Truth and Native American Epistemology

Two stories about Native American epistemology: one (Jim’s) by a white Euro- American, the other (Lee’s) by a Choctaw Native American. Lee’s story, though
written to some extent in a language and style of Euro-American philosophy and
foregoing many traditional teaching techniques, comes from a Native American world and—although he rightly states in his story that ‘I [Lee] do not and cannot
claim any special authority on these issues, I am neither a medicine-man nor an
elder’ (a statement that does not represent false humility, as we shall see)—there is
the authority of one who speaks from a Native American world—no footnotes!—as contrasted with the lack of that authority in my story, which merely peeks into Native American worlds, gleaning small understandings as best I can.2 For this
reason, Lee’s story follows—and indirectly comments on—mine. The question ‘How important is truth to knowledge and epistemology?’—the question posed in the call for papers for this issue of Social Epistemology—has been a
central concern in my work in environmental ethics and Native American
philosophy. My re ections on this and related questions came to a focus in my work on the linked notions of ‘ceremonial worlds’ and narrative, which I began to think
about while listening to indigenous people in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory in 1995
and in Thunder Bay, Ontario while working with the Native Philosophy Project
during 1996–1997 (see Cheney and Weston, 1999). Ceremonial worlds are the worlds (or stories) within which we live, the worlds (myths, if you like) that have the power to orient us in life. They deŽ ne for us the nature of the sacred (that in which
meaning is located, the more-than-human dimensions of our worlds), the natural and
the human, and the relationships between them.3 A starting place for me in
developing the notion of a ceremonial world was Louise Profeit-LeBlanc’s explication
of the Northern Tutchone term t i an oh in response to a question posed to her concerning whether the stories she used in her work with at risk children were ‘true’.
In response, she used the term t i an oh (usually glossed as ‘what they say, it’s true’) and
deŽ ned it as meaning ‘correctly true’, ‘responsibly true’ (a ‘responsible truth’), ‘true to
what you believe in’, ‘what is good for you and the community’ and ‘rings true for everybody’s well-being’.4 Aside from the question of whether there is a concept of truth
simpliciter in Northern Tutchone or only the concept of a responsible truth (and,
presumably, its correlate: the concept of an irresponsible truth), t i an oh does at least
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Authors : Lee Hester, American Indian Studies, University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, PO Box 82345, Chickasha, Oklahoma 73018-0001, USA, and Jim Cheney, University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, 1500 University Drive, WI 53/88, USA