Indigenous people, also known as First Nations, Aboriginal or Native peoples are ethnic groups who lived in an area before it was included in a nation state – examples include the Inuit peoples of Greenland, the Samoans, the Maori of New Zealand and the Chukchi peoples of Russia. This post will discuss the controversial topic of indigenous knowledge (IK), why it is sought after and some of the issues surrounding interactions with native peoples in this way.
Indigenous knowledge is not just knowledge, but an understanding of the links between humans and the wider environment, and a respect for all life:
“Indigenous Knowledge cannot be separated from the people who hold and practice it, nor can it be separated from the land/environment/Creation.” – McGregor (2004)
It has many applications, from the fields of law and governance to environmental management and medicine (McGregor, 2004). Unlike with scientific knowledge, which has a global reach and is presented in the form of highly controlled studies and short-term research, indigenous knowledge is passed down through the generations – indigenous peoples provide these alternative findings based on their own traditional livelihoods, interactions with nature and resource use practices (Leonard et al., 2013). And because these communities are often isolated from the wider population by culture and language, many social scientists see their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) as an untapped resource which could present a range of benefits to wider society (McGregor, 2004; Cruikshank, 2012).
A lot of current research focuses on how traditional ecological knowledge could be used to look at the impacts and mitigation of climate change (Leonard et al., 2013), by understanding how previous generations have adapted to changing conditions. Oral stories are the primary way through which researchers have analysed their understanding. They are important not because they are completely scientifically accurate (though they can be), but because they cast light on the changes which native people for generations have made to adapt to their climate (McGregor, 2004). They can also provide evidence for environmental events, and record changes in local landscapes. For example, in their discussions with indigenous women in North America, Cruikshank (2012) heard the tale of the Lowell Glacier. This glacier punished the actions of a young boy who compared its appearance to that of a bald shaman’s head, by blocking the dam and subsequently interrupting the salmon migrations up the river (Cruikshank, 2012). Glaciers are described as being temperamental, with feelings and senses like those of people – stories such as these highlight the focus on relationships between people and nature, and also provide evidence: for example, this story helped date when the Lowell Glacier ice dam formed, and then when it broke again, flooding the town below.
“Just as climate science presents a more comprehensive picture than weather, so oral traditions convey understandings that are much broader than data.” – Cruikshank (2012)
This connection with nature is reinforced throughout studies of native peoples. For example, interviews conducted with the Miriwoong people, an Aboriginal community in Australia, revealed an deep understanding of the seasons, based on phenological events such as the growth of particular plants, emergence of species and observations of the behaviour of animals. For example, the Miriwoong people see the emergence of the Fern-leaf grevillea (Grevillea pteridofolia) as the beginning of the cold season, and a sign to begin traditional burning practices to prevent hot season forest fires (Leonard et al., 2013). Such practices have since been taken up in wider policy and are replicated in other communities, particularly in the US which now practices managed burns to prevent the buildup of flammable leaf litter prior to the hot season (read more about fire management here) (Leonard et al., 2013).The Miriwoong people also exemplify adaptation to changing climate conditions, through their fire management, harvesting and resource sharing practices, which could provide useful examples of what wider society could implement to improve climate mitigation (Leonard et al., 2013).
“Indigenous knowledge has value not only for the culture in which it evolves, but also for scientists and planners striving to improve conditions in rural localities.” – Ajani, Mgbenka & Okeke (2013)
But the acquisition of traditional knowledge remains a highly-charged topic, with many communities sceptical of Westerners who may not have their best interest at heart. For some native people, documenting traditional knowledge is seen as a way in which the West are exploiting their culture, language and history – plundering the heritage of the people without protecting and prioritising the wellbeing of the people themselves (McGregor, 2004). This lack of support has materialised in the past as “environmental racism”, based on exclusion from policymaking and land rights, stereotyping and victimisation of indigenous peoples (Tsosie, 2007). As well as this, the US has developed a history of placing unfavourable developments, such as coal-fired power plants and hydroelectric dam projects on Native American land, resulting in the loss of tribal land and damage to water and fishing resources (Tsosie, 2007). This legacy of exploitation dates back to the times of European imperialism, where native lands were forced from indigenous communities and genocides were justified as part of the “manifest destiny” of the US – settlers were destined to colonise North America and create a particular image for the country, which did not involve the people who were already living there (Tsosie, 2007).
This history has justifiably made people hesitant to get behind the idea of obtaining indigenous knowledge: people are not resources to be extracted and obtained. If knowledge is to be shared between communities, it must be done respectfully and completely controlled by the indigenous people. Ajani et al. (2013) found in their study of indigenous people in sub-Saharan Africa that a bottom-up participatory approach (centred on the people themselves, rather than organisations or governments looking to obtain knowledge) is the optimal way to encourage local participation of climate change projects and the sharing of ideas. They also highlight that traditional practices may not be applicable in certain situations, or the best solution to a problem, and like any technology, traditional ecological knowledge should be scrutinised thoroughly to determine its effectiveness.
When open communication is supported by ensuring land rights for native peoples, as well as the right of self-determination (giving indigenous peoples the right to their land, its management and without unwanted external influences and policies), vital lessons can be learnt from the people who know their land best.
This post will be followed next week by a corresponding post focused on how climate change is disproportionately affecting indigenous peoples, and the wider topic of climate justice.
McGregor, D. (2004) Coming full circle: Indigenous knowledge, environment, and our future. American Indian Quarterly, 28(3/4), pp.385-410
Tsosie, R. (2007) Indigenous people and environmental justice: the impact of climate change. U. Colo. L. Rev., 78, p.1625
Cruikshank, J. (2012) Are glaciers ‘good to think with’? Recognising indigenous environmental knowledge. Anthropological Forum, 22(3), pp. 239-250
Leonard, S., Parsons, M., Olawsky, K. & Kofod, F. (2013) The role of culture and traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation: Insights from East Kimberley, Australia. Global Environmental Change, 23(3), pp.623-632
Ajani, E.N., Mgbenka, R.N. & Okeke, M.N. (2013) Use of indigenous knowledge as a strategy for climate change adaptation among farmers in sub-Saharan Africa: Implications for policy. Asian Journal of Agricultural Extension, Economics & Sociology, pp.23-40