Reflections on “What Is Indigenous Knowledge?”

I recently read a number of select chapters from the book What Is Indigenous Knowledge?: Voices from the Academy, edited by Ladislaus M. Semali and Joe L. Kincheloe. The writing overall great, from indigenous and non-indigenous authors about the enduring value of IK and its incorporation into formal education. There were several points of intrigue and important information of course, but I chose a few points here that stood out most for me.

Semali’s discussion of literacy and education was great. While the two may be seen as a means to a better life, Semali says he must constantly remind himself that “literacy is defined in a certain way to support one path of development while ignoring all others….Imposing a certain literacy, particularly school literacy, aims to control the masses as to what they learn to fit the needs of the industrial workplace, and sets up a standard by which to reward and privilege those who embrace its curriculum.” He proposes the use of indigenous literacy to allow communities like those that use oral histories and language to carry lessons and knowledge “to express themselves in their own terms.” The overall “constructivist methodology” (chapter 4) he outlines is meant to make content based in, and subject to the application of, students’ prior knowledge, history, culture and indigenous literacy so that “students are empowered with ownership of knowledge that ‘renders impotent the dominant culture…'” The inter-subjective, social process that is the creation of knowledge should be upheld in education so that the communities maintain control over shaping/producing their values and their own identities.

I also really appreciated Abdullah and Stringer (chapter 6) critiquing how Western philosophy and science sought and continues to seek “foundational knowledge or ultimate truths that would enable people to understand the ‘real’ nature of the physical and social universe” (e.g. Heidegger, et al.). We need a variety of forms of culturally-specific knowledge that contribute to solving problems and giving meaning to human life. If one takes seriously the need for biodiversity to ensure the health of the planet, to prevent global starvation, etc. that can only be maintained through protecting the diversity of indigenous knowledges and practices that have sustained human beings for millennia.

Related to this, Prakash (chapter 7) points out “the illusion of thinking that modern science expanded possibilities for real knowledge. In actual fact, it made knowledge scarce. It overextended certain frontiers, eliminated or blocked others. Thus it actually narrowed down the possibilities for enriching knowledge available to human experience.” What it did was result in an information explosion, which is useless unless it can serve the purposes of and give meaning to the people. “The most that can be said of information is that it is but knowledge in degraded, distorted form….[science should be understood as an instrument] for colonizing and controlling the direction of knowledge, and consequently human behavior, within a straight and narrow path conducive to the design of the project.” Moreover, “rationality, like knowledge is a socially constructed dynamic and the group that holds power typically gains the prerogative to label their own cognitive styles as ‘reason.'” What really struck a chord with me were the outcomes for students in Abdullah and Stringer’s outline of what a post-graduate program in indigenous R&D for aboriginal Australia would look like. One listed was “Be empowered within themselves to do necessary healing, not to naively wield more power in the systems,” as well as work to attain social justice. Moving out from under and to a different plane of knowledge production is inextricably tied to historical and existential healing, which requires one be concerned with social justice – and that social justice and de-marginalization must be on the terms of indigenous peoples themselves, understood within their own experience, rather than by imposing outside solutions or conformity – that in large part arise from “white guilt” – purported to alleviate human suffering.

Prakash makes a very keen and important observation as well in saying that after the creation of neo-colonial independent states, the Western educated elite adopted the mindset that “their own compatriots need ‘science’ as much as they need ‘progress’ to escape from the (sustainable) subsistence that peoples’ science [as opposed to ‘science for the people’] gave them for thousands of generations. And so the newly independent nation states continue the colonial project through its neo-colonial guise called ‘Development’ to destroy the latter.” Viergever quotes Berman in revealing another layer to the notion of development (chapter 17): “The very process of development even as it transforms the wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, recreates the wasteland inside the developer himself.” While continuing down the path of “progress” and “development” as conceived by expansionist and exploitative capitalism may yield temporary successes at the expense of cultural diversity, and through that, biological diversity, there are very real consequences for the psychological, social, and “spiritual” sanity and health of human beings.

On another point, speaking to the importance of the discursive in knowledge production, Prakash (chapter 7) cites Apffel-Marglin’s writings on Andean peasants and how they converse with the natural world. She cautions: “to assume that when a peasant tells you that she is conversing with the soil or the wind she is speaking metaphorically is to assume that Andean peasants are the intellectual heirs to the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.” Meaning, these occidental movements tell us that nature does not speak directly but rather can only be metaphorically “interrogated” and “answers” to scientific experimentation. But Apffel-Marglin asserts that this interrogation is very different from conversation, for which hearing both non-humans and humans speak requires careful attention and learning the language, requires practice, respect, openness. Everything in the universe is alive, giving and sending all sorts of messages – and this is true even from a Western scientific perspective! Interestingly Prakash points out, “With the beginning of experimental science, the senses were seen as ‘infitmities’, as obstacles to both more correct and deeper understanding. The senses were to be remedied as well as enhanced by the use of experimental devices and instruments. Such skepticism towards the senses in the pursuit of knowing reality can only arise in a world view that has already deeply sundered humans from the rest of the world. In the Andes rivers, mountains, lakes, rocks, as animals and humans, have eyes and ears; everything or perhaps better, everyone, is sentient.”

Not only are there implications here for re-evaluating skeptic philosophy, but also, once again, for this idea that man is “fallen” morally and psychologically, as well as fallen in terms of his relationship with the earth and the realities of the destruction he’s wrought. I would have to say though that even to try turn The Fall into something positive by speaking of the harm done in terms of man having fallen but having the potential to “redeem” himself not even through modern “experts” and technology, but through the common people…this still keeps the narrative closed. I hate to think of these problems in terms of “redemption.” There is no redemption in my view. There is only awakening to what has always been true for the relationship between human beings and the planet. Mosha writes (chapter 10) about how the Chagga people of Tanzania understand the intrinsic unity and goodness of all things, and of the inherent good in maintaining this harmony (by acting ethically), not for god or reward, but for the goodness in and of itself. We act and relate to each other (humans and all other beings) in such a way as to “enhance and preserve the harmony already inherent in them.” This basic understanding, this – as I understand things personally – rooting of humanity first and foremost in our earthly origins, is all I need. One can talk of how cultural hybritity even for indigenous peoples is inevitable, that the indigenous cultural experience is not the same for everyone, and that IK is always changing, regenerating, adapting, etc. But when it comes to the root issues at hand, I see the questions of what counts as “authentic” indigenous identity as beside the point. At a fundamental level, I can say I am less concerned with how to be “authentic” in my Tsalagi/Black/Swedish/Irish/Italian heritage. I prefer much more to be a human being, and if I find in my genealogy tools to help me become more human, then I am thankful to my ancestors.


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