Intersections: Where Science, Religion, and Advocacy Meet

Address given by Dr. Ann Milliken Pederson, April 18, 2016, Trinity Lutheran Church, Camp Hill.

Dr. Pederson teaches Christian theology at Augustana University and is currently working with colleagues at both Augustana and Gettysburg Seminary to integrate science into seminary education.

Reading of Genesis: God to Adam: “Where are you?”

_DSC8767Where are we? and Where are we going? To find out we will take a literal and theological road trip.

Places are like enculturated texts that require interpretation. We shape our world as we shape our place within it, and this involves processes, perceptions, people, and power. Contemporary theorists who work with the politics of place refer to these as “geographies of struggle and resistance.”[1] No one place has a single meaning. People interpret places differently. While that may be obvious, it needs to be formally recognized to understand the power of place. We can wipe out the identity of someone or somewhere by simply removing them from a map. Places shape everything about human identity.  From our cultural to our geographical landscapes, we know whom we are by explaining where we are from. I’ll share a brief example from SD where the naming of the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River is creating controversy and has now gone to the Federal level.

Many cultural critics claim that the world is in a crisis of place—borders, boundaries, and politics shape who is in and who is out of the world’s power games. The stories of science and religion share the boundaries, borders, situations, dimensions and locations of our lives. Questions for us to consider: When and where is a complicated plot between local and global, then and now, over and under? What are the maps that we take through these journeys?  What are the cartographies of our cultures of science and religion? What are the maps that bypass the “underground” places? What are we missing in those stories? Learning about my local geography has helped me to realize that like the written texts of religion and science, the geographical ones require a visual hermeneutics: a kind of visual mapping if you will. To construct our visual hermeneutics for our theological road trip, I propose that we utilize the recent work of Lutheran theologian and ethicist, Karen Bloomquist, entitled: Seeing, Remembering, Connecting. Bloomquist’s three categories provide helpful directions for our trip as we seek to answer the question: Where are we?  From Karen Bloomquist

  1. To move beyond our illusions that blind us to the suffering of the neighbor, Blomquist suggests that we practice Subversive Seeing: This seeing is Christological by nature: “To ‘see God’ in Jesus’ act of healing is to recognize the truth of the Word becoming flesh, a dynamic truth that challenges assumptions, systems, and structures of privilege.” 49 This multi-facted seeing enables a kind of transcendence through remembering and offering new visions and perspectives. Our horizons shift: from the illusory to the empirical and incarnate. We are challenged to see not simply as spectators but as actors (55)
  2. To counter our systemic amnesia we practice Subversive Remembering: looking at who or what has been forgotten. This subversive remembering has both a critical and constructive task. We must find out who the losers are and were in history and remember their story. Bloomquist draws heavily on the Eucharistic Anamnesis: where we recall bodily, spatial, communal memories. Remembering who God is and calling God to that task.
  3. Subversive connection: calls us to community to notice differences but get beyond an us/them perspective. I am because you are. Re-ligion-to rebind, reconnect. Love your enemies.


So, on this trip: We will see, remember, and connect as practices that shape who we are as a church called to love the neighbor.


The Road Trip


In order to explore this further, we must start from somewhere, and so I’ll tell you some stories that take you to my own location—to the techno-scapes of urban and rural South Dakota.  I live in a rectangular state: the landscapes that we “fly over,” that we “drive by,” that we ignore. Defined by urban dictionary: “The middle class Midwest that is typically “flown over” by scheduled airlines in their hops between their major hubs. The bounds of flyover country vary from urbanite to urbanite. People from Chicago tend to think it runs from the Mississippi River to the Rockies (and also Indiana). Bay Area, it’s the San Joaquin Valley east to Chicago. New York, it’s anything that is not within an hour’s drive of The City.”

Ray’s nightmare came true: His plane made an emergency landing in Tulsa, the capital of flyover country, and his New York accent got him beaten by the locals.


