What is Indigenous Traditional Knowledge?

The term ‘Indigenous Peoples’ indicates a pan-tribal identity in this age of mass communications and technology. Representations by Indigenous people regarding the essential elements of traditional knowledge are quite consistent: “Long before the development of modern science, which is quite young, indigenous peoples have developed their ways of knowing how to survive and also of ideas about meanings, purposes and values. It has become customary to refer to this kind of knowledge as “indigenous knowledge” or “traditional knowledge.”(Magga, 2005, p.2) Beside this we can see the understanding developed through international consultations by UNESCO (2002) in the framework of joint work with Internal Council of Science (ICSU) which states:


“Traditional knowledge is a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations maintained and developed by peoples with extended histories of interaction with the natural environment. These sophisticated sets of understandings, interpretations and meanings are part and parcel of a cultural complex that encompasses language, naming and classification systems, resource use practices, ritual, spirituality and worldviews.” (p.9)



These views are consistent with Canadian and American work in this area (Battiste, 2005; Barnhardt & Kawagley, 1999, 2005). Some contrasts between Indigenous knowledge and western scientific knowledge were charted by Wolfe et. al (1991:12) in this way:


Mode of Knowing Indigenous knowledge Western scientific knowledge
Relationship Subordinate Dominant
Dominant mode of thinking Intuitive Analytical
Communication Oral, teaching through story telling Literate, Didactic
Characteristics Holistic Subjective Experimental Reductionistic, Objective Positivist
Data creation Slow/Inclusive Fast/Selective
Prediction Short time cycles Recognises the onset of long- term cycles Short-term linear, Poor long-term prediction
Explanation Spiritual – includes the Inexplicable Scientific Hypotheses Theory and Laws
Biological classification Ecological Inclusive-internally differentiating


Aboriginal paradigms include ideas of constant flux, all existence consisting of energy waves/spirit, all things being animate, all existence being interrelated, creation/existence having to be renewed, space/place as an important referent, and language, songs, stories, and ceremonies as repositories for the knowledge that arise out of these paradigms. (Little Bear 2009, p. 8)


For Marie Battiste (2005) it is vital that Indigenous Knowledge be defined and contextualized by indigenous people. Eurocentric understanding has been a ‘cognitive imperialism’ – “a form of cognitive manipulation used to disclaim other knowledge bases and values. “ (p.9) In Canada, Indigenous knowledge can fill in ethical and knowledge gaps in Western systems and make important contributions to updating and changing the failed education policies for First Nations in Canada (p.3) Internationally, Indigenous knowledge is seen as having a valuable contribution to make to scientific, conservation, pedagogy and sustainable development (Battiste 2002, p.8)


Traditional knowledge is dynamic, holistic, intergenerational, linked to experience on traditional lands and the integrity of the knowledge depends on maintaining the “integrity of the land itself.” (Battiste 2005, p.8) Some features include:


  1. Context embedded: Indigenous knowledge is passed on through observation and ‘doing’. Knowledge is embedded in the natural environment and includes the knowledge and skills needed for survival.
  2. Holistic Knowledge: all Knowledge is connected. Indigenous knowledge is constructed as stories, traditions, skills, values, myths all together presenting a holistic picture of interdependence of humans and their environment.
  3. Competency: Indigenous knowledge sees learning  as “competency” (Barnhardt, R. , Kawagley, A.O. 1999, p. 2) as the immediate ability to apply knowledge and survive.
  4. Living Interdependence:  Indigenous people know that humans are inseparable from the land, the earth. For Indigenous peoples traditional knowledge sees “all my relations” including all species and the earth; which maintains sustainable, respectful and sacred connections to the land.
  5. Long Term Time Perspective:  circular time with a “multi-generational perspective” (p. 14) and a long term sustainable viewpoint for decisions
  6. Dynamic Cultures: Indigenous cultures have been quick to adapt to new technologies, try to improve their circumstances, modifying and adapting the colonial structures to their own purposes, while maintaining their relationship to the land.
  7. Community Values: The value of family, culture, and community is above other values. The notion of “it takes a whole community to raise a child” is much more of a reality in indigenous communities with extended families and relations. Humans are seen as part of the natural world, not the masters.

(adapted from Battiste (2005) , and (Barnhardt, R. , Kawagley, A.O. 1999)

The Alaskan Native Knowledge Network further elaborates from their own unique perspective: traditional knowledge is passed down through the generations through language, stories and songs, rituals and ceremonies, and legends. It includes common understandings of ways of life given to the people in the past so that they can live in harmony with the environment and each other, stories about origins and often prophecies of the future. Spiritual wisdom is inseparable from understandings about the land, the plants and animals and the ways that people live and relate to each other and the land. Traditions of ‘keeper of the knowledge’ are often identified through sacred artifacts and objects that are passed down to individuals carefully chosen for their spiritual and personal qualities, along with the oral instructions regarding their use and place in community life. (Pepion, 1999; Little Bear, 2009, p.9; www.ankn.uaf.edu)


“Actions currently being taken by indigenous people in communities throughout the world clearly demonstrate that a significant “paradigm shift” is under way in which indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing are beginning to be recognized as consisting of complex knowledge systems with adaptive integrity of their own.” (Barnhardt and Kawagley, 2000?, p. 2) These characteristics of Indigenous knowledge have important common threads with new pedagogical approaches that relate to the “best practices’ in the next section.


The traditions that govern Indigenous communities have enabled people to live sustainably in their environment for generations. “They believe all plants, winds, mountains, rivers, lakes, and creatures of the earth possess a spirit, and therefore have consciousness and life. Everything is alive and aware, requiring that relationships be maintained in a respectful way so as not to upset the balance.” (p. 9) Values of respect, honesty, integrity, reciprocity and co-operation are the values needed to survive in this living, interconnected system. What are the implications of these ways of knowing for pedagogy and education?


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