Why is IKS so important?
The sheer variety of indigenous knowledge means that it is a fascinating area of knowledge in its own right to focus on. But there are also other very important and practical reasons that make it particularly suited to TOK.
1. IKS helps us to realize that there are different ways of viewing the world, and gaining knowledge about it
To study indigenous societies and their knowledge is to understand how many possible ways there are of viewing the world, and our place within it. Whilst it might make sense to us to build up a body of knowledge based on a combination of rational and empirical evidence that we accept via an application of the scientific method, this is by no means the ‘right’ way of acquiring knowledge, merely one way of many. The words of Shakespeare’s character Horatio should always be in the back of TOK students’ minds, particularly when studying this area of knowledge:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
As Wade Davis puts it,
The world in which we live in does not exist in some absolute sense, but is just one model of reality, the consequence of just one set of adaptive choices that our lineage made, albeit successfully, many generations ago.
2. Protecting an endangered way of life
Wade Davis takes about a human ‘ethnosphere’, which is the sum total of human culture: all the thoughts, dreams, myths, inspirations, and intuitions that we have had since the dawn of consciousness. He argues that this is equally important to the world’s well-being as biological life (which we know as the ‘biosphere’). Whilst both face threats, however, Davis points out that not even the most pessimistic biologist would claim that half the biosphere is facing extinction – yet that is exactly the figure that applies when we are talking about the ethnosphere. The key indicator of a culture’s health is its language. As Dr Renée Grounds, the lead language instructor and youngest fluent speaker of the Euchee tribe, says:
Our heritage languages, our original languages are probably the most critical markers of the health of our communities in terms of our cultural well-being. And that relates to understanding who we are, that relates to understanding what our place is in the world, how we are to conduct ourselves; the special things that have been given to us by the Creator is all carried in the language.
Judged along these lines, traditional societies are under serious threat. Roughly one language dies out every 3 months, which means that by the end of this century, if nothing is done to halt the decline, over 3000 languages will have died out. In the short term, it is estimated that of the world’s current languages, around 450 are spoken by fewer than 10 people. These are the ones on the front line of extinction.
The plight of indigenous peoples can be ignored on two levels. First, we can ignore the very fact of their existence, and go about our lives without considering what they are going through. As TOK students who are trained to think critically and inquisitively about the world, this is clearly not a viable option. The second way is to accept that their numbers are declining, and their ways of life being threatened, but view that decline as the inevitable result of their cultures’ flaws and deficiencies in the modern world. This viewpoint is more likely to be how we see their situation, but how valid is it? Are the challenges they face the same ones that face all societies? Or are there extra pressures on indigenous peoples that would pose a test to any society in the world? Hopefully after reading this section of the website, and learning about how vibrant, dynamic, and incredibly sophisticated indigenous societies often are, you’ll be better equipped to challenge that view, and accept that it is everyone’s responsibility to learn about IKS, and help promote the interests of the societies defined by it.
3. Learning from indigenous knowledge
A third reason for studying indigenous knowledge is what we can learn from it, and use it on both a personal and societal level. Whilst we might be inclined to think of modern knowledge as being able to provide the best answers to the important issues of life, this assumption becomes questionable when one starts to take a more culturally comparative approach to knowledge. If we pick out certain aspects of all societies, we’ll be able to see the value of viewing issues from a different point of view. As K.David Harrison put it:
What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers? What they know – which we’ve forgotten or never knew – may some day save us.”
3a. Views on materialism
In November 2013, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London made a speech that proved rather controversial. Referring to the achievements of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and linking them to the way in which London had become one of the world’s richest and most important cities, he said:
I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.
