Thinking about the Social Categories of Race, Gender, and Class in a Global Context as Expressed in Nina Paley’s Motion Picture “Sita Sings the Blues”

An essay I wrote in 2015 for a class taken through SUNY Empire State College titled “Mythology and Modern Life” that was developed by Dr. Menouka Case, Dr. Allison Craig, and Dr. Ayana Jamieson, and which was taught by Dr. Batya Weinbaum.

Sita Sings the Blues copy

Please click the link to view the film.

When attempting to write about Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, I find difficulty in attempting to write about the intersection of either race or gender along with age, ability, or sexuality as presented in this cross-cultural animated picture. Part of my difficulty in expressing an analysis is in knowing that both race and gender are social constructs where boundary lines are often ambiguous. That is to say, the classifications of race, gender, and even social class, are shared symbols across cultures, but these symbols are not necessarily weighted by the same values and they do not necessarily represent the same meanings across cultures. In terms of mythological studies, those different meanings can be thought of as distinct cultural schemata or different discourses. For these reasons, socially constructed categories such as race and gender are relevant in people’s lives, but because of cultural distinctions the values and meanings associated with these categories may differ, making writing about cultural others within the context of socially constructed categories difficult.

Sita Sings the Blues is an animated picture that combines various cultural productions in order to portray the breakup of Paley’s own love relationship. Included in this mix are portions of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana of Valmiki, jazz-blues style musical tracks produced in the U.S. during the 1920s, and a Betty-Boop style characterization of the main characters in the Ramayana. So too, there is a representation of a working-class Jewish-American woman and her husband, who I presume are heterosexual because of their relationship, but perhaps not. Furthermore, there was no representation of children or the elderly in this animation, and neither were there any differently-abled individuals. Perhaps, I think, Paley might consider individuals who identify in these categories as not relevant to her own story.

As far as analyzing in the context of race and gender, I do not know how to make such a determination in the context of Paley’s production. Specifically, assigning a meaning for femininity and masculinity (gender) to the characters in Paley’s animation is complex. I could see where the female characters in Sita Sings the Blues were in contrast to one another. From my perspective, I see Sita’s clothing as revealing and the Jewish-American woman’s clothing as conservative, but that understanding is based on my own cultural schemata. So, does clothing style speak about gender? I do not know, because it could also speak about traditions dictated by weather and climate conditions. I also see that Sita is more submissive than the Jewish-American woman, but that is perhaps related to each individual’s degree of reliance on a man for an economic means of survival. Specifically, women in the U.S. often have the ability to support themselves, whereas life in other areas of the world where Hinduism is prevalent may have fewer employment options, and thus are dependent on their husbands. So, does the submission to a man reflect femininity and gender? I do not know. Perhaps it reflects a certain set of power dynamics in relation to a certain economic reality.

Furthermore, I do not know which race these animated Hindu and/or Jewish individuals might be. This applies to the category Americans, also. Likewise, is jazz-blues music racial? I do not know. It has roots in communities of the enslaved African-Americans in early U.S. history but is not limited to the African-American community today. The racial quality of the Betty Boop character is interesting, too. The Betty Boop character is patterned after a white-skinned performer named Helen Kane who’s show style, in turn, is patterned after African-American singer Ester Jones (Baby Ester) performance style. So, is Betty Boop racial? I don’t know. Perhaps it is best to say that the symbols that Paley chose for her animated story represent the complexity of attempting to understand and explain racial and gender categories. For this reason, I choose to write by contextualizing in cultural and ethnic categories and that of male-female relations as I understand them, rather than assigning and discussing ambiguous racial categories or assigning gender meanings to a culture and individuals with whom I am not familiar.

Thus, feminist artist Nina Paley used the medium of a motion picture in order to explain the breakup of her own marriage in a production she named Sita Sings the Blues. Paley created the animation by superimposing popular 1920’s U.S. American jazz-blues musical tracks by singer Annette Hanshaw along with a flapper-era Betty Boop type characterization of the Hindu goddess Sita onto portions of the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana of Valmiki. In this way, Paley explains the contemporary plot of a working-class U.S. Jewish-American woman scorned by presenting the story’s main theme as the mythological story pattern of betrayal as she envisions it occurring in parallel events of various times and places past and present. That is to say, in the production of Sita Sings the BluesNina Paley interpreted various cultural productions and then she combined and reproduced them in a new work that is meaningful to her in the context of her own life and circumstances at that time, emerging as a cultural s/hero in the end.

I can see that through the critical perspective of a feminist and producer of animated pictures, and in the aftermath of the breakup of her marriage, Paley saw instances of male domination and female oppression in portions of the Ramayana of Valmiki as well as in certain Hanshaw recordings, and she presented them as a theme of betrayal in order to create Sita Sings the Blues. From Paley’s perspective, she sees an example of spousal betrayal when Rama rejects his wife Sita because he questions her purity and virtue after the evil Ravana abducted and held her, attempting to seduce her. She supports this idea when she inserts Hanshaw’s track “You’re Mean to Me” to explain her take on the virtuous woman’s perspective of spousal rejection.

Interestingly though, Paley included other perspectives on betrayal in her work. She showed that in purity cultures and from a male perspective, a wife’s chastity is necessary for a man’s own standing in his community. The fact that Sita spent time with another man without a chaperone placed her feminine virtue (chastity) in dispute. The need for an idealized perfect image for one’s own identity would be especially true for the leadership role of the God-king Rama, who symbolizes the ideal man in traditional Hindu culture. If the community perceived Rama’s wife as a less-than-virtuous, Rama’s own community standing and image as a virtuous leader would likewise be compromised.

