Indigenous Knowledge and Western Understanding

Duane Champagne
6/22/11

Much, if not most, of what is taught in universities about indigenous cultures or ways is reinterpreted through the eyes of Western understandings. Indigenous ways of knowing or understandings of the order of the universe, are not taken on their own terms. Indigenous knowledge is not sought through indigenous voices and through indigenous ways of understanding. Many, if not most, university Indian studies programs do not have a class that fully investigates indigenous knowledge, understandings, and ways of knowing from within one or more of the many and diverse indigenous cultural viewpoints.

Academic disciplines have their own perspectives and worldviews, which they apply to the study aspects of indigenous cultures or histories for the purposes of reinterpreting their own theoretical frameworks. In many good senses, there is nothing wrong with their partial reinterpretations since they often lead to enhanced cross cultural knowledge. Most academic disciplines do not want to take indigenous perspectives as holistic visions, or as valid and continuing ways of living and understanding the world.

Academic disciplines have other agendas, goals, and values. While scholars take note of indigenous ways or aspects of indigenous cultures, they are gathering information and data for their own goals and purposes. The disciplines of academia are often characterized as like tribal groups, where disciplinary community demands strong intellectual conformity and commitment to the goals and values of the group. Work outside or against the general trend, as in tribal communities, often leads to loss of respect and status. And like tribal communities, there is strong emphasis on egalitarian participation, much discussion over basic issues and ideas, and argument about future possible directions.

In the early 1970s in Custer Died for Your Sins, Vine Deloria Jr. took academics to task because they had tunnel vision interests in collecting data for their theories, but paid little attention to the social, cultural, economic, and political conditions and issues confronting indigenous peoples. Nowadays, many social scientists and legal scholars have greater concerns about the contemporary issues of indigenous communities. American Indian studies as a discipline has not fully emerged, but many Native American studies scholars focus on indigenous points of view and address legal and political issues that tribal communities believe are of central importance.

In a certain sense, the rise of American Indian studies has filled a gap of bringing indigenous perspectives to the university. However, many indigenous studies programs are dominated by inter-disciplinary viewpoints, most of which do not center an indigenous perspective. The inter-disciplinary character of most Indian studies programs comes from budgetary concerns, where anyone interested in teaching about some aspect of indigenous peoples, is invited to participate. Universities and colleges focus on ethnic and cultural diversity, while indigenous perspectives of cultural and political sovereignty are less well understood. In such environments indigenous perspectives are not central and are subordinated to other disciplinary perspectives. Often indigenous scholars are trained in Western ways of knowledge, and often perpetuate those views in the classroom. Disciplinary perspectives can become more important to them than indigenous perspectives. Often, indigenous scholars are not free to fully express their views or perspectives within their disciplines. To do so often results in degradation of their career possibilities. Often indigenous scholars are strong activists, but their views are influenced by perspectives from the Western industrial world, and often have little connection or effective contact with the day-to-day issues that tribal community members are engaged in.

Indigenous studies students are at a loss when they learn how to critique Western society, but gain very little knowledge that is usable and effective for addressing contemporary cultural, economic, and political issues within tribal communities. Indigenous students need greater intellectual understanding about what is an indigenous perspective in the contemporary world. Indigenous studies programs need to prepare students for addressing contemporary community issues from the point of view of indigenous communities.

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