and scaring parents out of their wits.  Deloria covers this entire train of thought in one sentence: “‘Evolution’ is used to cover a multitude of academic sins” (44).

As to human evolution, Deloria asserts that “the evidence for human evolution, may exist more firmly in the minds of academics than in any location on Earth” (67).  He has several other theories about how humanity populated the earth, including that people moved from the American continent eastward to Scandinavia and western Europe.

And no, I’m not going to go all crazy on you and suggest that I know better or that Deloria knows better than other researchers and data.  But I am going to say that we don’t know it all.  We just don’t.  We can pretend that we do, or claim that we do, but we don’t.  In the grand scheme of the universe and cosmos, we are simply nothing and we know nothing.  Because this debate over “evolution” is such a touchy subject, along the lines of religion and politics, I will not go further.  But I definitely argue that we do not know it all.  We sometimes just act like finicky teenagers who think we do.

My biggest problem with Deloria’s arguments is that he wants Indian traditions and stories to be taken seriously, but he trivializes and undermines other traditional stories.  He has a section that discusses flooding, including Native American stories of great floods, but snidely makes fun of “scientists and laypeople alike who still believed the stories of the Old Testament” (130).  If we are to take Indian stories seriously, should we not also take ancient records and other cultural and religious stories seriously?  Should not all of humanity’s stories be incorporated into a grand study of the earth’s history?

But later, Deloria contradicts himself by bringing Biblical accounts of giants into play when recounting Indian stories of giant white men.  He presents an argument by Donald Patten, who suggests that before the great flood, people often lived longer and grew larger.  According to Patten, this is also true for plants and animals during this time.  He also admits that Indian tradition and the description of Genesis, in terms of the earth’s early climate, are “mutually supportive of each other” (234).

So, why did Deloria spend an entire book arguing with scientists and recounting Native American legends?  Because he wants change.  He has several calls to action in his book, a device I often point out to my composition students in the essays we read for class.  A good conclusion usually has a call to action of some sort.  Deloria’s calls are these:

“Corrective measures must be taken to eliminate scientific misconceptions about Indians, their culture, and their past” (60).

“There needs to be a way that Indian traditions can contribute to the understanding of scientific beliefs at enough specific points so that the Indian traditions will be taken seriously as valid bodies of knowledge” (60).

“I hope that the next generation of scholars, Indians and non-Indian, will force open any breaches I have identified in the wall of scientific orthodoxy and make honest people out of scientists who are now afraid to publish their true beliefs and thoughts out of concern for peer conformity” (232).  He goes on to list several areas in which he believes this should happen: creation, volcanism, the early climate, geological columns, living fossils, dinosaurs, radiocarbon dating, and clovis points.

Overall, Deloria ends his argument with more sense and less anger than when he began.  He says, “We are living in a strange kind of dark ages where we have immense capability to bring together information but when we gather this data, we pigeonhole it in the old familiar framework of interpretation, sometimes even torturing the data to make it fit” (231).  I like his description, and I too can see disadvantages to having so much information at our fingertips.  It is overwhelming and hard to think straight.  However, all of this information can only do us good in the long run.

What do you think?  Are stories just as valuable in conveying truth as science is?


Deloria, Jr. Vine.  Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact.  New York: Scribner, 1995.


25 thoughts on “Ancient Stories and Science: How Do They Fit Together?

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  1. Nice post. Interesting book. I do think modern science has become entrenched and a bit dogmatic — much like the Church in the Middle Ages. It’s almost heresy to say that science might have a few things wrong. But they might. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Emily.

    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head in comparing it to religion. I recently read an essay for one of my classes that explores the positivist view of science and how it isn’t necessarily the best view, especially when the humanities need to be talent into account. The author used religious words to describe the scientific establishment, which I thought was a nice twist on this theme of it being dogmatic and entrenched. Thanks!