A third perspective is offered when a trio of shadow puppets discuss the perspective of the supposedly evil Ravana. Ravana, they say, was not portrayed as a typical villain in that he did not harm or force himself on the beautiful Sita, but rather he patiently waited for her acceptance of him. From this standpoint, whether Ravana can be perceived as good or evil is in dispute. Ravana can be seen as virtuous because he set a standard for ethical conduct in times of group conflict. We can further contextualize this idea by considering that abduction and rape is a common occurrence in ethnic and national conflicts (war). The role of Ravana in the Ramayana of Valmki is interesting in that it disrupts the good/evil dichotomy that is often present in Western s/hero’s journey story patterns.

Thus, Paley used her production to analyze and communicate about love relationships – hers and others. She did so by following a typically indigenous story cycle pattern, one that extends from a place of community. Furthermore, Paley’s portrayal of her personal s/hero’s journey avoided stereotyping individuals and cultures by pigeonholing them into good/bad us against-them-dichotomous categorizations. Instead, because her personal story transcends race, class, and national categories, so too, do the characters in her motion picture. She included different discourses (i.e. she included various class and ethnic/national as well as both male and female perspectives) into her production. Paley developed her own personal story within a context of a globalized vision of culture and then sent an animated representation of it back out to her larger world-wide community so that others could benefit from her particular contribution to the Ramayana story.

Others see strong feminist symbols in Sita, too. For example, in the article titled Sita in Valmiki Ramayana: A Feminist Archetype, author G.R.K. Murty suggests that contrary to popular Indian feminist sentiments that see Sita as an “overly-submissive wife who committed suicide for an ultimately untrusting husband” (citing Hirst and Lynn, 2004) we can perceive her as a feminist archetype instead. Thus, Murty proceeds to provide evidence, taken from the Ramayana epic, portraying Sita as an assertive “commander at ease” who speaks as the voice of dharma (the Hindu law governing individual conduct), optimistically debating against male chauvinism with endurance and self-respect (Murty). In this way, Sita stands in opposition to male control and domination but does so with feminine grace and charm. However, even as Murti embraces Sita as a positive feminist symbol, others argue a contrary point.

For example, self-professed common man and layman, Hetal M. Doshi, in Feminist Reading Of Indian Epics: Exploring Sita And Draupadi Through The Current Perceptioncontends that Sita may not have been the victim of a patriarchal society as is often argued by feminists. Doshi asserts that women, through three distinct phases of feminism, have already achieved equality with men. He suggests that Sita, a person of “delicate gender” insisted on going into the forest against the will of Rama, who did not appreciate this because he felt it was his “duty” to keep Sita out of the forest and therefore out of harm’s way (Doshi). This is an interesting idea, and likely a common idea amongst Indian men. That is, it seems that violence against women is so normalized in Indian society that men feel that they have an obligation to make special provisions in order to keep their wives safe, while at the very same time they perceive equality between the sexes.

The reality is that the prevalence of violence toward women in India is epidemic, in particular, sexual violence. A report by A. J. Plus in the online news outlet Aljazeera dated July 24, 2015, discusses the role of an organization titled The Red Brigade in bringing about a greater awareness of sexual violence toward women in India since the brutal attack, gang-rape, and murder of a 23-year old student from Delhi that occurred in 2012. Film producer David Hamilton and Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta are also bringing the violence against Indian women crisis to the national stage in their film production titled Water. Water focuses on the violence perpetrated on the widows of India during the 1930s. The film ends with a commentary informing the audience that the situation still exists with more than 23 million widows living in India as of the 2001 census. According to an October 24, 2014 article by Colin McNeil in the Canadian news source Metro News, the producers originally planned to film Water in the city of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, but because of violent protests and death threats, Hamilton and Mehta decided to film the production in Sri Lanka instead. It seems that some Indian individuals did not wish to have the violence of Indian culture on display for the world to see and they used violence to solve that problem.

Interestingly, Paley and others received similar threats for her more positive and balanced portrayal of Indian culture as present in Indian mythical tales. For instance, Kirk Semple of the New York Times reports on July 21, 2011 that community organizer Rohan A. Narine received death threats for attempting to “unify the young members of the Indian and Indo-Caribbean diaspora in southern Queens” (young Sikhs and Hindus) by bringing them together at a showing of Paley’s work so that individuals in “the two dominant religions” could “get to know each other” and network and “develop a political voice” (Narine). According to Narine, some of the messages he received were violent citing the film as abusive and insulting toward Hindu gods. Paley has received similar threats.

Paley’s production, then, presents her personal betrayal mythical tale in a way that conforms with normative western notions of the s/hero’s journey tale. Specifically, a working-class white Jewish-American woman who was rejected by her husband after spending a period of time apart, emerged the s/hero in the end, a victorious goddess in love with herself. Interestingly, Paley also included an indigenous story cycle pattern in that her production; it is indigenous in that is it extends from a place of community, it is inclusive of many perspectives, and Paley avoids stereotyping as well as the good-versus-evil dichotomous s/hero’s journey that is common in the West. Paley’s complex story, as well as Sita’s, transcends race, class, and national categories as well as time. The ways in which others perceive these stories, however, are entirely dependent upon their unique schemata or worldview. Some see good in these stories, and some see bad, while others perceive balance of multiple perspectives or different discourses.

Works Cited

Doshi, Hetal M.1, “Feminist Reading Of Indian Epics: Exploring Sita And Draupadi Through The Current Perception.” IUP Journal Of English Studies8.4 (2013): 81-85. Humanities Source. Web. 30 July 2015.

McNeil, Colin. “Deepa Mehta: Making Water under Fire.” 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <;

Murty, G. R. K.1, “Sita In Vālmīki Rāmāyana : A Feminist Archetype!.” IUP Journal Of English Studies8.4 (2013): 67-80. Humanities Source. Web. 30 July 2015.

Plus, A.J. “The Red Brigade: Rape Survivors Fight Sexual Violence in India | Al Jazeera America.” Rape Survivors Fight Sexual Violence in India. AlJazeera, 15 July 24. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <;.

