Distinguished Lecture – Kim TallBear | Science v. the Sacred, a Dead-end Settler Ontology – And Then What?

Settler-colonial society works hard to separate so-called spirituality from the material. This worldview inhibits settler society grasping Indigenous knowledges as knowledge based on centuries of observations and intimate relations with other-than-human relatives. Instead, Indigenous peoples are viewed as exceedingly “spiritual,” and dominant scientific traditions (including the social sciences and humanities) tend to denigrate Indigenous understandings of the world as beliefs rather than knowledges. The knowledge/belief divide stems from a hierarchy of life that the sciences share with major religious traditions. Within this understanding of sentience and agency, some humans rank above others, and humans rank above other life forms. More recently, thinkers such as the “new materialists” and multi-species ethnographers commit themselves to understanding other-than-humans in less hierarchical and more “vibrant” or agential, if still secular terms. But that “ontological turn,” while fascinating, may not be a sufficiently encouraging response in this moment of settler-colonial existential crisis. For those paying attention, Indigenous worldviews compel and edify. That is not to say that Indigenous understandings of the world can save settler society from itself. Non-Indigenous people must learn to live well together here, and it does not look good. Nonetheless, in an act of edification, I bring Indigenous ideas of being in good relation into conversation with the more sensible ideas of thinkers working within the settler state academy.