This research explores the epistemological divide between Lakota and conventional Euro-Western medicine. Since its creation in the 17th century, Francis Bacon’s scientific method has been the foundation of what constitutes objective, provable knowledge. Through analyses of the influence of European culture on the scientific method and the ethnocentric nature of sense-based (empirical) evidence, my research highlights how medical science is not as objective, exhaustive, or conclusive as is often thought. Interviews with Brandy Tuttle, a Native woman, about the healing capacities of Lakota medicine reveal how traditional wisdom can find health solutions that elude conventional Euro-Western medicine. This argument presents new ways of thinking about cultural relativism and postmodernism’s place in the scientific method.
This project would not be possible without the generous support of Brandy and Maleah Tuttle, Dr. Orisanmi Burton, Professor Brigid Maher, and all of my thoughtful and dedicated peers and professors at American University.
Like many Americans, thinking of my adolescence in a rural part of the country immediately sparks memories of long car rides. Instead of music, however, I often listened to stories. Lakota Native Americans Brandy Tuttle and her daughter Maleah welcomed me into their family in 2017, and we’ve embarked across thousands of miles and just as many stories together in the six years since. Not only is Brandy’s retelling of her life compelling, but the way she speaks is thoughtful and poetic–the perfect soundtrack for a road trip through the Bighorn Mountains. This work is an attempt to give my audience the same experience: hearing Brandy’s words and feeling her power, surrounded by the landscape that is our home.
I am not a spiritual person. When invited, I happily take part in Lakota ceremonies but more for social and cultural reasons than religious ones. Admittedly, I am not much of a scientist either. My interest in the topic of medicine–Euro-Western and Lakota–comes primarily from my interest in cultural relativism and postmodernism’s place in science. It wasn’t until I was already actively researching the philosophy of science and empiricism that an anthropology classmate suggested I interview Brandy. Author Vine Deloria, Jr writes about the laws that Western scientists view as “inviolable” and anything outside these laws are “anomalies.” Deloria labels this a “structural handicap” and posits that Native knowledge of the world lacks this dualistic foundation entirely (Deloria 1986).
Texts like Deloria’s, conversations with Brandy and Maleah, and my own interest in diverse methods of testing and proving knowledge led me to question the veracity and objectivity of Euro-Western science and thought as opposed to “folk” cosmologies. I wondered if an analysis of Brandy’s worldview and life experiences could illuminate some of Euro-Western science’s biased, inconclusive, and ethnocentric attributes.
When Bacon proposed his scientific method, it was as only part of a new division of knowledge where he aimed to separate the study of the natural world and physical universe from philosophy, metaphysics, and religion (Judd 2003, 2). This disciplinary separation has had a dramatic and lasting epistemological effect, forever changing the way Euro-Western thinkers conceive of the physical and metaphysical worlds as inherently separate. However, because the scientific method relies on measuring devices created by humans, Bacon’s system can never be completely removed from philosophy, metaphysics, or religion because it frames human sense-based (empirical) evidence as objective fact. Objective is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as: “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations” (“objective” 2022). Under this definition, there is value in contextualizing the production of knowledge. Empirical evidence can be conceptualized as “sense data, mental items of one's present consciousness with which one is immediately acquainted,” according to Bertrand Russell, a twentieth-century empiricist. His contemporary, Willard Van Orman Quine added that “evidence consists of the stimulation of one's sensory receptors” (Kelly 2016, 1). This definition situates evidence as a subjective experience that exists only when it is being perceived.
When considering culture, what it is, and how anthropologists should engage with it, anthropologist Fredrick Barth says that knowledge, defined as “feelings as well as thoughts, embodied skills as well as taxonomies and other verbal models” is a major modality of culture. (Barth 1975, 1987, 1993, 1995). In his paper “Other Knowledge and Other Ways of Knowing,” he posits that understanding not only how people think, but also how they develop a way of knowing is imperative to understanding their culture. For anthropologists, “relativism should be located in the humility to learn and engage within the contexts of knowledge and practice” (Barth 1995, 67). But this humility and engagement is valuable for more than just anthropologists in the field. In a world dominated by Euro-Western culture, our ways of thinking have been dominated too. What might be gained from humbly engaging in another way of knowing?
Freeman House, author and cofounder of two watershed restoration groups, writes about the need for scientific insights while emphasizing that restoration must not become the “exclusive domain of science” because Euro-Western scientific values and methodologies do not support restoration’s emergent strategy which is “nothing less than a redefinition of human culture” (House). The mindset that there is room for science, although not exclusively, was echoed by Brandy in our interview. Both House and Brandy posited that the scientific method is not inherently ethnocentric, but Euro-Western science’s monopoly on the production of knowledge to the exclusion of other epistemological methods is detrimental to finding the solutions science seeks.
This point is illustrated beautifully by Potawatomi biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer who, when contrasting Indigenous and Euro-Western epistemologies, writes that the latter uses science and technology to reinforce reductionist, materialist economic and political agendas: "I maintain that the destructive lens [is] the scientific worldview, the illusion of dominance and control, the separation of knowledge from responsibility. I dream of a world guided by a lens of stories rooted in the revelations of science and framed with an indigenous worldview–stories in which matter and spirit are both given voice" (Kimmerer 2013, 346).