In these Dakota plains, however, I have found something in the nothing; this has been a kind of spiritual genesis. The plains and hills of the Dakotas  reveal a great deal more than we can see on a first glance. I have walked through and driven along areas that some people consider to be simply a kind of emptiness or worst yet, nothingness. Yet, amidst the emptiness is plentitude of place and people. And yet, this plentitude is also at risk.

The vast grasslands in which many species lived and flourished have simply disappeared, acres at a time. (At the same time that the grasslands and the buffalo disappeared, so did the Native peoples who lived there. That’s part of the story yet to come). Power lines, fences, invasive species, interstates, and rows of corn and soybeans abound. Larry Rasmussen, a Lutheran ethicist, makes my point even more bluntly: “The day-to-day practice of science, technology, and industry features human mind and culture as the creators, controllers, and high-tech bio-cowboys who work ecosystems and genomes as they would their ranchlands.” [2] South Dakota is also home to exciting cutting edge research from medicine and biotechnologies in the Sioux Falls area to research in particle physics and dark matter in the small town of Lead, South Dakota. In this presentation, we will take a brief road trip to both sides of the state. How will we know where to go?  Since I am notoriously direction impaired, it is imperative that I start with a map. But which one should I use? David Livingstone, geographer and cultural critic, notes that maps are “controlled fictions.”[3] For example, most of the maps that were drawn by Euro-Americans had lines to obliterate the Native American nations and cultures. Things haven’t changed a great deal. Today, the straight and narrow four lanes of Interstate 90 bypass the reservations of Pine Ridge and the Rosebud. One has to go out of “their way” to go through the reservations.

The Eastern Edge of South Dakota: Sanford Research

We begin our journey on the eastern edge of South Dakota. The first destination—the corporate headquarters of Sanford Research—is located on the very edge of Sioux Falls near the interstate. I drove in on the road marked by a sign in the corporate Sanford blue that simply said, “Road to the Cure.” The sign is placed near the corporate Logos that reads: “dedicated to the work of health and healing.” Once a month I drive from my home to this sprawling corporate landscape that is surrounded by white rail fences, duck ponds, and neatly trimmed grasses. When I enter the building, I often feel like an interloper in this world of scientific research. But that is my purpose, to come as the “outside” member on the institutional research board (IRB) for Sanford. On the website, Sanford claims the following: “We are changing the landscape of science and health care. Our growing team of more than 200 researchers is focused on identifying new therapies and treatments for some of the world’s leading health concerns. It’s our goal to find solutions that will cure illness, eradicate disease and improve the lives of people in our communities and around the world.”[4] Sanford is literally and figuratively changing the landscape of the area through the technologies that all scientists use on the roads to finding new cures. I am limited by what I don’t know, so I can only imagine when I enter this building what happens in the labs. But I do know that the research in medicine and healthcare have changed the view of what it means to be human. In a few months my doctors will move to the new Imagenetics Building where genomics will partner with internal medicine for a new landscape of personalized medicine.

Not far from Sanford Research, about 25 miles on the edge of Canton, South Dakota, are the remains of a different kind of institution that sought in its own way to improve the human condition. Between the third and fourth hole on the Hiawatha Golf Club is a small cemetery with the bodies of those who had been kept as inmates in the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. I’ve read a lot about this place, but still had not been to the site. It’s not easy to find. Surrounded by a split rail fence is a large grave marker with the names of dozens of American Indians who died at the asylum. There are 121 bodies buried in the graveyard, in the middle of a golf course, on the outskirts of Canton, which is the seat of Lincoln County. In 1899, a local U.S. senator, Richard Pettigrew, brought the federal funds to start this institution. When the newly developing field of eugenics was coming of age, many people in the United States believed that one way to rid the country of “troublesome Indians” was to claim that they were “insane” and could be sent to the asylum. Hundreds of American Indians from around the U.S. were sent to the Canton asylum.

