Indigenous Knowledge – Forever the supplement and never the main event?

I wonder at what point the world went from being a thriving mosaic of local cultures to becoming divided into two main parts: a hegemonic Western (urban) culture on the one side, and the collection of indigenous cultures on the other.

Was it perhaps the industrial revolution that set the ‘modern’ man apart from the societies that still followed the ‘traditional’ ways of living, learning, and working?

I know I am part of the hegemonic Western culture, and even though I recognize the value of indigenous knowledge, I still struggle to see it as a true challenge to Western knowledge systems. There is no doubt in my mind that the human race would benefit from reconnecting with nature and the spirit, but will this idyllic view ever move out of the realms of myths and sagas and into the ‘real world’? Are we too far gone to ever ‘go back to our roots’ so to speak?

There is no doubt in my mind that the human race would benefit from reconnecting with nature and the spirit, but will this idyllic view ever move out of the realms of myths and sagas and into the ‘real world’?

These video clips show various ways in which indigenous knowledge and practices have proven valuable. we In Tanzania traditional healing methods supplements expensive Western medication.  In Uganda, applying modern technology (e.g. solar panels and walkie talkies) to traditional knowledge has help reduce maternal mortality. These examples illustrate how Western technology can improve communication and implementation of traditional practices.

I do not, however, identify in which ways traditional knowledge affects/improves Western knowledge systems. Is this new-found open-mindedness simply a new way of the West to ‘take pity on’ the non-Western societies? Are these modern-traditional collaborations just a romanticized façade covering up the continued influence of Western value systems?

Collier (2009) and Lambert (2009) both discuss how Māori practices (such as interpreting symbols in nature, and using chants in education) might contribute to the current curriculum in state schools. I wonder whether such additions would simply be perceived by students and teachers as a ‘fun fact’ section instead of a serious input to their education system.

Sámi national costume (Norway)
Sámi national costume (Norway)

Guttorm (2009) considers the perception of Sámi art in modern society, finding that we still are very much trapped in the notion that indigenous knowledge belongs to the past, and is difficult to integrate into the present. I grew up with Sámi TV shows and songs, and politically correct news anchors speaking Sámi (by law, a percentage of all broadcasting in Norway must be in Sámi). However— as we saw Sámi children dressed in traditional costumes living in Lavos (Sámi tee-pees), catching reindeer and communicating with the nature spirits— I never remember thinking that these were valid contribution to my own knowledge system. The Sámi culture remained a mystical tradition of the past (“back when man and nature lived in harmony”), and I never seriously considered any of this knowledge an actual contribution to my Western way of thinking. This was perhaps a result of the fact that all these glorious indigenous appreciation was supported and presented through the frameworks of Westerners…

Would we be as inattentive to the impact of pollution, over-fishing, oil spills, deforestation, and so on, if we had grown up with a stronger notion of a Mother Nature?

I would love for the world’s citizens to heighten their awareness of the connection between nature and man. In most indigenous traditions, Mother Nature is held in great esteem, and any violation against ‘her’ has direct impact on our way of life. Would we be as inattentive to the impact of pollution, over-fishing, oil spills, deforestation, and so on, if we had grown up with a stronger notion of a Mother Nature? Would we have allowed the destruction of the Earth get to this point, had we been raised in an indigenous knowledge system? What about human exploitation, racism, and gender violence?

Sweatshop workers
Sweatshop workers

From what I’ve read on indigenous cultures, there is a strong focus on each individual’s role in the world. We all have something to contribute; we are all connected to each other, like parts of a great machine. With this sort of reality conception, would we allow slave-like work conditions in the bottom floors of capitalist enterprises? Would we look away when we saw abuse and discrimination? Would it be as easy to turn our back to problems that did not directly concern ourselves?

Those are all aspects of indigenous knowledge I would like looking into, and that would be interesting to research. Despite my interest in indigenous knowledge, however, I still question whether we will ever see a genuine recognition of traditional practices outside of the status as ‘cultural add-on’…

References:

WINHEC. (2009). Selby, R. (Ed.) Indigenous voices Indigenous symbols. Sàmi University College. Norway.

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