What Johnson was saying was essentially “Greed is good,” at least for a society that strives to earn a significant proportion of its income through financial service industries. Although he is perhaps a little more open with his feelings than other political leaders, his beliefs mirror those who believe that the acquisition of material goods is the route to happiness, and that life should largely be about working hard in order to bring this about. Many societies are predicated on this outlook, and the great cities of the world function in part as meeting places where invisible commodities are bought and sold, huge quantities of money is invested and reinvested, and fortunes are made. Societies in the west base their concepts of prestige to a large extent on the amount of money individuals have. Those with large salaries, big houses, powerful cars, are respected and deferred to; indeed, those with political power are often people who have large fortunes. Former leaders can expect to begin second careers as highly-paid consultants and speakers; it seems that for some of them, their time spent as world leaders serve only as a prelude to this far more lucrative career.
The indigenous paradigm couldn’t be more different. Societies are based on far more egalitarian lines, with status based on either the skills or the role played within that society, or the age of the person. In addition, the idea of personal wealth is virtually unknown. This links in with the fact that they live with nature, rather than off it, taking only what they require to live, rather than acquiring excess possessions. As Jared Diamond says, “one could say that hunter-gatherers [which make up a large proportion of traditional societies] are fiercely egalitarian, and that they don’t tell anyone, not even a child, to do anything.” To support his point about the materialism of the west, Diamond draws on the thoughts of indigenous people who have relocated to he United States to support his point.
Kids here in the US, and perhaps Americans in general, are obsessed with goods. Upon our last return to California, we were impressed with the last fads or ‘must-haves,’ in this case large flat screen plasma TVs. What will it be six months from now?”
3b. Views on equality in the community
Not only do humans belong to the natural world, so do indigenous societies regard individuals as being an integral part of a community. In the west, particularly in the US, UK, and other European nations, the individual is celebrated. We value thinking for ourselves (indeed, this course is based around it!), celebrate the right to be different, reward those who come up with new ideas, be they in the academic or business world. In short, although we generally accept that there are laws and customs that we must adhere to if society is to function, we also think of ourselves as a collective body of individuals, all with their own right to be different from each other.
In traditional societies, there is far less of an individualistic outlook on life. Members think of themselves as part of a community, and the health of the group as a whole is considered far more important than individual needs and rights. This manifests itself in how society works along more egalitarian lines than industrialised, western societies. This is not so much idealistic as realistic: in order to survive in often challenging conditions, cooperation is valued much more highly than competition, with leadership established through expertise, and disputes solved ‘by re-establishing harmonic relationships… not through retribution.’ (Rebecca Adamson). Sam Challis supports this:
In all hunter-gatherer groups, the community is paramount. Staying alive is only possible if the community is kept alive. You must be able to hunt, and forage, for wild food and medicines so that you, your family, relations and friends can stay alive. Being a good hunter, for instance, means behaving responsibly – sharing your food according to strict rules.
3c. Views on justice and ethics
Indigenous societies often have a very different outlook towards justice compared to their western counterparts. Although it’s fair to point out that this doesn’t always seem to work very effectively – one could point to the level of endemic violence in societies such as the ones in Papua New Guinea – there are certain elements of it with a lot to recommend.
Western societies seek to establish who is to blame for a wrong being committed, followed by a calculation of what price they should then pay for their infringement. If it is a civil case, that price will be a monetary fine; if it is a criminal case, the price could well be a jail sentence. Defects with this system include the fact that it often takes a long time to resolve cases, that the system is undoubtedly skwed in favmour of those with money (as the loser generally has to pay the costs of the winner), and, most importantly, there is no attempt to reconcile the two parties who are involved in the case. When you have cases involving people who will still have to maintain a relationship after the end of the case – such as divorcing parents – the results can be years (or even a lifetime) of emotional suffering.
In contrast, the key belief that indigenous justice is built on is mutual resolution. Because the health of the community is paramount, the aim of justice is to ensure that resentment and ill feeling is no longer harboured. Chief Justice Robert Yassie of the Navajo Nation emphasizes this difference:
Western adjudication is a search for what happened and who did it; Navajo peace-making is about the effect of what happened. Who got hurt? What do they feel about it? What can be done to repair the harm?