The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians was intended to be a hospital dedicated solely to the “mental illness problem” among Native Americans. What it became was a kind of warehouse for storing “problem” Indians. When the asylum was visited in its later years, the following was noted in a report from Minnesota Public Radio: “The Indian affairs commissioner under President Roosevelt called reports of the asylum reminiscent of the terrible indictments Charles Dickens leveled against English poorhouses and schools.” More information about the asylum’s operations came from the writings of Dr. Samuel Silk, the clinical director of the country’s premier psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, D.C. He wrote that children were abused; adults were secluded in isolation for years. The asylum did not even meet minimum standards of care. A recent art show at The Center for Western Studies tells this story. I also encourage you to read The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo by Kent Nerburn.

Moving Westward Across the Missouri

As soon as you see the Missouri River, you can cross the threshold into what is known by many white Euro-Americans as the Wild West, the American Frontier. Much of the white culture still reflects the theme: how the west was won. It is still celebrated in the artwork posted in the cafeteria of Wall Drug and in events like the annual Sturgis Bike Rally. The billboards on Interstate 90 link the wild west with the gambling in Deadwood, SD where you are told that winning monies isn’t the only kind of luck you can have there.

The borders of the frontier were defined by the white Euro-American culture as the United States eventually pushed their boundaries westward. In 1869, a treaty was signed at Fort Laramie between several Indian nations and the U.S. Government promising ownership of the Black Hills to the tribes. The treaty was broken almost as soon as it was made. Along with the broken treaty came the desire by certain U.S. officials to “civilize” the Indian tribes by forcing Christianity upon them.

In 1874, General George Armstrong Custer led a group of soldiers to the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold that sent thousands of people into towns like Custer, Deadwood, and Lead. Deadwood, South Dakota, became known for its gambling, prostitutes, and violence. Ironically, those “glory” days of the Old West are reenacted every day in Deadwood as actors portray the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok. As a more positive aside, I have also learned about PHOEBE HEARST—who was a philanthropist, funded trips for research, helped the people in Lead with healthcare/education/culture, and was an early “feminist” and worked for women’s rights. She is a grand example of how religion, science, advocacy and place come together for the good of the neighbor.

Today, the towns of Deadwood and particularly Sturgis (during the annual Bike Rally) continue to struggle with violence, sex trafficking and issues related to gambling. Along with the expansion westward, came the expansion of the Christian message. Eventually, many Christians started missions in South Dakota and other places westward. Native Americans were no longer allowed to practice their own religion and were often forced to convert or suffer drastic consequences. So, it is no wonder that when once again white people with lots of money come to the sacred lands in the Black Hills that the American Indians are angry and suspicious once again. This time the rush is not for Gold but for exploration and experiments of the cosmos, particularly the study of dark matter and neutrinos.

The Western Edge of South Dakota: Sanford Research

Nestled in the Black Hills in Lead, South Dakota, is a new research lab, the Sanford Underground Research Laboratory, hereby noted as SURF. From the website: “The Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota, advances our understanding of the universe by providing laboratory space deep underground, where sensitive physics experiments can be shielded from cosmic radiation. Researchers at the Sanford Lab explore some of the most challenging questions facing 21st century physics, such as the origin of matter, the nature of dark matter and the properties of neutrinos.”[5] These words are on display at the visitors center:

“We gaze at the infinite blackness of the night sky, watching the twinkle of stars, the glow of planets and moons painted in two dimensions by our imaginations. One person feels awe at its beauty, another sees an expression of faith, yet another wonders at life elsewhere—perhaps you have a different reaction entirely.


From the earliest maps of constellations, to rock monuments that traced the sun’s path through the heavens, to the Hubble telescope capturing images from low-Earth orbit, humans have done their best to explain what may be out there.


The mysteries of the universe are at the core of the science in the Sanford Underground Research Facility. The rock beneath our feet shields experiments that we’ve constructed deep underground to escape the cosmic noise of the universe. Every day, scientists from around the world and Sanford Lab personnel go to work knowing that the next big discover to occur there, 4850 feet underground, could exponentially increase our knowledge of the magnificent universe above our heads.”