“Sita Sings the Blues.” Sita Sings the Blues. Web. 7 June 2015. <;.

Hamilton, David (Producer) and Mehta, Deepa (Director). 2005. Water. [Motion Picture]. Sri Lanka: Fox Searchlight.


A Letter from Oni the Wind

My beloved human beings, it is I, the ancient one who was before you were, listen to me for I speak truths. I have observed that some of you are angry with me because you have experienced a disruption to your lives. You have called this disruption a storm, a hurricane. Your notions though, are simply a very limiting stereotypical concept of me, Oni, the Wind. I reach out to you today because I see that you are in pain.

Know that I have not come to destroy you. I love you all. I come to you according to my original instructions. In the beginning we ancient ones worked together to create a place of wonder, beauty, and abundance of life. It is my work to continue in this sacred task.

And so, I move, seeking the waters and moving them toward the shores. I seek the rocks and stones of the mountains, plains, and deserts, too. As I push on these other ancient ones we, together, create what becomes the foundation for, not just dirt – but earth, the living soil that brings forth new life. I look for human beings, birds and all other animals, as well as the plants, too. I seek all of these beings in order to provide them with the life-giving, life-sustaining components that I carry: Water, gaseous elements, and a refreshing cool breeze on a hot day.

However, many of you human beings are not always aware of me. You do not notice me, the one who is always with you, unless you are in distress: Out of breath, too hot, or in the midst of a storm.

Know this truth, too, I do not move or work on my own volition. My movements are directed by our ancient relatives, e.g. the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the waters, and the trees, according to the heat and cooling that they provide. We, therefore, do not exist independent from another, but rather we exist because of one another. However, the human animals have increased their knowledge and while doing so, they have forgotten the truth: My manifestation, whether gentle or fierce, is in accordance to the actions and qualities of all other beings.

Sadly, many of the human animals, in quest of comfort and increased wellbeing, have pursued knowledge and technological development while disregarding the ancient truth. That is, some humans, working with imperfect knowledge while discarding truth, have altered our shared world in ways that are reshaping what you call climate and weather patterns.

Thus, you human beings, with your imperfect knowledge, have dug into our earth, extracting and burning what you have found, and by this have altered the elements in the atmosphere, increasing its temperature. You human beings, with your imperfect knowledge, have cut down our relatives the trees and the cooling forests are now so few. You human beings, with your imperfect knowledge, have attacked our relatives the mountains by removing their tops to use as fuel, altering the movement of our relative the water clouds in the process. You human beings, in your imperfect knowledge, have removed our relatives the trees, and now the protective mangrove forests that buffered the shorelines from strong winds are so few. You human beings, in your imperfect knowledge, if you find me fierce, remember, I am because we are.

My dear human beings, I want you to know that it is true, I am because we are. However, it is also true that you are because I am. So, if you hear it said that some human cultures are faulty in that they personify non-humans, do not believe it. Your personhood exists because I am: Therefore, I, Oni the Wind, personify you. Your personhood exists because water is: Therefore, Water personifies you. Your personhood exists because rocks are: Therefore, Rocks personify you. Human beings are persons because all other beings are, and each being has a right to be. I want you to understand this important truth so I will say it again: In the natural law, each being has a right to be, and this right is the basis of personhood and it belongs to all beings, not just human beings.

Therefore, because I love you, dear human beings, I am asking you to return to your original instructions. Recognize that your knowledge is imperfect. We ancient ones carry the wisdom of the ages and we will share that with you if you stop to listen. Your instructions are simply this: Be thankful. Be thankful for all that surrounds you and act accordingly: Work together in cooperative and reciprocal relationships with all other beings in order to maintain a gentle balance.

I am the one who surrounds you always, the one who breathes life into you, and the one who loves you always,

Oni, the Wind.

~ Nancy Babbitt ~ a “make character” project that extends from Linda Hogan’s book titled “Power: A Novel” for a class I took at SUNY Empire State College in the summer of 2015 titled Mythology and Modern Life that was developed by Dr. Menoukha Case and taught by Dr. Batya Weinbaum.

What Racism Is, How it Began

A shameful 2017 Inauguration Day Prayer was delivered by Christian televangelist and pastor Paula White-Cain. It is shameful because it affirms the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Manifest Destiny – the foundations of White Domination (i.e. enforcing and normalizing Eurocentric ideology and life ways in non-European lands and onto non-European people), which is otherwise known as White Supremacy, which is often called Racism.


Art as an Agent of Social Change



16143514_10154197908890544_8300077684422338586_oThe Scream
84″ x 132″
Acrylic on canvas
Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience opens Thursday January 26th at Art Museum at the University of Toronto

The Scream is a portrait of the silenced history of Indian Boarding Schools. Indian Boarding Schools were created when both Canada and the U.S. enlisted clergy to abduct First Nations/Native American children and place them in institutions many of which were run in a military fashion. There, the children were forbidden to speak their languages and practice their customs. Far too many children were traumatized by emotional, physical, and sexual abuse perpetrated on them by their captors. Some did not get to see their families again until they were adults. When they did return home they could not communicate with family members because they did not know their language. When they went into the world as adults and had children they found that they had no parenting skills because they were not taught any. Males were taught to farm (which had been the occupation of Native American women) but in the European style. Females were taught submission to male authority and domination and how to clean the church sanctuaries (when traditionally many Native Nations were women-centered gynocracies that were rather egalitarian and democratically run by women leaders who saw to it that each member of their community was well cared for). In other words, those children were taught in a manner that would hold them in bondage and in submission to a Eurocentric ideology based on domination and control. Many children died in these institutions – murdered – and even their bodies were not returned to their families. The U.S., in particular, has a shameful history of settler colonialism, genocide, cultural genocide, as well as chattel slavery, and that needs to be publically acknowledged en masse before racial healing can truly take place.


