Throughout the many years I have taught Native American traditions, I have encountered a plethora of colleagues who have been all too willing to dismiss a Native precontact intellectual tradition. Recently a colleague told me that, in spite of Native luminaries such as Black Elk and Tecumseh, there was no historic tradition of philosophy among American Indians. Qualifying his remarks, he quickly added that there was nothing similar to the philosophical discourse characteristic of the ancient Greeks present among precontact American Indians. Given that this arrogance is beyond reason, I was disposed to restraint in my reply. It is simply wrong to conclude that philosophy, the love of wisdom, is not intrinsic to all human intellectual traditions. So I suggested to my colleague that he was putting the cart before the horse, championing method over substance. The failure of Native elders to cast their wisdom within the genre of Platonic dialogue does not lessen the importance and value of their intelligence. Form is no substitute for value.
This denial of Native American intellectual traditions is nothing new among Westerners and their repeated failure to acknowledge alternative, non-Western epistemologies and wisdom-centered traditions. What is disturbing, however, is the presence of this mentality among American intellectuals after thirty-plus years of embracing American Indian Studies within the academy. Although Native American philosophies are not ensconced in dialogues characteristic of Plato and his intellectual associates from ancient Greece, wisdom is highly evident and manifest in American Indian oral narrative traditions. In part, this disregard of Native wisdom is centered at the origin of Western philosophy and Plato’s response to the spoken word.