An Example of Scientism ‘Columbusing’ Indigenous Knowledge

Today, I read an article published at the Smithsonian website concerning Australian Aboriginal myths and legends about fire-devils (meteorites) leading to ‘fresh scientific discoveries’. It is an example of Western science ‘Columbusing’ Indigenous Knowledge (IK). The holders of the IK were not properly cited or credited but instead were only mentioned as ‘aboriginal guides’ and not by name, or ‘tribe’ in the article, whereas the Western scientists have been named and credited with this ‘discovery’. 

Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Scientism is the Western scientific method, which commonly discredits other ways of knowing, often naming it myths and legends, while it simultaneously capitalizes on the knowledge produced and preserved for generations, even hundreds or thousand of years, by Indigenous Peoples. Situating knowledge systems in this way is an exclusionary tactic that privileges some cultures and some people over others in a hierarchical system based on power and control.

The Smithsonian article is linked above and below.

To Find Meteorites, Listen to the Legends of Australian Aborigines

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

8 thoughts on “An Example of Scientism ‘Columbusing’ Indigenous Knowledge

  1. Your comments on the Smithsonian article about my paper on Aboriginal oral traditions and meteorites is inaccurate and unfairly critical. It appears that you did not read the paper, but instead made a sweeping assumption and generalisation about the motivation of my work and about me as an academic.

    I work in an Indigenous Centre with particular research and teaching interests in Indigenous Knowledge Systems. The main motivation for my work is to study the scientific information encoded in Indigenous Knowledge, showing that Indigenous people were people of science and that Indigenous Knowledge is a very useful way of knowing. Both Western Science and Indigenous Knowledge can learn from, and compliment, each other. My focus is on convergence, not divergence.

    One of the many uses (and certainly not the first) of my research is to show that one could locate meteorites or impact craters from oral tradition. The goal was not (as laid out in the paper) to find any sort of revenue from finding meteorites, but instead to show that oral traditions contain descriptions of past natural events, and those descriptions can be used to shed light on the nature of, and longevity, oral tradition. The fact that meteorites or craters may not be known to Western science is a way of demonstrating that IK contains practical information and useful knowledge.

    The names of the Aboriginal “informants” were not given in the paper or the blog because they were not given in the literature. This was not a case of me or the blog’s author selectively naming Western scientists as “discoverers” and keeping the identities of Aboriginal people in the dark in a effort to prioritise Westerners over Indigenous people. Had those names been provided in the documents, they would have been the first names given in the paper. It is unfortunate that so many people writing about Indigenous issues in the past rarely gave the names of their Aboriginal informants. But with this being an ethnohistoric study, the omission of the Aboriginal man’s name not on me, but a product of selective reporting in the ethnohistorical documents (which occurred some 80 years ago).

    If you read the research paper, you would see that the language group of the Aboriginal man was identified as Luritja. This was not given in the ethnohistoric documents: I identified it by analysing the words spoken by the Aboriginal man.

    The language used in the article – such as use of the (objectifying) term “Aborigines”, “fresh scientific discoveries”, and “myths and tales”, were from the author of the blog post, not be me as author of the paper. I only saw the blog post after it had been published and had no input whatsoever in its writing or publication.

    Perhaps your anger and criticism is aimed at the author of the Smithsonian article, but your blog certainly does not suggest that.

    Duane Hamacher
    Nura Gili, UNSW

  2. Greetings Dr. Hamacher,

    Thank you for taking the time to read my post concerning my criticism of the Smithsonian IK article. It sounds to me, then, like you are informing me that you are an expert concerning the decolonization of IK, and therefore have no need for additional input concerning the social implications surrounding western use of other ways of knowing. Is that how I should understand your response?

  3. I suggest you try to find out the background of the work or contact me for clarification before making sweeping negative and presumptuous statements about it (since you obviously did neither). But it is curious to see a snarky reply rather than acknowledging your false assumptions and comments.

    • Dear Dr. Hamacher,

      With close observation, you will see that I have not criticized your work and that instead my comments (absent of any anger) were concerning the Smithsonian article. Furthermore, I did not make mention of revenue. The ‘Columbusing’ that I mentioned was in reference to the Smithsonian blog’s author’s use of the phrase ‘fresh scientific discovery’ and not to any financial motive on the part of the scientists. The fact that the author of the Smithsonian article did not get your input concerning her interpretation of your study only strengthens my argument. You have pointed out the very issues that I had with the article – the use of colonizing terms such as ‘Aborigines’, ‘fresh scientific discoveries’ and ‘myths and tales’. I also wonder if the Indigenous People’s of Australia can see themselves as being respectfully and authentically represented as she describes their traditional oral Knowledge-Keeping system as some sort of telephone game? I looked at your paper titled, ‘More Accounts of Meteoritic Events in the Oral Traditions of Indigenous Australians’, linked at the bottom of the Smithsonian article. I did not see where you wrote of any ‘telephone game’ and suspect that that analogy was her own style of telephone game – misinterpretation and misrepresentation of your particular work. I also suspect that you and I are closer to convergence than you realize.

      I apologize for my ‘snarkyness’. I think perhaps I simply reacted to your (unfounded) defensiveness. My blog post was never intended to be about your work, but instead it was directed at the Smithsonian blog (as I clearly stated).

  4. Dear Nancy,

    Perhaps my initial reaction was inappropriate, as you said it was directed at the blog author and not me. I think we do rather see eye to eye. My apologies.

    In as much as I disapprove of some of the terms used by the blog author, I do not feel overly critical of her.

    As someone who came from a physics background, I know how scientists can be about anything that cannot be quantified and I can now see how much my views changed after I engrossed myself in Indigenous studies. And I was very supportive of IK then, too. Part of the problem is that scientists are rarely (if ever) exposed to Indigenous Knowledges or Indigenous culture. Many scientists, like the author I suspect, simply *do not know*.

    And that is something I hope we can change.

    • Dear Dr. Hamacher,

      I am glad that we have extended the discussion enough to reach a convergence in understanding and intent. I wish you many years of continued successful research and practice.

      If you do participate in the Christmas celebrations, I would like to wish you many blessings and happy holidays!

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