The Power of Storytelling: Cosmologies

People across cultures develop ways to describe how life came to be. Specifically, there are culture-specific cosmologies that explain how a particular people (culture) and their environment came into existence. Cosmologies are stories that are passed on from generation to generation as a sort of ritual or custom that offer explanations for how the universe came to be. Cosmologies are creation stories, and because they are shared from one generation to the next by means of storytelling, they are a form of transmitted culture. The term culture, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (n.d.), comes from the Latin term cultura meaning to cultivate or tend (the land). In other words, a particular culture is closely related to the land and environment in which it originally developed, and many cosmologies describe this connection while also shaping the worldview of the people who embrace the story.

The custom of storytelling about origins then, is a cultural universal and the individual creation stories are culture-specific, where the people and their environment shape each story. Thus, people’s creation of cosmologies is a cultural universal or cultural etic, and the individual stories are examples of cultural specifics, or cultural emics; these stories are shaped by and in turn influence a peoples’ worldview.

Below, Global Spirit TV presents Kay Olan (Mohawk) discussing (telling a story) about the Haudenosaunee Creation Story, which shapes a non-Western worldview.


In The Hadeshanownee [sic] Creation Story with Kay Olan (Global Spirit, n.d.), then, Kay Olan gives a brief overview of the Skywoman cosmology. In this origin story, Skywoman falls to the watery earth, and she along with various other Earth Beings shape the continent that we commonly refer to as North America as well as all the other Beings that inhabit it. According to Stephanie A. Sellars (Shawnee), scholar of Native American Women’s Studies, the Haudenosaunee as well as other Native American Peoples who share the Skywoman cosmology, are traditionally matrilineal societies, who trace descent through the mother’s line, as well as gynocratic nations (2008, p. 44). A gynocratic nation is a woman-centered social order that is shaped by a woman-centered cosmology and it is a social order where a gender-balanced worldview exists; in this worldview, gender is not perceived as binary opposites, but rather the notion of gender is related to complementary beings who co-create and maintain reciprocal and power balanced relationships in a rather egalitarian social order (Sellers, 2008, p. 51-53). Kay Olan, in her discussion, also tells of the importance of co-creation, reciprocity, and power-balance in the Haudenosaunee worldview. A worldview in which people value power balanced relationships is quite distinct and it stands in contrast to  mainstream U.S. culture’s Western worldview.

The Western worldview, on the other hand, is hierarchical and individualistic, in nature. Native American authors help me to understand how Western cosmologies shape the Western worldview. Thus, Christianity’s Adam and Eve story as well as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution dominate as origin stories in Western societies. Barbara Alice Mann (Seneca of Ohio) refers to the Euro-Western “metanarratives” of monotheism, sexism, and conflict” when discussing the Western worldview (2011, pp. 61-62).  In this narrative, Christianity’s Genesis story posits a single male creator who ordained man (Adam) to label and classify the world, subdue the earth and its creatures, and rule over women (because Eve sinned by disobeying God’s authority).  The Adam and Eve, God versus Satan narrative imposes ideas concerning a good versus evil dichotomy along with the notion of opposing sexes and this sets the stage for thinking about separateness and hierarchy. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, likewise, is an origin story, and it posits what Stephanie A. Sellers names a “hierarchy of existence” where at the bottom of the ranking scale and of least importance are the rocks and minerals, next in value are the plants, and then the animals reside at the top and this is where man sits at the very apex (2008, pp. 19-21.).  These stories, together, shape the overriding philosophy of the Western worldview, and they introduce notions of separateness (individualism) as well as the idea of hierarchy that often serves to exclude and oppress based on in-group/out-group categories.

The terms worldview and culture are related, yet they have distinct meanings. Kathryn A. Johnson, Eric D. Hill, and Adam B. Cohen of the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University explain the relationship between the terms culture and worldview. Thus, “[c]ulture, broadly defined, refers to a shared system of knowledge, language, social norms, values, and behaviors” whereas “[a] worldview involves how an individual knows and thinks about what is in the world” and “how he or she relates to the persons and things in the environment (Johnson et al., 2011.).”  There is some conceptual overlap with these terms, however, worldview refers to individual or collective “psychological, cognitive, and affective determinants of behavior and not the artifacts, technologies, or institutions that may be included when discussing [the collective nature of] culture (Chiu & Hong, 2006 as cited by Johnson et al., 2011.).” Thus, worldview better describes a person’s psychology or the study of mind and human behavior; and the traditional Haudenosaunee psych, if you will, is more egalitarian and collectivistic than it is hierarchal and individualistic, which describes the Western worldview.

Culture, or the shared language, knowledge systems, values, social norms, and behaviors, then, shapes worldview. Johnson et al. (2011) confirm this assertion when they cite Snibbe and Markus (2005) referring to the process of worldview formation as

sets of assumptions that are widely (though not universally) shared by a group of people, existing both in individual minds and in public artifacts, institutions, and practices. At the individual level, these cultural models provide implicit blueprints of how to think, feel, and act (p. 704).

Furthermore, according to what we commonly refer to as the Whorf hypothesis, language or a particular way of using words, shapes one’s worldview and thus one’s perceptions concerning reality.  That is to say, there is evidence that “people’s language predisposes them to focus on some things rather than others (Spradley & McCurdy, 2012, p. 49.).”  We can conclude, then, that the sharing of cosmologies (which can be thought of as blueprints for cultural schemata) simultaneously shape and express particular worldviews while passing theories on the origin of the universe from one generation to the next.  Cosmologies, therefore, are a source of legitimate knowledge in that they inform us of the foundations of a particular society’s worldview – the ways in which they understand reality. Thus, cosmologies are artifacts of culture, and when expressed through the practice of storytelling, they provide blueprints for shaping how people think and feel, as well as how people ought to relate to others.

