Indigenous Knowledge: not a separable area of knowledge

Theory of Knowledge banner

It’s easy to miss the point entirely when treating Indigenous Knowledge in TOK. It’s not a special “category” of knowledge, even though it is listed in our syllabus in parallel with other areas of knowledge. Clustering up indigenous groups across the world to look at their knowledge does not enable us to treat that knowledge as separate or separable from other areas of knowledge. I’m a big fan of treating Indigenous Knowledge — but specifically as a particular cultural synthesis of other areas of knowledge and as a cultural perspective within and upon the other areas. Today I’d like to bring attention to three current topics that clearly deal with Indigenous Knowledge but, on consideration, deal equally with history, anthropology, and archeology. I’ve included links to supporting resources.

1. Controversy over renaming commemorative places: In what ways is knowledge of the past shaped by shifting perspectives in the present?

This is a fresh example of a very familiar issue: shifting historical perspectives bring re-evaluation of the past, and the accompanying question about whether to rename countries, cities, buildings, and streets. We see this all over the world, from Rhodesia to Stalingrad, from British Guiana to East Pakistan. What I like about this contemporary example from my own Canadian context is that the conflicting perspectives on whether to rename Ryerson University in Toronto both put forward good arguments, ones that have the potential to get our TOK students thinking about larger knowledge questions in history as an area of knowledge. Yes, the example does introduce an indigenous perspective. However, that interpretation is within the larger context of historical knowledge, which is never independent of perspectives.

These selected articles from the Canadian Broadcasting Company provide background and arguments:

2. How does Indigenous oral history mesh with written records and artefacts as sources of historical knowledge?

The second example I’m offering here also involves Indigenous Knowledge, but once again not as separate or separable from historical knowledge. Inuit oral history has acted as a source of knowledge within historical research, and its versions of the past have been confirmed by new evidence from artefacts and DNA. I like this example because it comes with a story that would surely catch student interest in class, given the way that so many people’s imaginations for more than a century and a half have been gripped by the doomed expedition into the icy North, with rumoured cannibalism adding some sensationalism.

The 1845 the Franklin Expedition to the Arctic set out from Victorian England to navigate and map the legendary Northwest Passage, at a time of British pride in exploration and conquest. It had a prestigious leader and was very well equipped. Yet it vanished into the ice, never to be seen again. Even in the 19th century, tales of cannibalism, taken from Inuit accounts, swirled around the loss of the ships, horrifying British people who believed that no Englishman could be so uncivilized. Recently, the wreckage of the ships has been discovered (HMS Erebus found in 2014 and HMSTerror in 2016) and current museum exhibitions in England and Canada bring artefacts to the public.

The following selected articles give some of the background of the search for the Franklin expedition and the contribution of indigenous oral history to locating the wrecks and confirming the stories of cannibalism. (image creative commons)

•  “Franklin exhibition in London features shipwreck items, Inuit artifacts”, CBC News. July 16, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/franklin-exhibition-inuit-artifacts-1.4207534

“We really wanted to give credit where credit was due in the exhibition,” said curator Karen Ryan. “The Inuit were in the Arctic long before Europeans went looking for the Northwest Passage….What we know up until now about what happened to the Franklin expedition comes largely from Inuit oral history that has been passed down for 170 years.”

“There’s only so much we know right now,” Ryan said. “And finding … where the ships were located, finding Erebus pretty much exactly where the Inuit oral history had talked about seeing an inhabited ship — that really puts a nice note on the accuracy of the oral histories and how they can really be meshed well with historical research and with archaeology.”

•  “Role of Inuit oral history in Franklin search highlighted in new Iqaluit exhibit; Inuit historian Louie Kamookak keynote speaker for exhibit’s opening Thursday evening”, CBC News. Jan 20, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/louie-kamookak-1.3943936

“Kamookak was instrumental in the discovery of the HMS Erebus, collecting an oral history of the Franklin Expedition over 30 years which eventually helped lead explorers to the long-lost ship. …. Kamookak collected an oral history of the expedition by listening to stories passed down from one generation to the next. By comparing those stories to the journals of other expeditions, he was able to come up with a theory of the ship’s location.”

•  Helen Thompson, “Franklin’s Doomed Arctic Expedition Ended in Gruesome Cannibalism; New bone analysis suggests crew resorted to eating flesh, then marrow”, The Smithsonian. July 27, 2015. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/franklins-doomed-arctic-expedition-ended-gruesome-cannibalism-180956054/

3. Should all knowledge be “shared knowledge”? In what ways does the method of research in archeology affect both access to and understanding of artefacts from the past?

This last example of cross-over of Indigenous Knowledge and conventional division of academic disciplines recedes even deeper into the past, where oral histories merge with legend and research shifts from cultural anthropology to archeology’s detective work with artefacts. I’m intrigued by two case studies that have come to my attention this month. What brings them together, in my mind, is the way both of them deal with “shared knowledge” – and, in the case of Indigenous Knowledge, what people feel to be appropriately shared. Who owns the knowledge, and how safely can it be shared with outsiders?

