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Halito. Chim achukma? Sa-hoschifo-ut

Lee Hester

(A version of this article is available in Social Epistemology)

If you are convinced that your map truly embodies the territory, despite the fact that it is necessarily incomplete or incorrect (and probably both) …then you are going to make many false turns.”

— Lee Hester

Like others in Wilderness Storytelling, Hester introduces himself in conversation with the reader rather than a one-sided lecture. He introduces himself in the Choctaw language as a prelude to what he means to say about the topic “Truth and Native American Epistemology,” which emerged particularly when he was teaching a course called “Native American Identity” — while stressing that he was always more interested in learning from Indigenous elders than in teaching.

[…] 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 these elders was John Proctor, at the time the oldest living Creek medicine man. When asked by a student, “What makes you Creek?”, Proctor answered quite simply: “If you come to the stomp ground for four years, take the medicines and dance the dances, then you are Creek.” Hester notes the surprise this answer caused.

The answer was completely unexpected and thus even more forcefully illuminating. Mr. Proctor had listed a set of practices which made someone Creek, or more properly in context, a member of the traditional Creek religion.

This is how Hester establishes the main distinction between Indigenous or Native American epistemologies and Western epistemology—practice and belief. His experience teaching and learning Western philosophy—he also taught “symbolic logic and other technical classes that are at the core of Western philosophy”—contributes to his discussion of this distinction. When he clarifies that belief does play a role in Indigenous traditions, he also notes the limitations of the English language in specifying what exactly that role involves.

Indeed, I think the difference in Native American and Euro-American approaches is so basic and subtle that the English language strains to express it. Unfortunately, since most philosophical dialogue in this country is in English it is likely that when pressed to the limit it would be better to say that Native American people firmly believe in their tradition than to imply any less reverence. This is because English has equated belief with truth.

This equation of belief and truth in English serves as an example of how radically Indigenous languages differ from Western languages and systems of belief and knowledge. Hester points to the problem of the map-territory relation, a concept in philosophy meant to demonstrate how language is not reality, but rather only a representation or abstraction that is often mistaken for reality. By pointing out this relation, Hester claims that agnosticism is the most optimal characterization of how Indigenous peoples see the map-territory relation, and how some scientists have reached similar conclusions.

I would characterize the attitude of Native Americans as one of agnosticism concerning the relationship between their map and the territory. Though this may seem strange from a Western stance, it is actually very practical. Indeed, I would argue that it can even make a great deal of sense given modem Western understandings of the limits of knowledge. Think of Heisenberg and Godel. Using the map and territory metaphor, Heisenberg seems to be telling us that the clearer our map of any particular part of the territory, the less clear our map will be elsewhere. Godel seems to be telling us that when our map becomes too broad, it will be incorrect. If we go too far in detail or breadth, our map becomes confused.

Further, Hester sees this confusion as the cause of contradictions and arrogance.

If you are convinced that your map truly embodies the territory, despite the fact that it is necessarily incomplete or incorrect (and probably both) …then you are going to make many false turns. Your actions will be contradictory. When you have mistaken the map for the territory, you’ll continue to claim that you have reached the right destination even when you are hopelessly lost.

Explaining exactly how Indigenous languages such as Choctaw differ in the way they express belief and agnosticism, Hester concludes that “the most powerful affirmation in the Choctaw language doesn’t assert truth in the way even a relatively ambiguous English sentence does.” And he provides a specific example of how exactly that plays out in practice.

Possibly the most telling example is the kind of response that a traditional Native person will give in answer to a question. I don’t know how many Indian related conferences I have been to, where some non-Indian academic will ask a medicine-person or elder a question. The response they seek is a statement of the way things are, a truth, a detailed map of the territory. The answer that they get is a rambling narrative, of the kind I expected from John Proctor in the story I related earlier. The narrative is generally a story from their own life, maybe with a few traditional side stories. At the end, the academic is usually puzzled. Their reaction is often negative. In the worst cases, the academic may assert that the elder was just making up a story because they didn’t understand their own traditions. I’ve seen this done again and again. One philosopher, whom I won’t name, has even told me how he often has to explain Indian traditions to the Indians themselves. From his perspective, his map is right and they’ve lost theirs.

This goes back to the map-territory relation and how those who mistake the map for the territory can become arrogant. It is the realization that our maps or models of knowledge are usually incomplete or at least not completely correct that enables us to see beyond them.

When you do not claim to have a correct map of the world, then you do not claim to have the “Truth.” You are willing to accept that other people have maps that are as good (or as bad…) as your own. When your map primarily traces your own path through life, then you are always eager to share stories and broaden your map. […] Knowledge is narrative of a life lived in the world. The individual stories are what you know. They may or may not provide a map of the world, but they do tell you about the consequences of your actions. You can learn much even if you believe little. You can even be taught.

Works by Lee Hester

Lee Hester and Jim Cheney co-published “Truth and Native American Epistemology” in Social Epistemology (2001), and “Ceremonial Worlds and Environmental Sanity” in Strategies: Journal of Theory, Culture & Politics (2010). He also co-published “Indigenous Worlds and Callicott’s Land Ethic” in Environmental Ethics with Dennis McPherson and Annie Booth (2000). In 2020, Hester delivered a lecture in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Georgia, “Pretindians and Modern Culture: A Rambling Native American Narrative on Cultural Impostors”.