Native American academics, such as Stephanie A. Sellers, tend to think that the woman-centered, gendered balanced, power-balancing Skywoman cosmology is an important factor in shaping the (traditionally) egalitarian social order of the Nations of the Haudenosaunee Peace Confederacy. However, there is a lack of scientific evidence that proves this.  Johnson et al.( 2011) report that although there is research concerning worldview, “interactions between religion and national cultures as transactions of different worldviews” is under-emphasized in the literature. Interestingly, cosmologies, in the context of ‘great religions’ are given status as components of “religions”, whereas cosmologies in Native American belief systems are often given a lower classification as being “quasi-religious” or simply labeled as folk or children’s stories. Some researchers, such as Bagele Chilisa (2012) and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) assert the classification system that places indigenous knowledge-keeping systems and traditional ways of life lower on a hierarchical scale (i.e. primitive) characteristic of the power dynamics involved in colonization practices and they call for decolonizing research methodologies as a way to correct the power imbalance. Johnson et al. (2011) call for expansion of psychological research in the realm of religion as a factor is shaping human behavior. This proposed research should include folk tales that are components of “quasi-religions,” as well. Perhaps with time, empirical research will find a way to “scientifically” confirm what Native Americans assert about the power of story to shape people’s attitudes and behavior.


Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous research methodologies. SAGE.

Johnson, K. A., Hill, E. D., & Cohen, A. B. (2011). Integrating the Study of Culture and Religion: Toward a Psychology of Worldview. Social & Personality Psychology Compass5(3), 137-152. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00339.x

Mann, B. A.  (2011).  Iroquoian women:  The Gantowisas.  Peter Lang.

Online Etymology Dictionary-Culture. (n.d.). Retrieved February 11, 2016, from

Sellers, S.  (2008).  Native American women’s studies.  New York:  Peter Lang.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books.

Spradley, J., McCurdy, D. (2011).  Conformity and conflict: Readings in cultural anthropology.  Pearson.

The Hadeshanownee Creation Story with Kay Olan. (n.d.). Retrieved February 11, 2016, from

Book Review – Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas

Iroquoian Women

Barbara Alice Mann discusses the roles of the Gantowisas (women) in Iroquoian culture, past and present. On the surface, it appears that the text focuses on the social, economic, political, and spiritual roles of the Gantowisas among the confederacy of Iroquois Nations whose ancestral territories covered not only New York State, but also portions of Canada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio; and now because of European colonization also expands into Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and beyond. However, this book is also a critique of other experts of Iroquoian history and culture. Thus, Mann compared primary source materials such as missionary tales, ethnographic research, and other early historical accounts to one another, but more importantly she compared them to the oral Keepings of voices that were often overlooked in the accounts recorded by male researchers – those of the Gantowisas. Mann found that much of the early research was incomplete, inaccurate, misinterpreted, and misrepresented by those who held or were influenced by a male-dominated society and who held a Western worldview. She named the results of such biased research “Euro-formed”.

The purpose of Mann’s work is to fill in the gap and to straighten out distorted perceptions; something that she explains is often referred to in Iroquoian cultures as untangling someone’s hair, and untangle she does. Mann made clear that although often missing from historical accounts, as Mother of the Nations, the Gantowisas were the leaders in their societies, acting with official capacity as mediators, counselors, and judges. Furthermore, they were the fire-keepers, faith-keepers, peacekeepers, and shamans or medicine women. Mann walked her readers through the Iroquoian historical record known as the Epochs of Time, showing that women have always been leaders in their society. In short, Mann revealed that the Gantowisas are and have always been the highly respected foundation of the Iroquoian world.

Another important element in Mann’s account of Iroquoian culture was that the society that the Gantowisas created was rather egalitarian. Specifically, the Iroquoian concept of a gendered world referred to complementary ‘twin’ forces that interact with one another as balanced pairs in order to maintain a cosmic balance. This served to shape a worldview where individuals, living in community, maintained cooperative and reciprocal relationships and where power was balanced. This is quite different from notions of opposing genders that shape a worldview centered on competition and conflict, and a good/evil dichotomy, and a hierarchical social order, which is the norm in Western thought and theory. This is one of the primary tenets of the text: Euro-formed interpretations and analysis often did not reflect the important distinctions between worldviews, and therefore researchers applied a Euro-Western twist, which Mann straightened out. Barbara Alice Mann is performing in the leadership role of Gantowisas today, as is demonstrated by her Iroquoian Woman shaping a more accurate and balanced record of Iroquoian culture and history.

Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas Foreword by Paula Gunn Allen Third Printing by Barbara A. Mann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

U.S. Stealing Land from Indians and Giving it to Foreign Corporate Interests

The U.S. is still attempting to grab land from the Indians, this time to give it away to foreign corporate interests. Please honor our treaty agreements by signing the attached petition, and then share the story and petition widely.

From a Dec 3 Huffington Post story,

WASHINGTON — When Terry Rambler, the chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, woke up Wednesday in Washington, D.C., it was to learn that Congress was deciding to give away a large part of his ancestral homeland to a foreign mining company.

Rambler came to the nation’s capital for the White House Tribal Nations Conference, an event described in a press announcement as an opportunity to engage the president, cabinet officials and the White House Council on Native American Affairs “on key issues facing tribes including respecting tribal sovereignty and upholding treaty and trust responsibilities,” among other things.

Continue reading here:

And sign the petition here:

Understanding Worldviews: Scientism Versus Other Ways of Knowing

What stands out the most to me is the contrast between indigenous ways of knowing and the ways of knowing that are prevalent in the dominant mainstream U.S. culture. For example, a general way to describe these different ways of knowing is to discuss them in terms of what Geert Hofstede described as the cultural dimensions of individualism versus collectivism. Sometimes, these ways of knowing are referred to as one’s worldview.

