Towards defining western research on indigenous knowledge

WHAT IS INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE? VOICES FROM THE ACADEMY. Ladislaus M. Semali & Joe L. Kincheloe (eds.). New York & London: Falmer Press. 1999. Pp. 381. Pbk. US$30.
Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Progler

Rabi' al-Awwal 12, 1439 1999-12-01

Book Review

by Yusuf Progler (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 19, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1439)

Among the western civilization's more dubious claims is that western man possesses the ability to define and delimit all knowledge. While colonization used murder and bribery to great effect, a lasting impact of the western incursion is in the area of epistemology, the nature of knowledge. In a two-pronged effort to dominate the world, western missionaries, explorers, traders, soldiers and academics worked to systematically destroy local knowledge systems and replace them with western-derived knowledge systems. Losing their own knowledge base, non-western peoples fell pray to western designs, and perpetuated their own subjugation.

But this process was not complete, and there is an ongoing struggle to redefine knowledge according to the needs and views of different cultures and civilizations. The western knowledge systems, once reigning supreme with a veneer of objectivity and universality, are now being questioned. This process of questioning is taking place within the west itself, but the major challenges to western systems of knowledge are coming from non-western peoples who have begun to rethink their dependence and allegiance. This struggle over normative definitions of what constitutes knowledge is taking place on a variety of fronts, including western academic circles.

What is Indigenous Knowledge?, edited by scholars of education Ladislaus Semali and Joe L. Kincheloe of Penn State University, brings together an international cohort of voices in a volume intended to introduce a series of books that will explore different aspects of the debates on indigenous knowledge both in the west and elsewhere. As this discussion is being initiated by western academics, it seems fitting that they lay out their intentions and goals for the volume and the series.

According to the editors, the volume intends to explore the "benefits to be derived from the inclusion of indigenous knowledge in the academy." They urge caution and care with respect to who should be talking about indigenous knowledge, and in the introduction set out to "map our positionalities and the reasons we have chosen to undertake this work." Thus, according to Kincheloe, "I understand my privilege as a white male and the potential for the appropriation of indigenity that such a position possesses. Employing such a reflective awareness, I attempt to monitor my relationship with indigenous culture and indigenous knowledge." Proceeding from this sense of self-awareness by acknowledging one's own ethnocentrism as a pre-requisite to any study of other peoples and cultures, studying indigenous knowledge can "foster empowerment and justice in a variety of culture contexts" by seeking "epistemologies that move in ways unimagined by most western academic impulses."

The project seeks to recover knowledge systems deemed irrelevant and denigrated by the western colonial system, primarily through its educational institutions. In a sense, the editors and contributing authors seem to want to colonize the western academy with non-western knowledges, in full awareness of the political implications of such an endeavor. The resulting appreciation of indigenous epistemology can provide western peoples with "another view of knowledge production in diverse cultural sites," while at the same time situating western knowledge in its own cultural setting, instead of as a universal.

Intertwined with this assertion is the realization that western knowledge systems are increasingly being questioned from within and without, a prospectus that the editors and authors fully appreciate and encourage. So, according to the editors, "One of the concepts western analysts have learned in their encounters with non-western knowledge systems is that western certainty cannot survive, that the confrontation with difference out of necessity demands some degree of epistemological contingency." The form of this contingency imbues the project with meaning.

Studying indigenous knowledge fosters "greater awareness of neo-colonialism and other western social practices that harm indigenous peoples," and serves as a reminder that "traditional knowledge has been lost and world views have been shattered." At the same time, the collection is not naive, nor does it seek to provide western recipes for reclaiming lost epistemologies. Rather, the authors recognize that "questions of cultural renewal and indigenous knowledge are not as easy as some represent them to be," warning against essentialist notions of pure indigenous knowledges providing solutions for the west.

Politically, such research can "facilitate indigenous peoples' struggle against the ravages of colonialism, especially its neo-colonialist articulation in the domains of the political, economic, and pedagogical," which can "facilitate their fight against further neo-colonial encroachments," and help in "solving their problems in their own ways." Nevertheless, the authors know that using indigenous knowledge studies to understand and evaluate local problems and strategies "will always have to deal with the reality of colonization."

Rather than being passive observers, the authors seek to reveal the political aspects of academic work, and encourage western intellectuals to see themselves "as agents of justice," putting their studies to beneficial use. They suggest three goals of studying indigenous knowledge in the western academy: 1) to help western peoples to relate to their habitat in ways that are more harmonious; 2) to liberate peoples who have been conquered by a modernist nation state system; and 3) to provide a perspective on human experience that differs from western empirical science.

Within this methodological and political framework, the editors bring together a cohort of scholars and academics from a range of backgrounds and disciplines. All are working in western-oriented academic institutions; they represent voices from Africa, Australia, Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as Europe and the United States. Topics include ecological literacy from indigenous perspectives, steps toward decolonizing education, reflections on non-western mathematics and science, indigenous approaches to agriculture and farming, connections between intellectual and spiritual work, views on indigenous music and languages, and moves toward deconstructing western academic representations of non-western knowledge.

The volume acknowledges the role of religion in defining knowledge, but it leaves open the question of who defines and validates spirituality. Relying on the usual suspicion toward Judeo-Christian religion in secular academic circles, such a project may marginalize the role of other revealed religions in discussions of knowledge systems. In fact, the book begs the question of whether or not bodies of revealed knowledges are indigenous. To accept, for example, Islamic knowledge systems in such a scheme would entail broadening the definition of indigenity beyond the current model that seems intertwined with nationalism and cultures that are based on specific regions and ecosystems. While opposition to Judeo-Christian religion as the foundation of western civilization and its colonialism seems defensible, it remains to be seen whether the project can develop a coherent vision of knowledge that includes other world religious traditions, and which avoids seeing other religions through the lens of western religions, even those that appear similar.

The volume has promise, as does the book series, but it is geared almost entirely toward a western academic audience and thus may fall on either deaf or uninterested ears. The scope of the work is limited to voices from the academy, but the series seems to be attempting to attract thinkers and activists whose legitimacy is not filtered through the colonizing lens of western academia. To colonize the western academy with indigenous knowledge will require setting in place the administrative structures to assure that people whose legitimacy and validation come from a variety of sources and settings have a meaningful voice in the academy. This may entail the ambitious project of rethinking the hierarchical structure of rewards and certificates currently in place in the western-oriented system of knowledge production and validation, and may even mean abandoning the Ph.D. as the sole license to speak for academics.

In a climate of faddish adoption of exotica, and without meaningful administrative support, the present project may only succeed in giving some local color to an overarchingly western academic institutional system.

[Dr Yusuf Progler is Assistant Professor of Education, Brooklyn College, City University of New York. USA.]

Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1999

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