Epistemology and American Indians
Halito. Chim achukma? Sa-hoschifo-ut Lee Hester. Chatah sia hoke! Which is to say
"Hello. How are you? My name is Lee Hester. I am a citizen of the Choctaw Nation. I
begin my talks in this way to help emphasize the differences between Native
American people and others living in North America. This greeting directly
exemplifies differences in language and allegiance. To those that know the law, it
points toward differences in legal status and the fact that there are laws that
pertain only to American Indians. To everyone, it should point toward the deeper
differences in culture and with some study, it perhaps hints at basic differences
in world-view, or what might from a native perspective be termed "presence-in-the-
world." I do not and cannot claim any special authority on these issues, I am
neither a medicine-man nor an elder. However, I am an enrolled member by blood, I
prefer the term "citizen," of an Indian Nation; I grew up in Oklahoma-which in the
Choctaw language means "Red People"-among Indian people, including my own
relatives; my main associations are with Native American people. That, combined
with a small amount of western philosophical training, may enable me to provide
some observations-hopefully presented in a way which makes them meaningful.
The topic "Epistemology and American Indians" is a grand one. One which I
undoubtedly don't have all the "answers" to, and maybe don't have any answers to.
As I said, I'll mainly present some observations, though my Euro-American
philosophical training will drive me to some deductions based on the observations.
Throughout this paper, I'll use terms like "Native American" or "Indian" as if my
conclusions are readily applicable to the peoples of all the sovereign Indian
Nations. This isn't necessarily true, though I do think there are many similarities
from nation to nation. As Viola Cordova has said, any Native American has more in
common with any other Native American than with any non-Indian. A short story will
serve as a jumping of point for the rest of the talk. I have used this story
elsewhere, so I hope I don't bore those of you that have heard it before.
A few years ago I was the professor of a course called "Native American Identity."
I won't say I was "teaching it" for many reasons. One of them is that I tried, as
much as possible, to use members of the Native American community-particularly
elders-as the real teachers. I like to think it is because I recognize that they
are the ones who can truly teach it, not just that I am lazy.
One of our speakers was John Proctor, the oldest living Creek medicine man. He is
the uncle of Wanda Davis, a good friend of mine-so I was able to persuade him to
spend a three hour session with the class one evening. Mr. Proctor is a key
practitioner of the traditional Creek religion. He is the medicine man for a stomp
ground. "Stomp ground" is the name given to the ceremonial grounds where the Creek
practice their religion.
Mostly the students asked the kinds of questions you might expect. Since they