The notion of individualism means that members of western cultures tend to think of themselves as being independent. Competition, achievement, and personal goals are valued. Success is understood as being the result of individual effort, which implies that an individual is solely responsible for what one has accomplished and gained, even though others may have assisted them in achieving their success. In contrast, Indigenous Peoples describe a very different understanding their world. Often, they embrace a collectivistic culture that emphasizes interdependence. These different ways of knowing are at seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum, so to speak, and therefore I will discuss them in terms of indigenous ways of knowing versus mainstream (western) ways of knowing.

One of the most notable differences between indigenous thought and western thought concerns the notion of proper land use. More specifically, the western worldview has been shaped by a history that embraces the belief in a God-given edict for man to subdue the earth. This idea led to the notion that the land and all that is on it are natural resources. Land is to be held by private ownership, and used for the purpose of resource exploitation and capitalistic gain.

In contrast to western notions of private land ownership, Indigenous Peoples describe a very different relationship with the land. Terms such as Mother Earth, and Grandfather Rock, for example, describe a kinship relationship with the land. Whitt, Roberts, Norman and Grieves (2001) describe the relationship between people and the land as humans “belonging to the land”, not the other way around. In this indigenous worldview, Whitt et al. (2001) explain, humans are indebted to the earth and its many interrelated (interconnected and interdependent) systems, and therefore they have an important role to play. That is, humans have the important responsibility to act in a manner that promotes the continuance of interdependent relationships that will, in turn, provide for the humans and their progeny’s continued well being and existence.

Therefore, one of the most important indigenous values is respect for all beings, living and non-living. The complex knowledge-keeping systems that Indigenous Peoples have created present knowledge in a way that shapes a view of the world as being a web of interconnected and interdependent relationships. Those with an indigenous worldview are aware of and respect the Earth’s interconnected and interdependent systems, whereas the those with a western worldview are only recently beginning to understand this very complex reality.

This awareness of interrelatedness shapes ideas about the nature of reality for Indigenous Peoples in ways that are, perhaps, very difficult for others to understand. An example of such is the notion of humans being in a kin-type relationship with animals, plants and even rocks, and these beings have not only life, but also a spirit. Yet, this is exactly what Tinker (2004) explained in The Stones Shall Cry Out when he wrote that “Indians have a notion of interrelationship” and a respect “for all life forms” . . . “including rocks and trees”. Tinker took this idea one step further as he discussed how privilege (unearned advantage) was constructed when western society imagined, with their scientific reasoning, notions of evolution,

Rather than elevate human beings to the apex of an evolutionary ascendency (i.e., Darwin’s common descent), the lack of human privileging over these other life forms means that Indians understand that all life shares equal status and that value, personhood, and intelligence must be recognized in all life (Tinker, 2004).

This sentiment reveals the indigenous value of equality as being quite distinct from the sort of distorted notions of equality that allow for a competitive and hierarchical social order (where ideas shape systems that privilege some while disadvantaging others), as is the case with the western worldview.

Thus, we can see that the western individualistic worldview is deficient. The belief in individualism, perhaps, clouds people’s ability to see that humans are dependent on (and interdependent with others) and these relationships are important for their own well-being and survival. Therefore, people need to act with respect and responsibility toward all of their relations – including animals, plants, water, air, and yes, even rocks. This information about interdependence, respect, human responsibility, and true equality are present in indigenous knowledge systems, and indigenous ways of knowing shape a more egalitarian collectivistic worldview for the people who understand this complex reality.


Tinker, G. E. (2004). The stones shall cry out: consciousness, rocks, and Indians. Wicazo Sa Review, 19(2), 105-125.

Whitt, L. A., Roberts, M., Norman, W., & Grieves, V. (2001). Belonging to land: Indigenous knowledge systems and the natural world. Okla. City UL Rev., 26, 701.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


An Example of Scientism ‘Columbusing’ Indigenous Knowledge

Today, I read an article published at the Smithsonian website concerning Australian Aboriginal myths and legends about fire-devils (meteorites) leading to ‘fresh scientific discoveries’. It is an example of Western science ‘Columbusing’ Indigenous Knowledge (IK). The holders of the IK were not properly cited or credited but instead were only mentioned as ‘aboriginal guides’ and not by name, or ‘tribe’ in the article, whereas the Western scientists have been named and credited with this ‘discovery’. 

Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Scientism is the Western scientific method, which commonly discredits other ways of knowing, often naming it myths and legends, while it simultaneously capitalizes on the knowledge produced and preserved for generations, even hundreds or thousand of years, by Indigenous Peoples. Situating knowledge systems in this way is an exclusionary tactic that privileges some cultures and some people over others in a hierarchical system based on power and control.

The Smithsonian article is linked above and below.

To Find Meteorites, Listen to the Legends of Australian Aborigines

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How to Think Straight about Psychology by K.E. Stanovich – A Summary

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Keith E. Stanovich, PhD., Professor Emeritus of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, has authored a classic titled, How to Think Straight About Psychology (1986). Introductory courses in psychology, critical thinking, statistics, and research methodology often use this text, currently in its tenth edition (How to Think Straight, n.d.). According to Stanovich, and perhaps the primary reason for writing the text is the fact that, the public’s understanding of psychology is quite different from psychology as a modern science that explains the underlying functions that shape human attitudes and behavior. That is to say, to many people, the field of psychology is not a real science, but a pseudo-science instead. To think straight about psychology, then, is to understand that the field is, indeed, based on the scientific method, as are other sciences. Thus, this text describes people’s many misconceptions and reservations about the field of psychology and it offers its readers a true representation of the field as a modern and scientific psychology and it explains how this science functions.

