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Wicazo Sa Review 18.1 (2003) 7-24

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A Model for the Extension of Sovereignty in American Indian Studies

Tom Holm, J.Diane Pearson, and Ben Chavis


In 1962, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Thomas S. Kuhn used the term "paradigm"—an example that serves as a model or pattern—to explain the idea that the sciences possess core assumptions on which most research is based or from which it stems. 1 For example, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection revolutionized the natural sciences because it replaced the assumption of divine creation with a rational, progressive, and seemingly objective view of extinction and the rise of totally new species of animals. Darwinian theory, because it had great explanatory power, rose from the status of theory to a core assumption or paradigm. Today, if a field biologist writes a paper on the star-nosed mole, he or she need not begin with a complete explanation of natural selection. Evolution by natural selection is assumed, and any theoretical construct to explain the star-nosed mole's existence in a particular environment is rooted in this supposition. Significantly, the social and behavioral sciences have embraced the Darwinian paradigm and developed theories that underpin the notion that humans have "naturally" progressed through time. It is assumed that economies, governments, cultures, philosophies, technologies, and social relationships have evolved from the simple to the complex in reaction to various stimuli or as a result of man's innate curiosity. Humans are dynamic and are the perpetrators and the victims of continual change. Similarly, it is assumed that human beings must adopt economic, political, social, and cultural strategies to survive in a [End Page 7] competitive world. Each discipline within the social and behavioral sciences rests on a core assumption. Hypotheses regarding human behavior are extrapolated from the discipline's paradigmatic umbrella, a jargon is created that has meaning within the paradigm, and models of human behavior are constructed to support the paradigm's basic argument. Like the old philosophical problem of which came first, the chicken or the egg, no one can really be sure whether or not disciplines came from paradigms or vice versa. Academic disciplines are always marked by their core assumptions, whatever they may be.

American Indian Studies as a "Tributary"

American Indian studies has been caught in an academic catch-22. Because it is a multi- or interdisciplinary field of study, it does not have a central paradigm and presumably cannot stand alone as a discipline. On the other hand, American Indian studies rests on a substantial body of theory, scholarship, and research produced by individuals well versed in law and policy, U.S. history, anthropology, ethnohistory, business, economics, political science, literature, art, and music. 2 American Indian studies is responsive to contemporary Native America, works within commonly recognized methodologies, supports and sustains professional journals and associations, and now awards doctoral degrees. 3 As Elizabeth Cook-Lynn has pointed out, American Indian studies supports Native American graduate students, develops Native American professors, and seeks to refute and confront a national economy based on the theft of Native lands and the exploitation of natural resources. 4 Relevant, culturally based definitions of ethnicity and race as well as new epistemologies have been built within American Indian studies. 5 Disciplinary validity is measured by American Indian studies' ability to generate and sustain a scholarly body of literature. 6

One of the strengths of American Indian studies is the depth and richness of theoretical constructs developed within the span of the last thirty years. Work within the field also suggests ways in which many of the theories may be reinforced through studies of Native American groups. For example, ethnicity theory can be utilized to add validity to ethnography as methodology. One of the initial goals of ethnography as a method was to avoid dependency on theory, leaving much valuable ethnography consigned to "stories" of a lesser order in the eyes of many academicians. Ethnologies have gained little scholastic recognition...


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