The first article is a good one for Theory of Knowledge as an example of challenges facing anthropologists and archeologists — as the knowledge they pursue eludes them, or as the knowledge they gain is given the shape and significance of their own preconceptions. (Many thanks to my TOK colleague Sue Bastian, who passed this article on for TOK.) It concerns lost ruins in the Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras, an alluring topic for students (and obviously for me!). Do take the time to read the article because it goes beyond the obvious point in the title to treat perspectives and invisible biases in archeology.

Christopher Begby, “Ancient ruins keep being ‘discovered’: were they ever lost?”, Aoen. July 10, 2017. https://aeon.co/ideas/ancient-ruins-keep-being-discovered-were-they-ever-lost

“Archaeologists often say: ‘It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.’ We are not in pursuit of objects but rather an understanding of the past. My work has never been about finding sites. It’s about finding out how leaders gained and maintained power, how these ancient societies interacted with other groups, and how such societies situated themselves across the landscape…. By claiming a non-situated position, as if it were possible to operate free of perspective and bias, archaeologists inherently support and reinforce the status quo; this way of asserting power too often goes unnoticed.”

The second article seems to me to present an intriguing contrast to the above tale of lost cities and knowledge shared within cultural context only. In this current case study of an archeological dig in Australia, archeologists have been able to find and investigate thousands of artefacts.  The discovery “adds western scientific evidence to Indigenous cultural knowledge about the length of time their ancestors have occupied the land.” It’s an impressive discovery.

What I find most interesting about this case, though, is that a change in the methodology of research has led to much more effective gaining and sharing of knowledge. The Mirarr people of the region retain full control of their ancient cultural site, so are not threatened by outsiders researching their past or violating ancestral graves.

Helen Davidson  and Calla Wahlquist, “Australian dig finds evidence of Aboriginal habitation up to 80,000 years ago”, The Guardian. July 19, 2017.  https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jul/19/dig-finds-evidence-of-aboriginal-habitation-up-to-80000-years-ago?

“Much of the success of the five-year-long project is credited to a unique and benchmark-setting agreement between the researchers and the Mirarr, who retained total control over the dig and the artefacts.”  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIxiFgJWyto video courtesy of Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation)

It is a truism in our Theory of Knowledge course that the methodology of gaining knowledge is central to gaining information effectively and understanding it reliably. This pair of articles could be useful in class as we encourage our students to think about how we gain knowledge in the human sciences about human beings – not just about their old artefacts, but about what they mean to people.  A methodology that respects ownership of artefacts and ownership of knowledge has, in these cases, led to better results.

Both these case studies also illustrate some of the bounds of shared knowledge.  When traditional knowledge has meaning within a cultural context, the people who hold it may not want to share it beyond their own group.  It’s easy to see this as a problem for anthropologists and archeologists, but it’s equally easy (from a different perspective) to see their research as the problem, and their expectations of access to knowledge to which they’re not entitled.

CONCLUSION: advantages of treating Indigenous Knowledge in TOK

As I said at the beginning, I’m a big fan of treating Indigenous Knowledge within Theory of Knowledge. If you’re interested in what I’ve previously written on this topic, I suggest you click on “indigenous knowledge” in the tag cloud on this website.

Treating Indigenous Knowledge seems to me to give three major advantages within our course on knowledge:

  1. It invites us to recognize the way our areas of knowledge are constructed, identified, and divided into contemporary academic categories, in large part by presenting a more holistic conception of knowledge: the boxes in which a contemporary academic system places knowledge do not exist in Indigenous Knowledge.
  2. It invites us to grasp more fully the concept of “perspectives” by providing some fine examples of coherent cultural worldviews that shape knowledge, and illuminating by contrast the worldviews buried in much of the knowledge produced otherwise, for example in western history.
  3. It invites us to recognize, as a result, the cultural, historical, and political context within which knowledge is forged. Knowledge is not just some floating abstract coming from nowhere. It is created by human beings, within all the dynamics of power and control that we witness in the present world every bit as much as in the past.

It seems to me, though, that we have to be careful not to treat Indigenous Knowledge as separate or separable from our conventional areas of knowledge. If we treat it as detachable, we lose all of these major advantages above. They all come from seeing our standard TOK areas of knowledge in interaction and comparison with Indigenous Knowledge, with the illumination that similarities and contrasts can bring.  In this regard, it is no different from any of the other areas of the course, which are best understood in relation to each other.

I really welcome comments on treating Indigneous Knowledge in TOK, especially from indigenous teachers and anyone else who has had experience working with indigenous communities.  Do you have any thoughts to add?

Leave a Comment