Kimmerer is just one of many Indigenous scholars who point out how supposed objectivity grants the “illusion of dominance” to scientists. Kimmerer’s work illustrates how, when the more-than-human world’s experiences are acknowledged as legitimate evidence, human sense-based empirical evidence loses its claim to objectivity.
In her 2013 article “Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!),” Vanessa Watts asserts that the Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee creation story following Sky Woman’s fall to turtle island “is not lore, myth or legend [...] This is what happened” (Watts 2013, 21). When considering worldviews that center a belief that Euro-Western scientists have not yet proven, many non-native Americans struggle to accept these worldviews’ veracity and respectability. Consequently, these native beliefs are viewed as exotic fables. Instead, I propose that we consider Native American epistemologies analytically and as worthy of our genuine discernment as we consider Francis Bacon’s.
Watts tells us that place and thought cannot be and never have been separate because “land is alive and thinking” and all beings, human and non-human, derive agency through the extensions of these thoughts. While the premise that land is literally thinking may seem, to Euro-Western scientists, preposterous, this is because the empirical evidence that scientists base their worldview on exclusively relies on human sense-based data to create their perception of reality. The Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee worldview does not exclusively rely on data gathered through human senses and therefore can logically and rationally determine that the land is literally alive and thinking.
Furthermore, Euro-Western logic and common-sense assumptions about the world are so widespread and undisputed in the mainstream that Indigenous worldviews have been made to be understood and consumed as mythologies by the American public. Watts writes that her community’s histories are labeled as “alternative understandings'' rather than “real events,” and this marginalization of Native ideologies is colonization, “accomplished in part through purposeful and ignorant misrepresentations of Indigenous cosmologies” (Watts 2013, 22). A Euro-Western epistemology has colonized our innate personal ontologies, affecting the way we ask questions, form hypotheses, and test and prove knowledge. This evidence of Euro-Western science’s ethnocentrism dethrones it as an objective, exhaustive, or conclusive method of knowledge-finding.
Watts argues that in a Euro-Western sense, philosophical frameworks exist in the abstract, inherently separating theory from praxis, but Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe theories cannot be separated from praxis because their theories and worldview are animate extensions of Sky Woman’s and First Woman’s thoughts, “so it is not that Indigenous peoples do not theorize, but that these complex theories are not distinct from place” (Watts 2013, 22). Once this Place-Thought framework is understood, the inherent disconnect between Western and Indigenous epistemologies can be appreciated.
Watts provides a table to clearly lay out the difference (Watts 2013, 22):
The table shows how the Euro-Western thought process is a linear movement beginning with the epistemological-ontological divide, through understanding the constituents of the world as being separate from the world, to the logical sequel that agency is limited to humans, and reaching the conclusion that humans have an exclusionary relationship with nature. Conversely, the Indigenous cosmology is a circular movement that begins with spirit–what Lakotas call Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka and is often defined as “the power or the sacredness that resides in everything.” Brandy says spirit is simply “everything that we're actually from” (B. Tuttle in conversation with the author, 2023). Moving to Place-Thought (place and thought cannot be separated), through the concept that all of creation has agency, then all societies and systems are extensions of the land’s (Sky Woman’s and First Woman’s) thoughts, moving to everyone and everything’s obligation to communicate with one another, before returning to spirit.
By grasping the Place-Thought epistemology, individuals who aren't familiar with non-Western approaches to knowledge can gain insight into how knowledge can be hypothesized, tested, and applied in diverse ways. This can broaden their understanding of the various ways in which knowledge can be acquired and used, beyond the confines of conventional Euro-Western science. Understanding Place-Thought epistemology and, more broadly, ways of knowing that depart from Euro-Western science, allows us to lean into Brandy Tuttle’s retelling of her lived experiences with no reservations concerning the validity or effectiveness of her medicine or the worldview that it necessitates.
My exposure to Native American epistemologies and alternative medicine began in 2017 when I met and started spending time with the Tuttle family. The conversations and experiences I have had with them in the six years since have contributed to this work consciously and subconsciously. For this research, I interviewed Brandy Tuttle twice, her daughter Maleah twice, and her partner Wade LeBeau once. The only interviews included in the following film are Brandy’s, but the information Maleah and Wade gave helped me to better understand and articulate my thesis and theoretical framework. Each interview was unstructured and flowed like a conversation. My established relationship with the interviewees allowed me to draw on background information about their lives to ask varied and nuanced questions.
I can think of very few times that, speaking with Brandy, spirit was not at least touched upon in the conversation. She brings this worldview into everything, in the same way that many Americans can’t help but involve common-knowledge facts about, for example, history or statistics in conversation. It is natural, and inevitable, for humans to view the world and ourselves through a particular, subjective lens. However, to never investigate one’s own worldview is to ignore its potential flaws, and to never investigate others’ is to negate their value on principle.
All facts are informed by subjective narratives, but some are accompanied by unequal power structures that tailor information into a Euro-Western epistemological framework. From the human sense-based centering of empirical data to the colonization of mainstream knowledge, Euro-Western science has proven itself to be a biased and ethnocentric framework. There are as many ways to test and prove knowledge as there are cultures that have ever existed, and we cannot rule out any one way of knowing before we explore all these epistemological infinities with equal scrutiny.