SURF is situated in the former Homestake Gold Mine that ceased operations in 2003. The company donated the land for use as an underground lab and in 2006 T. Denny Sanford donated around $70 million to the project along with monies from the South Dakota State Legislature. In 2011 the Department of Energy, in cooperation with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, agreed to support ongoing science operations at Sanford Lab, while also exploring “how to use the underground research facility for other longer-term experiments.”[6] So, from one of end of the state to the other, exciting scientific research marks the eastern and western borders of South Dakota.

The Lands and Peoples In Between

What lies between the borders, however, is often hidden and goes unnoticed by most South Dakotans. Interstate 90 cuts from east to west but doesn’t go through the reservations. Over the last four years, I have traveled many times from East to West, on Interstate 90 and occasionally on the roads less traveled (Highway 18, Highway 44). What I have felt in deeper ways on these trips is an intensified dissonance between the monies and research of places like the Sanford Underground Research Facility and Sanford Research in Sioux Falls and the genocide and displacement of Native Americans.

Sometimes when we head back from the Black Hills we have taken other side roads. We pass through Wounded Knee, Potato Creek, up through Wanblee. Russell Means, a famous American Indian activist, actor, and member of AIM (American Indian Movement) was born in Wanblee. That’s part of the problem; we usually just pass through and don’t stay. We really have grown to dislike the interstate, lots of construction, too much traffic, and surely not a way to see the landscapes we love. But they are ways to move, and in many cases have been set up to bypass sections of the state that are not as popular . . . the small rural areas where Native Americans and whites share poverty, heat, and long distances to services like hospitals and schools. Distance alone is a healthcare hazard. Certain places in the world create health risks for those who live here.[7] Simply by living in certain geographical areas can mean that you are at greater risk for health related problems. There are academic disciplines devoted to cartographies of illness: about property, purity, boundaries, frontiers, institutions, power, and definitions of place. Lots of people know about the maps of the human genome. Few people know about the high rates of cervical cancer on reservations in South Dakota. Initial results conducted by a team of researchers in South Dakota found that American Indian women living on reservations have a higher incidence of HPV infection. The background for the research explained that: “High-risk strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) cause cervical cancer. American Indian (AI) women in the Northern Plains of the U.S. have significantly higher incidence and mortality rates for cervical cancer than White women in the same geographical area.”[8] It’s simply hazardous to one’s health to live in certain areas of the world. And many cannot “escape” from their home, but as they live in their homeland, must bear the consequences that others have created for them.

In my research I came across an article about this kind of cultural dissonance between the Sanford Lab and local tribes. The article appeared in Nature a few years ago. Here is an excerpt from the article:

“Deep in South Dakota’s Black Hills, engineers are halfway through pumping water from a 2.6 km deep mineshaft where the town of lead. By 2015, US researchers hope, this watery hole will have dried out and become home to one of the country’s biggest science infrastructure projects: the deep underground science and engineering laboratory, or D USC L. But the US $500 million plan has found one of its most difficult tasks on the surface. The struggle to meet goals to work with local Native Americans, whose cooperation is vital to keeping the project on track . . ..  The local Native American tribes are wary. Long ill treated by the federal government, who seized the land for its gold more than a century ago and then polluted it with mine runoff, they’re cautious about the new influx of government scientists. Physicists visited local powwows to stamp out rumors about Homestake being turned into a nuclear waste dump. Passion and bitterness still runs strong, even among the Native American students.”[9]

So many of the problems that Native Americans face are invisible on the surface to most people in South Dakota. People like me need to discover that living merely at surface level will not help us to face the disparities, prejudices, and problems on the reservations.  As I read more and more from Indian authors (from Vine Deloria, Allison Hedge Coke, Tink Tinker, Clara Sue Kidwell) and talk with Native American colleagues I am struck how very little I know. While I think that I know some of the statistics, I realize that I really don’t know or understand. I’m still at the surface, and going deeper requires time and it feels risky. For example, here are a few things that are important to know:

