What stands out the most to me is the contrast between indigenous ways of knowing and the ways of knowing that are prevalent in the dominant mainstream U.S. culture. For example, a general way to describe these different ways of knowing is to discuss them in terms of what Geert Hofstede described as the cultural dimensions of individualism versus collectivism. Sometimes, these ways of knowing are referred to as one’s worldview.
The notion of individualism means that members of western cultures tend to think of themselves as being independent. Competition, achievement, and personal goals are valued. Success is understood as being the result of individual effort, which implies that an individual is solely responsible for what one has accomplished and gained, even though others may have assisted them in achieving their success. In contrast, Indigenous Peoples describe a very different understanding their world. Often, they embrace a collectivistic culture that emphasizes interdependence. These different ways of knowing are at seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum, so to speak, and therefore I will discuss them in terms of indigenous ways of knowing versus mainstream (western) ways of knowing.
One of the most notable differences between indigenous thought and western thought concerns the notion of proper land use. More specifically, the western worldview has been shaped by a history that embraces the belief in a God-given edict for man to subdue the earth. This idea led to the notion that the land and all that is on it are natural resources. Land is to be held by private ownership, and used for the purpose of resource exploitation and capitalistic gain.
In contrast to western notions of private land ownership, Indigenous Peoples describe a very different relationship with the land. Terms such as Mother Earth, and Grandfather Rock, for example, describe a kinship relationship with the land. Whitt, Roberts, Norman and Grieves (2001) describe the relationship between people and the land as humans “belonging to the land”, not the other way around. In this indigenous worldview, Whitt et al. (2001) explain, humans are indebted to the earth and its many interrelated (interconnected and interdependent) systems, and therefore they have an important role to play. That is, humans have the important responsibility to act in a manner that promotes the continuance of interdependent relationships that will, in turn, provide for the humans and their progeny’s continued well being and existence.
Therefore, one of the most important indigenous values is respect for all beings, living and non-living. The complex knowledge-keeping systems that Indigenous Peoples have created present knowledge in a way that shapes a view of the world as being a web of interconnected and interdependent relationships. Those with an indigenous worldview are aware of and respect the Earth’s interconnected and interdependent systems, whereas the those with a western worldview are only recently beginning to understand this very complex reality.
This awareness of interrelatedness shapes ideas about the nature of reality for Indigenous Peoples in ways that are, perhaps, very difficult for others to understand. An example of such is the notion of humans being in a kin-type relationship with animals, plants and even rocks, and these beings have not only life, but also a spirit. Yet, this is exactly what Tinker (2004) explained in The Stones Shall Cry Out when he wrote that “Indians have a notion of interrelationship” and a respect “for all life forms” . . . “including rocks and trees”. Tinker took this idea one step further as he discussed how privilege (unearned advantage) was constructed when western society imagined, with their scientific reasoning, notions of evolution,
Rather than elevate human beings to the apex of an evolutionary ascendency (i.e., Darwin’s common descent), the lack of human privileging over these other life forms means that Indians understand that all life shares equal status and that value, personhood, and intelligence must be recognized in all life (Tinker, 2004).
This sentiment reveals the indigenous value of equality as being quite distinct from the sort of distorted notions of equality that allow for a competitive and hierarchical social order (where ideas shape systems that privilege some while disadvantaging others), as is the case with the western worldview.
Thus, we can see that the western individualistic worldview is deficient. The belief in individualism, perhaps, clouds people’s ability to see that humans are dependent on (and interdependent with others) and these relationships are important for their own well-being and survival. Therefore, people need to act with respect and responsibility toward all of their relations – including animals, plants, water, air, and yes, even rocks. This information about interdependence, respect, human responsibility, and true equality are present in indigenous knowledge systems, and indigenous ways of knowing shape a more egalitarian collectivistic worldview for the people who understand this complex reality.
Tinker, G. E. (2004). The stones shall cry out: consciousness, rocks, and Indians. Wicazo Sa Review, 19(2), 105-125.
Whitt, L. A., Roberts, M., Norman, W., & Grieves, V. (2001). Belonging to land: Indigenous knowledge systems and the natural world. Okla. City UL Rev., 26, 701.
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