OpinionThe case for indigenous knowledge systems and knowledge sovereignty

The case for indigenous knowledge systems and knowledge sovereignty (part 4): Advancing the cause of knowledge sovereignty

This article is part 4 of a series of articles putting forward the case for indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) and knowledge sovereignty, featuring selected excerpts from the book Knowledge Sovereignty among African Cattle Herders.

There is a need to take a step back and view the larger issue at stake, which is knowledge sovereignty. Having reflected on knowledge systems, we need to ask what is knowledge sovereignty, and what does it mean to be knowledge-sovereign? Warrior1 quotes Vine Deloria, Jr, who dramatically describes sovereignty as ‘the path to freedom’. However, the freedom to do what? From the local indigenous knowledge perspective, it is the freedom to recapture and utilise indigenous knowledge as a peer to scientific knowledge, to move it from ‘invisible to visible[,] . . . to challenge the fundamental dichotomies of scientific thought such as subject/object, rational/irrational and White/Black’ 2. So, to be knowledge-sovereign is to have the ability to choose one’s knowledge system, and to be able to use it freely to critique dissimilar constructions of knowledge without being subsumed by them.

So, firstly, knowledge sovereignty is about freedom and also identity. Gegeo3 describes a group of native Melanesian people known as the Kwara‘ae, who through labour migration and international development initiatives have been increasingly exposed to scientist knowledge and discourse. They often refer to this exposure as having altered their lives from tua lalifu‘anga (‘living in rootedness’) and tua ‘inoto‘a‘anga (‘living in dignity’) to tua malafaka‘anga (‘living in imitation of life brought by the ships’ 4. However, this exchange of rootedness and dignity for imitation has been countered by the Kwara‘ae’s reassertion of their knowledge sovereignty and freedom upon returning home to the village.

One of the key cultural events that returnees to the village need to be able to participate in is the critical group discussions through which Kwara‘ae culture and philosophy are rethought and renewed. The Kwara‘ae value and regularly practice their tradition of ‘critical discussion’ or ‘enlightened dialogue’ (talingisilana ala‘anga) in high rhetoric (ala‘anga lalifu), the formal and semantically complex register of the language used on all important occasions and for discussions of all significant sociocultural and political topics. 5

Secondly, the study of anthropology shows us that when we are trying to understand any cultural or social phenomenon, any one perspective simply is not enough to capture the reality at hand, much less to decide to introduce any change into that social system which would even approach deserving to be called well informed. For this reason, both the emic approach (informed by local knowledge, society, etc.) and the etic approach (informed by the scientific method and, arguably, culturally null) are employed as counterbalances to each other. This combination of approaches and appreciation (hybridisation) of both inside and outside knowledge is exemplified very well in Essén, Binder and Johnsdotter’s6 work which delves into the issue of caesarean births among Somali women in diaspora. Furthermore, even the more scientific discourse today encourages out-of-the-box thinking and the use of multiple alternative paradigms as best practice. These range from accounting7 to nursing science8 to theoretical physics9.

Lastly, as it is a locally grown phenomenon, an understanding of indigenous knowledge can help us to discover what would otherwise be undiscoverable. In ‘Out from the Margins: Centring African-Centred Knowledge in Psychological Discourse’, Waldron10 relates how indigenous African approaches to psychology can offer unique and valuable insights into mental illnesses faced by Africans living in diaspora. She proposes that the dominant ‘Anglo-American psychology’, being founded on an ‘Anglo-American model of normalcy’, may mistakenly diagnose a person not belonging to that model as mentally ill simply because they do not display the ‘personality traits [that] most closely resemble those of the White middle-class, urban male, that is, affectless, individualistic, competitive, controlling, and future-oriented’ 11. On the other hand, a culturally informed diagnosis based on relevant African psychological insights may discover that the same patient is indeed sane.