Jared Diamond recounts a story from Papua New Guinea in which a car driven by a man name Malo knocked down and killed a young boy, Billy, as he stepped off his school bus. Because they were from different tribes, the incident was not only tragic for Billy’s family, but it also threatened to escalate into more violence. However, using mediators, both parties met and talked, and decided on ‘compensation’ that Malo should give to Billy’s family. Our western understanding of ‘compensation’ is a little different, though, to the way the New Guineans understand it: for them, it is viewed as ‘sorry money’, with the act of providing compensation more important than the figure. Indeed, the compensation paid by Malo consisted of food that was eaten at Billy’s funeral. This was done in a ‘compensation ceremony’ in which Malo himself expressed his regret and grief at having killed a young child, and wept alongside the parents. In short:
…the key element in restoring a damaged relationship is an acknowledgement of and respect for each other’s feelings, so that the two parties can clear the air of anger as well as possible under the circumstances.
So there is a strong emphasis on emotional issues within the justice system, whereas our concept of ensuring ‘objective’ justice means that we base our civil and criminal codes on reason.
3d. Approaches to health, lifestyles, and diet
Over the last 30 years, the number of people suffering from obesity and related health issues such as diabetes has massively increased. It’s estimated that about 1.5 billion people are overweight and obese and that type-2 diabetes (largely caused by excess body weight and lack of physical activity) affects well over 300,000 million people – a figure that is predicted to double by 2030. The American Heart Association estimates that children around the world are on average 15% less fit than their parents. These and other non-communicable health problems such as heart disease, lung cancer, and hypertension are all associated with Western lifestyles, but it’s not just the most developed countries in the world that suffer from these ailments. Countries that have been rapidly westernized, such as Saudi Arabia and the oil producing Arab states, are the places where problems are most pronounced; other areas of particular prevalence include Mexico, China, and South Africa.
In stark contrast are the diets and lifestyles of traditional societies, where non-communicable diseases are sometimes completely unknown. Referring to his first encounters with people in Papua New Guinea, Jared Diamond writes about how impressed he was by their physical condition. They were, he writes:
lean, muscular, physically active, all of them resembling slim Western body-builders. When not carrying loads, they ran along steep mountain trails at a trot, and when carrying heavy loads they walked all day at my own unencumbered pace. I recall a small woman who appeared to weigh no more than 100 pounds, carrying a 70-pound rice bad on her back and suspended by a strap around her forehead, up boulder-strewn river beds and mountains.
The contrasting ways in which western and indigenous peoples approach diet and lifestyle reflect two very different knowledge systems. The first is the product of large, industrialized states, in which food consumption is very separate from food production, and consumers prefer to buy food that is frozen, clean, wrapped in plastic, and has little resemblance to the animal or plant from which it was derived. This is a recent phenomenon: western eating patters have changed more in the last 50 years than they have over the last 10,000. Sarah Somian, a French nutritionist argues that: “The rise of the industrial model of agriculture has contributed greatly to people being disconnected from the food on their plates.” [Guardian Development Network]. So although supermarkets in the US have an average of 47,000 products on sale, those products have never resembled their natural sources less.
Indigenous societies, however, eat what is available rather than what they want, gather and prepare food themselves, and plan ahead in order to ensure that there is always a supply of food for their society. The Chippewa people in the North American state of Michigan, plan traditionally planned seven generations ahead in order to ensure that not only their present society, but also that of their descendants, always had a plentiful supply of raw materials and food. How many of us in western societies has to give that any thought at all? As Dr Martin Reinhardt of Northern Michigan University puts it, “We have lost our primary relationship with our world around us” [Guardian Development Network]
3e. Approaches to the natural world
This takes us back to the key thing that indigenous knowledge systems can teach the west: how to treat and look after the environment. We’ve dealt with the relationship between traditional societies and the earth throughout this chapter, but it’s worth finally providing statistical evidence for this point: indigenous territories around the world comprise just 18-25 % of the Earth’s land surface, but around 80% of its biodiversity, which gives some indication of just how good they are at managing the land on which they live.
Questions and links
1. Linking human sciences and ethics: Is materialism good for society?