How to Think Straight about Psychology (2010) opens chapter one with a discussion of what Stanovich named The Freud Problem, which is a general perception that psychology primarily consists of Freudian-style psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) based his approach to psychology primarily on theories that he developed by examining case studies that did not involve scientific empirical evaluation. Stanovich’s response to this public misconception about psychology in general, was to document the great diversity that exists in the field of psychology. The field of psychology includes more than fifty-four different divisions, where psychoanalysis is perhaps only about ten percent of the whole (Stanovich, 2010, p 3.). Additionally, he discussed how the scientific method, which uses systematic empiricism, publicly verifiable knowledge, and testable theories, describes the majority of the psychological studies that occur today. In this way, Stanovich made clear that the relatively new science of psychology is, in fact, a legitimate and true science and he provided much detail throughout the remaining chapters in order to convey this fact to his readers.

Stanovich first discussed how scientific psychological research uses the falisifiability criterion when formulating a scientific hypothesis. The falsifiability criterion establishes that “scientific theories must always be stated in such a way that the predictions derived from them could potentially be shown to be false” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 20.). This notion, perhaps, sounds counterintuitive at first, if one is thinking that an experiment ought to prove something true. In reality though, because the body of knowledge increases and changes over time, it is better to understand that the scientific method works to eliminate what is false in order to bring psychological knowledge “closer to the truth” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 34.). Therefore, a good hypothesis is a based on a testable theory, and it poses specific predictions of outcomes. Predictions that are more specific result in stronger support of the theory. False confirmations lead to new theories and new hypotheses, and in this way, they too, add to the body of scientific knowledge. A good hypothesis also interconnects with other scientific knowledge. In contrast to scientific falsifiable research methods that include specific predictions, Freud’s theories were case studies where theories were established after the observed behavior. The lack of scientific evidence is the reason that Freudian methods have generally fallen out of favor. Thus, an important aspect of scientific psychological research concerns the principle of falsifiability, which does not always result in finding the truth, but instead allows psychological analysis to get closer to the truth.

For that reason, a scientific psychological theory is not the same as essentialism, which requires finding an ultimate explanation of phenomena. Instead, “science advances,” according to Stanovich (2010), “by developing operational definitions” (p. 35.). Developing operational definitions is another concept that may be easily misunderstood. Scientists who are developing operational definitions are not coming to an agreement on the definition of words. Instead, an operational definition links concepts to observable and measurable events. This allows for replicability in experimentation that is also publicly verifiable. Operational definitions, which link concepts to measurable and observable behavior that can be publicly replicated, facilitate the growth of and widen the spread of the body of scientific knowledge.

There are some obstacles that interfere with people’s ability to understand the importance of a scientific psychological explanation of human behavior, though. One is the prevalence of the general population’s faith in personal testimonies and case studies as providing valid explanations. Yet, both personal testimonies and case studies have limited usefulness in scientific psychological studies. This is because there may be biases present in personal testimonies, such as the vividness effect, where the vividness of information makes select information more accessible from memory (Stanovich, 2010, p. 59.). Furthermore, the placebo effect may negatively affect and invalidate case studies and testimonials. For these reasons, testimonials and case studies are not scientific psychological studies. Therefore, testimonials and case studies may be useful in the development of theories and hypothesis, but because of their limitations, any evidence, regardless of how vivid and convincing it may be, might be invalid, and therefore such evidence calls for further scientific testing.

Another often-misunderstood concept concerning what shapes human behavior is the difference between correlation and causation. That is, the relationship between two variables is a correlation and there may or may not be a causal relationship between the two. It could be that there is no causation. Or else there may be a spurious correlation, where there exists a third variable, which is the causation (Stanovich, 2010, p. 76.). Additionally, correlations do not account for biases, such as a selection bias. Neither do correlations indicate the direction of causation, if such causation exists. Fortunately though, scientific experimentation, in which researchers manipulate variables, can determine whether a causal relationship exists in addition to detecting the direction of causation while at the same time ruling out selection bias when concluding the causes of human behavior.

Thus, scientists create experiments in which they manipulate variables to investigate correlations in order to discover causation. To elaborate, in an experiment, a scientist manipulates only one variable and holds the others constant while observing for effect. This eliminates the possibility of a third variable. To illustrate this, Stanovich (2010) told an interesting story about Clever Hans, which was a case where experimental control proved to be especially valuable in explaining a curious animal behavior (pp. 96-99.). Clever Hans was a horse who seemed to have superior intelligence in the area of mathematics. That is, clever in math only until observation revealed that Clever Hans was only as accurate as was the person testing him. Further scientific testing revealed that what Clever Hans was especially good at was reading human body language, and for this reason, he responded to subtle cues when tapping out ‘results to mathematical problems’. This story explains why scientific testing can reveal information about behavior where human intuition falls short. Experimentation, then, is essential in psychological research, yet, the necessary method of manipulating variables in order to reveal causation of behavior is sometimes difficult to perform in a natural setting, therefore scientists find creative solutions.

This is the reason that scientists create special conditions for the purpose of experimentation. The purpose of most psychological experiments is to test for “the underlying mechanisms that influence human behavior” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 120.). In this type of theory-driven research, it is not necessary to test in a real life situation, but rather with basic research of this sort, artificial situations prove beneficial. Less stringent random samples and representative situations (e.g. using college sophomores or even mice as the subjects of research) can be adequate. In contrast, direct application research requires more rigorous research samples and other methods such as cross-cultural research. Thus, the purpose of the psychological experiment determines its design such that theory-driven research requires less stringent samples and methods, than does direct-application psychological research.

