Christian and non-Christian creationist movements

When the term “creationist” is mentioned, most people take the term to be analogous with the term “Christian Creationist”.  However, there are many different religiously-driven creationist movements, all attacking evolutionary theory and other scientific ideas, and all working under different religious frameworks.  Therefore, while the Christian Creationist is perhaps the most familiar figure to most readers, many people from non-Christian belief systems can also be considered “creationists”, albeit with differing beliefs.

Some of these non-Christian creationist groups (as well as many Christian ones) operate outside of the United States.  For example, there are Hindu creationists operating in Asia, and Islamic creationists operating in Turkey.  Like Christian creationists, these groups attack not only the science of evolution, but also the perceived threat that evolutionary theory creates towards moral values. For more on these groups, see Numbers 418-427.  creationist movements are truly a global phenomenon.

However, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus on an often overlooked creationist movement operating within the borders of the United States.  The most visible antievolution movements within the United States include the fundamentalist Christian Young Earth Creationist movement and the less overtly religious Intelligent Design movement.  However, these movements (as well as Islamic, Hindu, and Jewish movements) are not the only such movements operating within America.  We’re going to look at something more local. 

Therefore, let’s turn our attention towards Native American creationist movements.  Like other religiously driven antievolution movements, Native American creationists seek to challenge science when it challenges their own religious belief systems.  However, unlike the Creation Science movement (an expression of Christian Young Earth Creationism), which has failed legal attempts to challenge evolution (in this case, in the classroom), Native American creationists have a possible legal structure to successfully challenge scientists.

This legal structure is known as the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, which allows tribes to claim ancestral remains (as well as artifacts) held by museums and agencies that receive federal funding (Mayor 302).  NAGPRA is intended to protect Native American interests, especially in cases where museums have historically collected large amounts of Native American artifacts and remains, often without tribal permission.  While NAGPRA does not currently cover fossils (305) unless these fossils are a piece of an obvious artifact such as a medicine bundle (the status of fossils is defined under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), passed in 1979, see Mayor 305), some people, such as Allison Dussias, feel that fossil remains should be protected as cultural items, due to the role that fossils play in some Native American myths (Mayor 305).  Therefore, the status of fossils, while currently legally defined by ARPA, could hypothetically be altered at some level in the future.

In some cases, considerable controversies can develop around ancient human remains found within the United States.  For a quick case study, take Kennewick Man.  This skeleton, found in the bank of the Columbia River, was a relatively significant find at about 9200 years old.   Under NAGPRA, a group of tribes filed for custody of the skeleton for burial, while the scientists who discovered the skeleton sought to study the remains. Eventually, a federal judge ruled that the skeleton was too old to establish a “cultural affiliation”, thus nullifying the tribal claim to this skeleton (Mayor 395).

This incident is instructive because it highlights Native American thoughts towards science in general.  The Umatilla, one of the five tribes who sought custody of Kennewick Man’s remains, offer an especially good look at these issues.  Kennewick Man was initially believed to be most closely related to Europeans; later studies suggest a closer affiliation to the Ainu of Hokkaido (the northern island of Japan) (Schnee 1999).  Both of these interpretations of Kennewick Man can be interpreted to contradict the creation story of the Umatilla, who believe that their ancestors have always lived in the Americas . Some Umatilla members view any study that contradicts Umatilla beliefs as inherently disrespectful (Egan 1996), bringing to mind Christian Creationist beliefs about evolution. 

When cases such as this are considered, it is easy to see how NAGPRA can be used as a legal tool to protect Native American belief systems; remains that seem to contradict a tribe’s creation story could be sought under NAGPRA for reburial.  Given the language of NAGPRA, it is plausible that some such challenges could be won by Native American peoples.  Therefore, unlike Christian Creationists, whose legal strategy has been overtly defeated at the Supreme Court level, it is possible for Native Americans to win some legal battles over remains which seem to contradict their own creation stories (the case of Kennewick Man was initially a victory for the coalition of tribes involved until a federal judge overturned the ruling for the reasoning stated above; Mayor 395).  If the legal structure shifts to incorporate fossil remains, a shift which would prove difficult (and I would guess unlikely), then the results could be drastic.  However, NAGPRA is not meant to challenge archaeology and anthropology, but rather to protect Native American interests. In the vast majority of cases, NAGPRA is utilized as it was meant to be.

Therefore, an assumption that all “creationists” are Christian Creationists is drastically flawed.  There are many different Native American groups, all with their own belief systems.  There are large-scale movements by Muslim and Hindu creationists as well (as alluded to early on).  There are plenty of antievolution movements that one could focus on.  Therefore, whenever someone implies that there are only two sides in a discussion over evolution (evolutionists and Christian Creationists), their position is irreparably weak.  When I use the phrase “the Creation-evolution struggle” in posts, I’m referring specifically to Christian creationist movements, not because they are the only antievolutionist movements, but because in those cases I am referring explicitly to these movements.  Given the comparably mainstream coverage of Christian creationist movements, they tend to be the most well-known.  However, they are not the only such movements in existence.
Works Cited:
Egan, T. Tribes Stop Study of Bones that Challenge History. National Report, The New York Times, September 30, 1996.
Mayor, A. Fossil Legends of the First Americans. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005.
Numbers, RL.  The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006.
Schnee, K. Make No Bones About It. The Tech. Online Edition, Vol. 119, Issue 52, October 22, 1999.

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