Defining indigenous knowledge

Defining indigenous knowledge

The best way to begin our understanding of indigenous knowledge is by considering its source: indigenous peoples and their societies. This means trying to take in what the United Nations estimates as more than 370 million people spread across at least 70 different countries. This clearly presents us with problems if we want to avoid falling into the trap of generalizing and simplifying the knowledge systems that characterize them.
The potential difficulties don’t end there: indigenous societies are often remote and isolated from one another and their development has occurred relatively independently, so their identities are far more varied than in those of the ‘Westernised’ world. For example, in terms of language – the way of knowing that arguably most shapes our collective identity – there are about 7000 different indigenous languages. That’s worth thinking about for a second. We are used to thinking of Europe, a continent of around 730 million people as being linguistically (and culturally) very diverse. Yet only 78 languages are spoken in Europe by groups of more than 120 people. In other words, Europe contains twice as many people, but ten times fewer languages, than indigenous groups worldwide.
To picture this diversity in another way, consider the fact that another characteristic of indigenous societies is that they are very much the product of the environment in which they are located. Think about the number of different landscapes, climates, floras, and faunas on Planet Earth, and you’ll gain some idea of the implications of this. So we should be very careful about the question ‘what is indigenous knowledge?’ because it is probably even more difficult to answer than ‘what is Western knowledge?’ For now, it will be far more profitable to concentrate on the people from which the knowledge comes.

Identification, not definition

It is partly because of this difficulty that the United Nations stresses that one should ‘identify’ rather than ‘define’ indigenous people. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues presents the following list of characteristics to help us identify indigenous people:

    • Self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.
    • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
    • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
    • Distinct social, economic or political systems
    • Distinct language, culture and beliefs
    • Form non-dominant groups of society
    • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and

The key characteristic is the first of these. Martinéz Cobo, the academic who helped the United Nations develop its thinking on indigenous peoples, stated:

On an individual basis, an indigenous person is one who belongs to these indigenous peoples through self-identification as indigenous (group consciousness) and is recognized and accepted by the group as one of its members (acceptance by the group). This preserves for these communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference.


Further ‘identifying’ characteristics of indigenous peoples

Despite what we have already said about indigenous societies being incredibly diverse, there are certain characteristics and outlooks that they often share. The Cherokee economist and founder of First Peoples Worldwide, Rebecca Adamson, lists three interlinked characteristics of indigenous societies:

“Community is essential for survival.” In indigenous societies, “concern for the greater good and respect for the community are embedded in Indigenous legal, political, social and economic structures.”
“Life is sustained through balance and harmony.” This means indigenous people “give and take from nature in synchrony with natural cycles, ensuring that our sources of life remain healthy and abundant.”
“Nature is a source of knowledge… Indigenous science and knowledge are based largely on bioindicators, or natural signs.”

To these points, we can perhaps add three more. First, is the importance of spoken language, given that most indigenous societies do not have a literary heritage. Second, and overlapping with the first, is the rich artistic tradition that is found within most indigenous societies, such as the visual arts, dance, and song. For most indigenous people, the arts are a form of communication, both between themselves, and with the metaphysical world. Third, is the fact that traditional societies are run along much more smaller lines than their industrialized counterparts, partly as a way of avoiding too much impact on the environment around them, partly as a way of ensuring that there is unity in decision making, and that a separate political bureaucracy is not required. Jared Diamond, the geographer and anthropologist, refers to indigenous societies as ‘small-scale’, and the fact that indigenous societies can be described as such means some major implications in terms of the knowledge it creates and draws on.


1. Read through Martinez Cobo’s statement. What sort of ‘external interference’ do you think he means?
2. What problems related to ethics and human sciences might this lead to (think about politics and law in particular)?
3. Linking language: What are the different connotations of ‘identifying’ and ‘defining’ different groups of people, and what are the ethical implications of approaching IKS in these two distinct ways?
4. Knowledge framework (links to personal knowledge): What is your own experience and awareness of indigenous knowledge systems, and the cultures from which they come?


Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Defining indigenous knowledge (26th September 2014). Last accessed: 23rd February 2017


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