It is also good to know that scientific psychological research has a different sort of framework than do other types of science. That is to say, an Einstein-like “breakthrough model of scientific progress” is not the best model for describing causes of human behavior (Stanovich, 2010, p.123.). This is because psychological research uses a framework that can be described as a “gradual-synthesis model,” which adheres to the connectivity principle and expresses converging evidence. Gradual synthesis describes the notion that science is “a cumulative endeavor” . . . “that is characterized by the participation of many individuals, whose contributions are judged by the extent to which they further our understanding of nature” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 126.). Thus, in scientific psychological research, instead of producing ‘breakthroughs’, each experiment, although it may not be a definitive explanation, connects with other conclusions that act in a collective fashion that rules out some reasons, and by this, scientific psychological research brings explanations of human behavior closer to the truth.

Another important aspect that needs consideration with regard to scientific psychological research is that determinants of human behavior are never singular in cause. Stanovich cautions his readers to remember that human behaviors are “multiply determined” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 145.). Thus, because of the complexity involved in human interactions, studying human behaviors in isolation could result in misleading outcomes. Therefore, it is important to remember that human behaviors do not have only one single cause, but instead the determinants of human behaviors consist of complex interactions, and for this reason, a scientific theory and explanation will recognize that behaviors have multiple causes.

Sometimes, thinking about psychological analysis of human behavior poses difficulty in that the reasoning involved in scientific conclusions is, at times, difficult to understand. This is because the probabilistic conclusions of scientific psychological research are generalizations about human behavior, and therefore do not apply in all cases. Additionally, when thinking about probabilistic information, it is critical to take into consideration sample size when analyzing the information (Stanovich, 2010, p. 161.). It is important to remember that a larger sample size provides greater accuracy. Furthermore, when thinking about probabilities, some people tend to see correlations where none exists, such as what takes place in gambling (Stanovich, 2010, p. 163-164.). Vivid testimonials can seem more compelling than statistical information, too. Even with the challenges in understanding scientific probabilistic information, the generalized information about human behavior that it provides is nevertheless useful in that it can predict group trends, even when such does not apply to individual cases.

A final obstacle that sometimes impedes the correct interpretation of scientific psychological predictions of human behavior is the probability of chance. The role of chance in psychology is often misunderstood. A degree of chance and coincidence play a role in the accuracy of predictions, and for this reason, individual predictions about human behavior are therefore impossible. Therefore it should be strongly affirmed that, “[c]linical prediction doesn’t work” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 180.). Thus, it is necessary to know that scientific psychological predictions are not accurate for individual cases, but instead, such predictions express aggregate group statistical trends, known as actuarial predictions.

With all of these misconceptions concerning the field of psychology and the nature of the science it employs for its research, it is not surprising then, that the discipline suffers from a negative image. Popular culture, for example, shapes negative stereotypes concerning the field of psychology, e.g., the prevalence of parapsychology and self-help literature presented as psychology in mass media outlets – “pseudoscience masquerading as psychology” as Stanovich named it (Stanovich, 2010, p. 186.). So too, does the fact that many psychological studies are interdisciplinary in nature, and when critical new knowledge is shared with the public, it is sometimes presented as being the findings of a more ‘respectable’ science. The evidence of the effect of television violence on children’s behavior presented by the American Medical Association is one such example (Stanovich, 2010, p. 192.). Not only that, sometimes psychologists, themselves, engage in behaviors that give the discipline a negative image, too. Stanovich (2010) noted, “psychology has a kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality” where “[e]xtremely rigorous science exists right alongside pseudoscientific and anti-scientific attitudes” (p. 199.). Psychologists, then, need to actively work to improve this negative image of the discipline of psychology.

Other areas of society have established a means to improve psychology’s image. Stanovich (2010) wrote that the Supreme Court has led the way in the effort to improve psychology’s image when it established, in Daubert vs. Merrell Dow, that four factors must considered when deliberating to allow expert testimony; paraphrased, they are:

  • The ‘testability’ of the theoretical basis for the opinion (falsifiability)
  • The error rates associated with the approach (probabilistic prediction)
  • Whether or not the technique or approach concerning the opinion has been based on peer review (public knowledge)
  • Whether or not the technique or approach is generally accepted by the scientific community (principle of converging evidence) (p. 204.).

In this way, “unscientific and unfounded claims concerning human behavior, such as introspection, personal experience, and testimonials are all considered inadequate tests of claims about human nature” (Stanovich, 2010, p, 204.). This court ruling helps to ensure that when people visit a psychotherapist, or when a school counselor tests a learning-disabled child, for example, they are not engaging with unsubstantiated pseudo-scientific treatments, but they are engaging with therapies based on scientific evidence, instead.

Thus, although the discipline of psychology is often misunderstood and currently carries a negative image, it is in fact, a true science that provides valuable benefits to society. Scientific psychological research investigates solvable problems by the use of empirical methods to falsify what is untrue in order to get closer to the truth concerning the determinants of human behavior. To do this, the scientists develop operational definitions, which link concepts to measurable and observable behavior that can be publicly replicated; and by this, they facilitate the growth of and widen the spread of the body of scientific knowledge. Science is different from testimonials or case studies in that it uses experimentation, in which variables are manipulated in order to test theories and hypotheses, which can determine whether a causal relationship exists in correlations. Scientific psychological research integrates the results of each experiment with other conclusions that act in a collective fashion that rule out some reasons, and by this, scientific psychological research brings explanations of human behavior closer to the truth. Scientific theories and explanations developed by psychologists will recognize that determinants of human behaviors are complex and that they have multiple causes and their findings will recognize this. That is why their findings are represented as generalizations and probabilities that are useful in the prediction of group trends only. Understanding how to think about psychology can help each of us to better evaluate psychological claims that we encounter in popular culture, so that we may distinguish between true scientific psychological research and that of unfounded pseudo-scientific claims. In this way, the scientific discipline of psychology can help all of us to better understand the underlying causes of human behavior in addition to the world events that take place around us.


How To Think Straight About Psychology. (n.d.). Psych Retrieved September 22, 2014, from

Stanovich, K. E. (2010). How to think straight about psychology. Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.