  1. Regarding health issues on Pine Ridge reservation: “Some figures state that the life expectancy on the Reservation is 48 years old for men and 52 for women. Other reports state that the average life expectancy on the Reservation is 45 years old. These statistics are far from the 77.5 years of age life expectancy average found in the United States as a whole. According to current USDA Rural Development documents, the Lakota have the lowest life expectancy of any group in America. The infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent and is about 300% higher than the U.S. national average. Cervical cancer is 500% higher than the U.S. national average.”
  2. Rarely if ever are Native Americans consulted first about their world views when projects like SURF are brought into lands that they consider sacred. They are hardly ever asked what is important to them and what they might contribute to a project like SURF.
  3. The different tribes’ cosmologies are often written off as mere myths by whites. (maybe a link to the Lakota Star book)
  4. The four Presidential headsat Mount Rushmore are an insult to many Native Americans.
  5. Local tribes plead with people during the Sturgis Bike Rally to leave their sacred sites like Bear Butte alone so that Native Americans can worship in peace.
  6. Native Americans are not “anti-science” as often stereotyped by the Euro-American culture. They are rightfully wary when the science and research of the dominant culture always comes at their expense and with little attention paid to the lands that were stolen from them.
  7. Some of the poorest counties in the United States are in South Dakota. “Ziebach County, encompassed completely by the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, has held the country’s highest poverty rate since 2004,” according to an article in 2012 in the Rapid City Journal.[10]
  8. Less than 1 percent of scientists are Native American.
  9. There’s a great deal more to American Indian cultures than poverty and crime. A few years ago Diane Sawyer did an expose about the poverty on Pine Ridge. [11] However, many of the young people on Pine Ridge were concerned that once again all that the world would see was this expose and they composed a rebuttal to her called “We’re More Than That.”[12] A colleague of mine at Augustana College who is Lakota and from the Standing Rock Reservation said this is what we should know about her people.

I have a long way to go. Like most people in South Dakota, I need to listen and learn. I’m trying. For example, this last year  I was able to visit some of the sites of the sacred geography of the Lakota: Bear Butte Lake, Devils Tower, Inyan Kara and Harney Peak, the racetrack, Reynolds Prairie and other upland prairies, rapid Creek and Eastern Black Hills, Willow Creek, war bonnet Creek and other locales south of the Black Hills. It took several days on back roads to locate places, to take some time at them, and to read about them. Many Lakota, Cheyenne, and Kiowa peoples believe their origins were in the stars and that they return to the stars. The tribal studies of constellations and of the skies is very sophisticated. They also know that humans are but a part of the whole landscape of the heavens and the earth. What the Lakota observed in the heavens is mirrored in the peoples and lands on earth. Astronomy, cosmology, and theology come together in a way of life. In a recent article, one of the tribal leaders who visited the Sanford Underground Research Lab noted: “’Our tribes’ history and knowledge—and the Native way of knowing—is validated by the science, especially when we’re talking about astrophysics and star people, Russell notes. ‘Natives seem to have knowledge about what is really already there and this science is actually compatible,’ he adds.”[13]

End and Beginning of the Trip/Destination: So, where do I go now? Who I am is where I am.

When I was in junior high school, I remember hearing about the American Indian Movement and its occupation of Wounded Knee. [7] I had also read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, published in 1971. Now, almost 40 years later, I went to an art exhibition entitled, “Interpretations of Wounded Knee 1973 and 1890,” at the Center for Western Studies at Augustana College. [8] Both Native American and non-Native American artists portrayed the slaughter of hundreds of American Indians by the 7th Cavalry. A student had told me to look for one painting. I couldn’t miss it. She was as deeply moved and disturbed by it as I was. The title of it is “Still Hanging on the Res.” Nightmarish blues and blacks provide a background against which I immediately saw the steeple of a white church (which was at the site at Wounded Knee), pale bones of a skeleton, and finally what I didn’t want to see: the figure of an American Indian male, crucified. The artist’s statement was simply this: “We crucify Christ every day by not dealing with Native American disparity and rights.”[9] I stood before the painting for a while, unable to move away from the power of the images. We continue to crucify Christ every day by not attending to the disparities and rights of all who are our neighbors, both human and non-human. Christians have always claimed that the cross is not the final word that God’s grace and love will prevail. But this painting reminded me that the very theology and church that I have loved is also, in part, to blame for the tragedy at Wounded Knee. Anytime, that in the name of Christ, Christians withhold the grace and love of God, that Christians, slaughter and abuse others in the name of Christ, the message of the gospel is nullified.