The United Nations also seems to recognise the value of indigenous knowledge in discovering the otherwise unknown: the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity recognises the significance of cultural knowledge ‘as a source of intangible and material wealth, especially in indigenous communities’ (quoted in Payyappallimana and Koike12).  Payyappallimana and Koike go on to talk about codifed systems of indigenous knowledge in India relating to medicine and the health sector, and ‘how maintenance and/or revival of cultural resources can enable communities with endogenous development capabilities while integrating traditional knowledge, customs and practices in a market economy’ 13.

Next part (part 5): Threats to indigenous knowledge and knowledge sovereignty.

Article source: Knowledge Sovereignty among African Cattle Herders is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Header image source: Tigre man from Barka Valley is in the Public Domain. The Beni-Amer people probably emerged in the fourteenth century AD from the intermixing of the Beja and the Tigre.

See also: Cultural awareness in KM.

References:

  1. Warrior, R.A. (1995). Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  2. Rigney, L. (2001). ‘A First Perspective of Indigenous Australian Participation in Science: Framing Indigenous Research towards Indigenous Australian Intellectual Sovereignty.’ Kaurna Higher Education Journal 7: 1o.
  3. Gegeo, D.W. (1998). ‘Indigenous Knowledge and Empowerment: Rural development Examined from Within.’ Contemporary Pacific 10(2): 289–315.
  4. Gegeo, D.W. (1998). ‘Indigenous Knowledge and Empowerment: Rural development Examined from Within.’ Contemporary Pacific 10(2): 292.
  5. Gegeo, D.W. (1998). ‘Indigenous Knowledge and Empowerment: Rural development Examined from Within.’ Contemporary Pacific 10(2): 294.
  6. Essén, B., Binder, P. and Johnsdotter, S. (2011). ‘An Anthropological Analysis of the Perspectives of Somali Women in the West and their Obstetric Care Providers on Caesarean birth.’ Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynaecology 32(1): 10–18.
  7. Lukka, K. (2010). ‘The Roles and Effects of Paradigms in Accounting Research.’ Management Accounting Research 21(2): 110–15.
  8. Monti, E.J. and Tingen, M.S. (1999). ‘Multiple Paradigms of Nursing Science.’ Advances in Nursing Science 21(4): 64–80.
  9. Bjorken, J.D. (2004). ‘The Classification of Universes.’ Cornell University Library, SLAC-PUB-10276. Available at: https://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0404233, accessed 23 July 2018.
  10. Waldron, I.R.G. (2012). ‘Out from the Margins: Centring African-Centred Knowledge in Psychological Discourse.’ Australian Community Psychologist 24(1): 34–47.
  11. Waldron, I.R.G. (2012). ‘Out from the Margins: Centring African-Centred Knowledge in Psychological Discourse.’ Australian Community Psychologist 24(1): 43.
  12. Payyappallimana, U. and Koike, O. (2010). ‘Traditional Knowledge for Sustainable Development: A Case from the Health Sector in Kerala, India.’ Global Environmental Research 14(2): 168.
  13. Payyappallimana, U. and Koike, O. (2010). ‘Traditional Knowledge for Sustainable Development: A Case from the Health Sector in Kerala, India.’ Global Environmental Research 14(2): 173.

Dr Zeremariam Fre

Beni-Amer cattle owners in the western part of the Horn of Africa are not only masters in cattle breeding, they are also knowledge sovereign, in terms of owning productive genes of cattle and the cognitive knowledge base crucial to sustainable development. The strong bonds between the Beni-Amer, their animals, and their environment constitute the basis of their ways of knowing, and much of their knowledge system is built on experience and embedded in their cultural practices. In this book, the first to study Beni-Amer practices, Dr Zeremariam Fre argues for the importance of their knowledge, challenging the preconceptions that regard it as untrustworthy when compared to scientific knowledge from more developed regions. Empirical evidence suggests that there is much one could learn from the other, since elements of pastoralist technology, such as those related to animal production and husbandry, make a direct contribution to our knowledge of livestock production. It is this potential for hybridization, as well as the resilience of the herders, at the core of the indigenous knowledge system. Fre also argues that indigenous knowledge can be viewed as a stand-alone science, and that a community’s rights over ownership should be defended by government officials, development planners and policy makers, making the case for a celebration of the knowledge sovereignty of pastoralist communities.

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