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Statement Regarding American Indian/Indigenous Sources

There is both risk and value at stake when outsiders are willing to learn - which I distinguish from mere appropriation - from American Indian cultural traditions. I believe an attitude of respectful attention to what inhabitants of the nations offer to the world in print, combined with respectful silence on matters sovereign to those inhabitants, is necessary to the posture of learning that makes my work viable, respectful, and scholarly.

I am a scholar of certain American Indian religious traditions, but I am not an enrolled citizen of any indigenous nation. This makes a difference, particularly in the authority I do not have to represent any of the cultures and traditions I study, or to speak for the elders to whom I have listened and from whom I have learned, in person and in print. My scholarly position as a student of some North American indigenous traditions and philosophies, while not a citizen/descendent of any, is a necessary clarification to my methodological strategy. This is important not only because of the longstanding assault and misappropriation those cultures have endured for centuries by outsiders, but also because so much that is worth saying cannot really be abstracted from the lived context of the communities.

What this means is that I take up the position of student of these traditions, much in the same way that I have ever taken up the position of student in relation to any published philosophical or theological material. My interpretation and use of specifically public domain materials represents a process of learning that is not absolute or closed. My work should never be mistaken for an exact representation of the tribal traditions from which my research materials may come - I know enough from my own involvement in some communities to see the difference between printed philosophy and lived complexity. Indeed, as influential, important, and world-spanning as Aristotle's writings are, they represent 4th century BCE Greek culture and traditions in only the thinnest sense, if at all. Reading Aristotle is possible without reference to that culture, but reading him fully grounded in the context of that culture make his writings that much more helpful, both in the work of interpretation and in recognizing the limits of appropriation. Some would say that the value of learning from Aristotle remains, however, regardless of access to his ancient culture. I deploy Aristotle here as a cipher for philosophical traditions coming out of the nations on the North American continent (traditions that are seldom granted the stature and name of philosophy) to indicate their importance as philosophy in company with the reputed father of western philosophy, and therefore to indicate their importance as resources for thinking through all of the matters that demand philosophical insight.

There is much for the world to learn from American Indian scholars who have taken the trouble to offer their insights to the wider world in print, and from the non-native scholars who have been given permission to print the stories and ideas that have been generously given to them for that purpose by the people. Thomas Norton-Smith, a Shawnee philosopher, puts this approach best. "Know well," he writes in the introduction to his Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy "that I will say nothing that a diligent scholar couldn't find somewhere in print, for the rest belongs to the People and it is not my place to share it."1 I can think of no better description or guide for the work that I undertake.  

Laurel C. Schneider

1Norton-Smith, Thomas M. The Dance of Person & Place: One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy (Albany NY: SUNY Press, 2010) p. 2.