Nothing and no one is simply dispensable, of no value. I hope that I never forget what happened at Wounded Knee, a people and their place were eliminated because they were seen as indispensible to the goals of another people and place. Anytime we see peoples and their lands as simply something to “fly over,” or view it all as a barren wasteland as we drive through on the highways, we will find it easy to ignore and exploit others. We have to learn how to notice again, to see what is around us. If crucifixion means that we ignore and do not deal with our neighbors, then resurrection might mean that we listen closely and pay careful attention, so that we really get to know who our neighbors are. We can only understand who we are as we place ourselves in others’ stories, paying attention to the details. This means digging deep beneath the surface of our prejudices and stereotypes.

The stereotypes that all white are ignorant racists and that Indians are nature worshippers who reject Western science are inaccurate and don’t reflect the complexities of the landscape. Stereotypes leave everyone at the surface. But maybe at these two ends of the state of South Dakota, opportunities exist for new ways that two cultures that have often been at war could come together to literally mine the gold of these scientific explorations to learn more about what we have in common. Here is what I have learned about “where” from my brief exploration into the cultures and knowledge that I have gained from Native Americans and why I believe that this is important to the stories we tell about who we are—whether in religion or science.

  1. Native Americans have been pushed out of their place. And these lands are sacred and shape their identity. Whether through acts of genocide, or by simply erasing the place off the map, Native Americans have deep spiritual reasons to be suspect of the dominant white culture.
  2. People can become confined to locations, limiting their mobility through the use of stereotypes and caricatures of each other. Knowledge is restricted through the power of borders and boundaries. People who are considered “others” are put in their place.
  3. Many Christians ignore the present plights of their place on earth by trying to get to heaven, which they figure is their true spiritual home.
  4. We disconnect the land from our bodies, ignoring that who we are is where we are.
  5. That the notion of human being and becoming is part of a complicated, twisted, story line that involves multiple plots, characters, and sets.
  6. That to be “embodied” is to be an environment.[14]
  7. That the concept of “nature” is more complex, messy, bigger, and deeper than we often claim.
  8. That there is no “innocent” standpoint in the world.
  9. That who we are is where we are, that power and presence coincide.
  10. Hope resides in seeing, remembering, and connecting.

Hope is in the weaving of new narratives. Several tribal leaders have visited the Sanford Underground Research Lab. John Yellow Bird Steel stated this as he emerged from the depths of the lab:” It is our belief that our ancestors came into this world for an opening of what is now known as the wind Cave in the sacred Black Hills. After my experience of going underground, I feel it as if I have just been reborn.” And in the same article in the Lakota Country Times, the following kinds of data were reported: a. Future plans for the SURF educational/visitor center which will include Native American history and cosmologies, b. a research facility and proposed internship and scholarship opportunities for the tribal college students, c. the gear up Sanford Lab partnership which began in 2009, d. Red cloud Indian schools combine science and journalism pilot program e. the Crow Creek Lower Brule program brought scientists to the schools for on-site science related workshops, f. and Native American scientists are now working at SURF. It’s a start. I’m hopeful that the narratives might change. But these changes must come through the interchange of new ways of telling them, and particularly of paying close attention to where they have come from.


[1] Sheldrake, 5.

[2] Larry Rasmussen, “New Wineskins,” in Interpretation, October 2011, p. 370.

[3] Ibid., 154.


[5], accessed August 10, 2014, 10.45 a.m.

[6] Ibid.

[7]. De Blij, The Power of Place, ix.

[8]. Schmidt-Grimminger,, “HPV Infection,” 11.

[9] Deep Concerns, by Rex Dalton. Nature/Vol 459/14 May 2009. Macmillan Publishers.”




[13] “Stranger than faction: Deep Underground laboratory seeks Native American Collaboration.” By Talli Nauman, Native Sun News, published Monday, 14, February 2011.

[14] Sze