  2. Interesting. But people who tend to criticize science are usually too lazy to study and examine data – some of which stands up to scientific scrutiny and some of which does not. Luckily, scrutiny, confirmation and replication of findings is the cornerstone of scientific research. Modern science is revealing facts about the universe that people wish were otherwise (to wit, data on global warming, or evolution of man and other species) so they tend to just reject the data and grumble something about “bad” scientists. It’s true that modern instrumentation and technology is hard follow at first and people are intimidated and feel overwhelmed. But it remains possible to actually sit down and examine the data. It’s true that there are misconceptions about Amer Indian cultures and a continuing history of exploitation. The history of Native Americans needs to be illuminated; their traditions maintained and many Native americans are doing just that.

    1. I’m not sure what sort of examination Deloria did in his research. He did quote from and explore many scientific studies and essays, but was he cherry picking? I am not a scientist, so I can’t speak confidenty on this issue, but I did like how the book made me think beyond my scope of knowledge and encouraged me to be critical.

      1. That’s always good. The question that interests me is whether North America was populated before ~30,000 years ago, which is the current thinking (via ice sheet in Bering strait). It’s an empirical question.

        1. Yes, he addresses that. If I remember correctly, he did not believe that humans crossed the Bering Strait, because of Native American traditional stories, but I can’t remember his logic for that or his thoughts on how long ago. You may appreciate the book if that interests you. He explains it better than I can… Obviously!

  3. This is a hot topic in many ways and thanks for posting this and provoking the issue. Firstly, as a scientist – yeah I went ahead and came out as a scientist, his quote about species that “stopped evolving” only illustrates that he does not understand the theory of natural selection. But that is neither here nor there so that’s all I’ll say on that.

    To answer your question: I don’t think that science is concerned with truth at all. I don’t mean that it is about untruths either though. Truth is a subjective set of beliefs and thruth changes for each interpreter. Storytelling does address truth quite often and for that reason I think it’s very valuable in all cultures for the strengths it provides us. Science is a different thing. Science is about questioning what is set forth as truth. It’s very function is to disprove, if possible, assumed truths of our past. Science can either support truths or disprove truths but it’s essense is in the questioning of truth. So it too is very valuable for it’s process alone – let alone the new truths it drives forward (often called facts.) But even these new truths will be questioned and further upheld or disproved as time goes on.

    I agree that there is a currently percieved “scientific authority” that may or may not be deserved depending on the case at hand. As authorities go, they try to hold a standard in place, when really, all truth is evolving.

    Kudos on reading outside the comfort zone and considdering other points of view. This is one of the main reasons I respect & read your blog.

    1. Thanks for the fantastic comment! I love that you are a scientist, too. I bet you’d have a lot of fun (and by fun, I mean arguing in your head) reading Deloria’s book. He is not a scientist, obviously, but he sure enjoys jabbing at the discipline. I like the distinction you make of scientists not going after the truth but questioning the truth. That is probably a better way of thinking about it rather than the sometimes authoritative status we give it. And as to all truth evolving, you’re right. I like that. I think it goes along with my more befuddled and confused conclusion that we just don’t know everything.

  4. As a scientist, I feel the need to wade in here on several points.

    You ask whether stories are just as valuable for conveying truth as science. I think it depends on which truth you are asking about. If you are asking how Native Americans came to live in the Americas (as Deloria seems to be), then stories are not as valuable as science. Stories can be examined for evidence, but given the very nature of storytelling, they cannot be seen as outweighing the evidence of archeological excavation or genetic analysis. On the other hand if you are asking what origin explanation best reflects how Native Americans see themselves and their place in the world, then stories are clearly better than science.

    You argue that “we don’t know it all”. I don’t know a single scientist who would disagree with you. Scientists, in my experience, have an above average appreciation of how much more there is to understand. What science provides is a way to improve our understanding, a way to test out possible answers and see whether they hold up when tested in the world around us. Science doesn’t always get the answer right the first time and is certainly susceptible to human biases, but it is the best method we have for choosing between explanations of how the universe works.

    Finally, the question of species having stopped evolving. No species has stopped evolving. Some species don’t look very different from fossils far in the past because the structure of their fossilizable parts such as skeletons has not undergone major changes in that time. (Sometimes these species are referred to as ‘living fossils’ which can be confusing.) But this doesn’t mean those species haven’t evolved. All sort of traits aren’t fossilized- soft body tissue, immune systems, behavior, protein structure within cells and so on. I can go into more detail on this if you are interested, but for the moment, this comment is already far too long.

