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Now What?!

Invitations Blog

October 12 - November 20, 2020

Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Eurocentrism

When Deborah McGregor (Anishinaabe from Whitefish River First Nation) was asked to write about “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” (TEK), she was confronted with two challenges: the first being an overall reticence on the part of First Nations to even use the term, and therefore to define it. As a Professor whose research focuses on Indigenous knowledge systems, she had been aware of a second challenge: from whose perspective? She noted that Aboriginal scholars (Marie Battiste, Micmaq; James Henderson, Cherokee; Henry Lickers, Seneca) “argue that it cannot and should not be defined as definitions of TEK vary from Nation to Nation and from individual to individual; reducing this diversity to more universal definitions, it is believed, is a first step in the Eurocentric process of separating TEK from its intended context.” TEK refers to the ecological aspect of a people’s traditional knowledge, but to understand these Aboriginal scholars’ argument, one has to see traditional knowledge as an integral part of their ways of life, which forms both their cultural identity and their relationship with their natural (the visible) and supranatural (the invisible) environments.

Famous author, professor, actor and thinker Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley (Yup’ik) along with Ray Barnhardt (both University of Alaska Fairbanks professors at the time of publication in 2005) in a paper highlighting the difference in Natives ways of learning and proposing solutions to close the cross-cultural gap prevailing in western learning/knowledge systems, noted that “Indigenous people engage in a form of science when they are involved in the annual cycle of subsistence activities. They have studied and know a great deal about the flora and fauna, and they have their own classification systems and versions of meteorology, physics, chemistry, earth science, astronomy, botany, pharmacology, psychology (knowing one’s inner world), and the sacred (Burgess 1999)”. They later pointed that “the curricula, teaching methodologies, and assessment strategies associated with mainstream schooling are based on a worldview that does not adequately recognize or appreciate Indigenous notions of an interdependent universe and the importance of place in their societies” highlighting to the difficulties both worlds have in understanding each other and more importantly the struggles Indigenous youths have in integrating a different learning system.

It is not only Indigenous peoples who find it difficult to overcome such gap (and I am not even touching on racial prejudice). We too have a deeply rooted learning system and ways of life that make it difficult to understand, let alone embrace Indigenous’ worldviews. Barnhardt (2002) noted that “the complexities that come into play when two fundamentally different worldviews converge present a formidable challenge. The specialization, standardization, compartmentalization, and systematization that are inherent features of most Western bureaucratic forms of organization often are in direct conflict with social structures and practices in Indigenous societies, which tend toward collective decision-making, extended kinship structures, ascribed authority vested in elders, flexible notions of time, and traditions of informality in everyday affairs”.

Indigenous knowledge is not a thing of the past, a former lifeway that survived centuries of colonization and forced acculturation. It is a very dynamic set of systems that has been adapting to the contemporary world since contact, and it will continue to evolve to meet new realities. Working alongside Didier Lacaze on Traditional Medicinal Systems I have both recognized the value and limitation of such approach. I value the need for classification of such systems - medicinal, belief, food, learning, sharing/trading for they correspond to our worldviews and are then easier to understand and integrate into our more linear ways of learning/thinking/viewing (better to get funding too). If you ponder at the relationship between Indigenous peoples of the Amazon and the plant guayusa or peoples from the Andes and coca, you may find it difficult to have these plants fit into one system for they belong to each one.

When I joined Sacha Warmi (The Feminine Spirit of the Forest in Kichwa) six years ago to support Didier Lacaze’s life work in building a resource and support center entirely dedicated to Indigenous Peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon with the objective of preserving Indigenous TK systems and promoting intercultural health models we pondered on how to make these two systems understand and communicate with each other, which was even more crucial considering how western civilization is encroaching on Indigenous Peoples' lives and the loss of TK (the Center does also welcome westerners occasionally). Reflecting on the dynamic of these systems, we attempted to show the makeup of the concept of health and well-being from an Indigenous perspective. It shows different ways traditional knowledge is developed and acquired. Let me offer you a few keys: Well-being and health are one of the same. Any disruption into the world will affect an individual’s well-being and in turn will affect the familial structure, its community, relationships to his/her environment, his/her capacity to learn, to provide and eventually to become an elder (teacher/wisdom/keeper of knowledge)...

From this small selection of bodies of work, we may realize how difficult it can be for technocracy driven societies to meet on equal footing nonlinear holistic ones. It should not come as a surprise either that Indigenous Peoples are often at odds with our western approach – and therefore conclusions - to assessing and addressing problems and designing solutions, especially related to our environmental crisis. This might explain in parts (sovereignty, which I might address in a later post is another reason) their reluctance to accept or the straight-out rejection of western-designed solutions to address climate change and biodiversity loss, especially in regards to carbon-offsetting, ecosystem services, nature funding/investment schemes (Indigenous’ territories represent 25% of earth’s land surface on which 80% of the world’s biodiversity is found).

Our views are also changing, we are paying greater attention to Indigenous peoples’ understanding and views of our world. The challenges and uneasiness we might feel at times should not stop us from persevering in co-designing intercultural models that preserve and respect Indigenous Peoples, their land and knowledge.

Thank you for reading,

Settler living on Ohlone Occupied Territory.

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