Scientists, linguists and Native leaders gather to explore different world views


For close to 20 years, nuclear physicist John Erskine would fly from Washington, D.C., to northern New Mexico to review the work of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As a project manager at the federal Department of Energy (DOE), he needed to monitor the research that his agency funded.

In August, he returned to New Mexico for a very different purpose: a dialogue on "The Language of Spirituality" attended by scientists, linguists and Native American leaders from throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Erskine was a nuclear physicist for 40 years, first doing "basic research in the trenches" studying the structures of atomic nuclei, and later working for the DOE. But over the years, he became convinced that "Conventional science is incomplete. Feelings . . . values . . . a whole range of things are missing."

That's when he started examining what he calls "subjective science" or the science of mind.

Exploring such differences was at the heart of the dialogue Aug. 11-13 at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, which was attended by eight faculty, students and graduates of the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS).

Leroy Little Bear, J.D., a Blackfoot from Canada who at one time was director of Native Studies at Harvard University, began these dialogues in 1992 with the late David Bohm, a physicist whom Einstein once called his intellectual successor.

This is only the second year that the dialogues have been open to the public. More than 60 people gathered in an "outer circle" to listen to an "inner circle" of about 20 share their thoughts, one at a time, in the Native tradition of passing a "talking stick"--in this case, a microphone.

Participants discussed how language, metaphor and meaning divide people from one another. For example, in English--and Western thought in general--zero means nothing. In the Native lexicon, zero means everything.

These ideas aren't necessarily in opposition, said Dan Moonhawk Alford, an adjunct professor of anthropology at CIIS. He explained that the ancient Greeks had two words for emptiness: void and plenum.

"A plenum looks just as empty as a void, but it's full of invisible energy," Alford said. "So what we think of as empty space--or 'Outer Space'--is really a plenum. That's the first hurdle in being aware of the universe as animate in nature rather than inanimate."

Participants pointed out that contrasting world views often are experienced on deeply personal levels.

Nancy Maryboy, Ph.D., a Dine/Cherokee cosmologist from Arizona, said the Western view looks at ego, self and the boundaries between self and other while Native languages talk about relationships and process. That's why Native people introduce themselves by clan, she said.

Another significant difference is that Native languages are verb based, while English is structured on nouns.

"In the Blackfoot world view, there's no sense of 'I,'" said Amethyst First Rider, creator of Trickster Theater in Canada. "It's not me. It's some movement coming toward or going away from me."

Lloyd Pinkham, Ph.D., of the River People in Washington State, gave an example. "You don't say a woman's pregnant. It's insulting. You say it's her time. She's connected to the light. It gives her a glow. Makes you want to touch her. It's a blessing."

"Nouns are snapshots of a flowing reality," Alford said. A person from a noun-based language such as English is programmed to watch dancers, he explained, while a person with a verb-based perspective would see or feel the experience of dancing.

When cultures coexist--or when one "colonizes" another--people live these dichotomies every day.

Joseph Rael, of the Thunder Caller Clan, grew up in Picurís Pueblo in northern New Mexico. When he was 6, his family moved there from the Ute Reservation in southern Colorado, and he had to learn three new languages: Tewa, which was spoken at Picurís; Spanish, the language of people in the surrounding villages; and English, which was taught at Indian Day School.

"I felt like I'd walked into another dimension in time . . . another reality," he said.

To illustrate, he described the experience of getting water at the communal well. "In English, it meant to me the Pavlovian thing. You hear the words, run to the buckets, get them, go outside, get to the pump, get the water and then you bring it back.

"Now, here's what it means in Tewa. Aah-paah-ii-meh (ah pa HI may). 'Aah' is purity and clarity. 'Paah' is light. 'Ii' is awareness. 'Meh' is movement. When I went to get water, I became the activities I was doing. I became purity ... clarity ... light ... awareness ... and movement."

The group explored many dichotomies throughout the three-day dialogue, including categories such as animate and inanimate, and cause and effect.

"Western civilization uses cause and effect every day to control people," Amethyst First Rider said. "It interferes with my day-to-day working with my knowledge. The world is always telling me, 'No, that's not what you mean.' When you label it as metaphor (a figure of speech containing an implied comparison), then you've taken away a true experience."

The role of science frequently came up for discussion, ranging from reports on leading-edge research to the limitations of the scientific world view.

"Science, as a whole, is a box of closed boxes," said Don Watson, M.D., a neurologist and philosopher. "We've got a whole bunch of worldviews here that humans have created that don't communicate with each other. How do we break out of this mold? We have to deliberately say, 'I'm going to change my life so radically that I break out of my own worldview and see things differently.'"

Participants pointed out that there are many ways to do that: by exploring other languages, other cultures, and other ways of knowing.

Nuclear physicist John Erskine said, "The mystery is so great that standard physics--I don't think--will ever get there."

He is studying Tibetan Buddhism. "I'm discovering a very precise path with exquisite, precise techniques that are analogous to the experimental method. And the techniques are transferrable."

Change is needed at all levels from the personal to the planetary, said Regula Wegman, who is working on a Ph.D. in cosmology and consciousness at CIIS.

"Dichotomies have brought us to the brink of eco-destruction," she said. "In Native languages, relationship is the focus of the discussion. In the Western view, we take the end-points and pretend they're independently existing, which is a negative and antagonistic approach."

"Dichotomies are used socially to control people," said Matthew C. Bronson, an associate professor of anthropology at CIIS. "Take the case of Slobodan Milosevic. The 'other' becomes the repository for all evil." When we label an individual or group as 'other'--whether that's based on language, culture, race, gender or other factors -- we don't grant them the same measure of humanity as people with whom we identify, he said.

"This approach is played out," Bronson added. "It's not working.

"We need to get out of our own way. We're programmed to access unity. But to do that, we have to put aside our daily concerns and connect. For our Native brothers and sisters, this is a part of the culture. "For us (Western culture), it happens in spite of the culture.

"We've emphasized things rather than relationships, and we've paid a very high price for that. We cannot continue business as usual. We have to find a language of connectedness, and that comes from a way of being."

In guiding the dialogue, Leroy Little Bear gave a model for doing that."Leave your shoes and your egos at the door," he told everyone. "Come with a clear mind. Make room for new ideas." In closing, he suggested that people look for ways to create new rites of passage in society, ones that value 'other' and express that in some concrete way.

"We need to talk to people who disagree with us," Bronson added. "To enter in (to dialogue) with respect and 'fuzzify' the boundaries." We need to replace "total moral certainty" of the rightness of our own views with respect for all views.

Joy Steltzner is a speaker, consultant and writer who specializes in creating synergy from diversity. She can be reached at 505-465-2270 and

Transcripts and audio tapes of the dialogue are available from SEED Open University in Corrales, N.M. 505-792-2900.

Transcripts and audio tapes of the 1999 dialogue also are available.