    1. Thank you for all of that information. You know a lot and I am glad you shared. Your comments on the different nature of stories and their value versus the value of science are spot on. You have really helped me to make sense of all Deloria wrote about from his more biased views. I am glad to know that scientists would agree with me that we don’t know it all. Sometimes I get the feeling, from more liberal friends, that science knows everything and anything in opposition to it is worthless. I am glad to hear that’s not the case from an insider in the field, rather than people wanting to push their politics and agendas.

      1. I’m glad you found my comments useful. I was a little worried that I might offend.

        I think that science often gets over-simplified in the news because there isn’t really time for a nuanced picture. So each new study is presented as “In a new study, Science found this!” whereas science really happens from building evidence from many studies. Sometimes studies will contradict each other and then more work needs to be done to figure out why.

        The case of Native American origins is a good example (though it’s not my field, so I might have it a bit wrong). There’s a lot of evidence supporting a crossing over the Bering Straits, so there is general agreement among the scientists in the field on that. However, the evidence is more mixed on timing of crossing and how many crossings there were. I read a paper recently suggesting that there were three separate crossings over the Bering Straits. But not everyone agrees. We need more evidence to really know and it’s possible that we will never know for sure.

        1. You might offend Deloria, but he’s dead so he can’t argue with you! I know next to nothing about this stuff, so any information to me is welcome. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  5. Thanks for the amazing post. I think like biblioglobal only not so clearly. You are some scarily smart people. I don’t feel qualified to even comment here but wanted to express my appreciation.

  6. Certainly stories are valuable in understanding our world and Native American stories reveal a much more subtle (and spiritual) understanding of the “local” environment, precisely because surviving in an environment requires a deep understanding of the whole, not just the isolated parts. There are different kinds of knowing and scientists should be the first to humbly ascertain that there is no absolute knowing and hence no absolute truth (all scientific explanations have hitherto been proven partial and will, by the very nature of our relationship to the world around us – participatory- continue to be so). What makes myth so powerful is that it sees the truth of the relationship – the participation itself, and passes this on to new generations. As an educator, i define education as “the establishment and maintenance of a sustainable relationship between the individual and his/her environment (both physical and social)”. The most accurate knowledge is that which makes this relationship possible.

  7. Stories are important and they can tell hell lot of things about the socioeconomic condition of the era but from a scientific point of view you simply can’t use them. Stories won’t tell us how humans became human(more on that later) and it’s an art that’s been used for only last 20000 years at max. From stories we can’t anticipate anything that happened before that.

    “The stereotypical image of American Indians as childlike, superstitious creatures still remains in the popular American mind―a subhuman species that really has no feelings, values, or inherent worth……….”

    The above statement is completely true no only for American Indians but similar tribes all over the world.

    Now the science part. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of science can tell you that they barely know a few things. However complicated science may sound now a days trust me it’s just a beginning and we have just scratched the surface in any discipline.

    Evolution is pretty much proved. If we go around looking for evolution in our daily existence we might not find it simply because of the fact that it takes millions of years for a new trait to emerge. And since the dawn of life No species has stopped evolving. Those who stopped evolving are extinct.

    He also says ” …the most sophisticated of modern scientists, in explaining the fossil remains, finds that species in rocks are distant relatives to each other, not direct lineages.” This is where i believe he could have done a little more research. Becoming a fossil is not the easiest thing on earth. You have to die at the right time by the right method and on the right rock(only around 15% of rocks on our planet) so that you leave an impression while decomposing without oxygen.What are the chances of that happening even if complete bloodlines are wiped out with natural even? And that’s why species in rocks are distance relatives of each other.

    Also the above problem creates the single biggest challenge in proving evolution. At times science is simply short of fossils to interconnect. However science is not about arrogant certitude. It’s humble and the only thing it preaches is “I don’t know but I will try my best to figure it out”

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