In his important book The Gifts of Athena, economic historian Joel Mokyr identifies rational thought – the scientific method – minimizing one’s reliance on magic, mysticism, and myths – as a key element in the material progress of society. Societies in which most people keep belief in magic and worship of folklore to a minimum prosper; societies in which most people resist being guided by reason and empirical reality do not prosper.
The new National Museum of the American Indian – which opens today on the Mall in D.C. – is itself a piece of evidence for why the material prospects of American Indians is so poor. Too many of them have yet to learn Mokyr’s lesson.
Consider this story from the Washington Post:
But the National Museum of the American Indian has no anthropology department and likely never will. Gerald McMaster, a deputy assistant director for the museum and a Plains Cree, says, “Anthropology as a science is not practiced here.”
Science, McMaster suggests, tries to impose an objective truth upon things that might not always lend themselves to such a framework. Science is not going to be the final arbiter at the museum. Says McMaster, “We look to the communities” — the natives themselves — “as authorities about who they are.
One thing visitors won’t encounter in the museum is a scientific explanation of how the Americas were populated. Until fairly recently, scientists were confident that Asian hunters migrated across the Bering Strait on a land bridge during the Ice Age. New evidence, however, has cast doubt on that simple scenario. Some scholars believe people came by boat and land in multiple migrations. None of this, however, is discussed in the Indian Museum. It conflicts with the cosmologies of many native peoples, who believe they have occupied their lands since the beginning of time.
If you read the entire story in the Post, you’ll even encounter the “we don’t think linearly, we think cyclically” piece of gimcrackery.