To the Western mind, socialised into the reductionist world view, the debate about science and indigenous knowledge is binary: science vs indigenous knowledge. Science is Science, and anything else is not.
To the Indigenous and decolonised minds, there is both/and. It’s not that indigenous knowledge is better than science, or that it should replace it, it’s that it we can have both.
The Western mind interprets both/and as a binary, but both/and means the two or more things, as well as an additional something that is more than the sum of the parts.
Where western minds are busy arguing if indigenous knowledge is science, botanist and first nations woman Robin Wall Kimmerer exemplifies how to do both at the same time.
Kimmerer is a member of the Potawatomi First Nation, an indigenous people of the Western Great Lakes are in the US. She’s a botanist and plant ecologist, and author of the highly acclaimed Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants – Distinguished Teaching Professor.
Kimmerer is Distinguished Teaching Professor and Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, at the State University of New York, where she teaches environmental and forest biology.
In this 2020 interview on Canadian CBC she talks about the how the indigenous mind approaches understanding the world.
“As a scientist, I have been trained to refer to our relatives, the plants and the animals … the water and the Earth herself as ‘it,'” she explained, contrasting what she learned studying the Potawatomi language.
“What I came to understand was that in Potawatomi languages, we characterise the world into those who are alive and the things which are not. So we speak a grammar of animacy,” said Kimmerer. “And that’s because in the beautiful verb-based language, a language based on being and changing and agency … the whole world is alive.”
This fundamental difference determines whether our primary relationship with the non-human world is one of taking, or one of reciprocity.
The CBC interviewer shares that water had just been discovered on the moon, and that one of the first statements made by NASA was,
We don’t know yet if we can use it as a resource.
It is the colonisation mentality extended to Grandmother Moon. What a suprising, wonderful gift, not a resource but a gift, a wonder, a commonality. And the first impulse is to take it?
Right there is the difference. The Western mind struggles to understand how water on a dead planet can be a surprising, wonderful gift, not of resource for us to use, but a source of wonder, of commonality. Or perhaps we can see that but it’s just poetry right? Not of use in the practical world.
The thing to understand there is that once one can see the world in this way, once we practice it, then other things can be seen that are invisible to the Western world view. Indigenous/decolonised minds are multilingual, the Western mind is monolingual and often doesn’t even know there is such a thing as other languages. For people thinking this is about another round of hating on Westerners, it’s not. There’s no reason Westerners cannot be multilingual too. It’s learned skill.
From the interview, conventional economics asks,
What more can we take?
But there is a better question,
What does the earth ask of us?
Immediately this question changes us. No longer constrained as consumers and takers, it gives us agency, that we have gifts to give back to the earth. We can be in reciprocity.
Kimmerer presents us with a definition of sustainability:
… the ethic of if we sustain the ones that are sustaining us, then the earth will last forever. But the ethic of constantly taking will certainly not lead us to the kind of longevity and persistence on this gorgeous planet.
It’s not that we could never interact with the water on the moon, it’s that we don’t use extraction and consumption as a starting point. And using a different starting point yields different results, for the water and in ourselves.
If Western science excels at pulling things apart and seeing the isolated detail, Indigenous ways of knowing are adept at not so much putting the pieces together as seeing them as a whole in the first place. It’s about the relationship between all the things. And as Kimmerer points to above, the ‘things’ are not things, and when humans change our relationship to the non-human world, different relationships and knowledge arise. There is no ‘it’.
She talks about her unease at the term “natural resources” and suggests replacing it with “Earthly Gifts”, not one-way gifts, but a relationship of mutuality. Too hippy for many western minds, but the point is clear – we don’t have to see the world in terms of what we can take from it and make use of, there are whole cultures that relate with the worlds as relatives.
Kimmerer tells of giving a talk to the people in a Department of Naural Resources, who wanted to change their names. She suggested the Department of Earthly Gifts, which lit up the room. People want to work for the Department of Earthly Gifts, they want to create a sustainable world, but it is the Western mindset that is stopping us.
Suddenly it makes sense of those cultures where reciprocity is core and where what you can give, rather than what you can acquire, determines your mana. These are the values that underlie sustainability.
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If the Western mind asks ‘is indigenous knowlege science?’ and poses this as a binary, I then have to ask if
science the Western mind has a problem sharing. What harm would come to science to acknowledge that there is such a thing as Western science, that there are other kinds of science, and that there are other ways of knowing in addition to science that are also important for understanding the world and creating meaning for human experience?
This plurality doesn’t mean giving up the tool of the reductionist view. The option isn’t a binary one of science vs science ruined, but of human knowledge expanded and deepened. We can do both/and.