Jean-Paul Baillargeon, editor - The Handing Down of Culture, Smaller Societies and Globalization


Indigenous Knowledge:Questions, Issues and Challenges1,2

Carole Lévesque*

Over the past fifteen years or so, the subject of Indigenous knowledge — more often referred to as traditional Indigenous knowledge or ecological knowledge3 has attracted growing interest. As Indigenous peoples have emerged as major players and partners on the national and international scene, this knowledge has come to represent a new sphere of cultural and political affirmation for them. Throughout North America, hundreds of documents, produced by the scientific community and by Indigenous and government organizations, have broached the subject from various angles (see Chabot and Lévesque, 2001, among others, for a compilation of the recent literature on the topic). The number of conferences and discussion workshops on Indigenous knowledge is continuing to grow every year, and the legitimacy of this knowledge as a relevant source of information to help protect ecosystems, increase our understanding of environmental phenomena, and manage natural resources has been recognized on countless occasions by the governments of many countries, including Canada. This recognition has also been manifested in the special provisions targeting the protection of this knowledge in numerous international conventions and several national policies and programs.

We can cite as an example the commitments made in this regard at the 1992 Rio Summit (or Earth Summit) that were duly included in the text of the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CNUED, 1992). A similar focus is also seen in the recommendations of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) — which is responsible for ensuring implementation of the provisions of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act — and in some of the provisions of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development’s sustainable development strategy, as well as in the principles advocated by Environment Canada, especially in the context of its Northern Ecosystems Initiative. Several Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) programs also include special provisions that concern not only the knowledge of Indigenous peoples but also the need to integrate this knowledge into scientific knowledge, particularly in projects aimed at protecting and managing natural resources.

There is no doubt that interest in Indigenous knowledge has in part been triggered and reinforced by the growing environmental awareness that has emerged in the West since the mid-1970s. A number of observers have viewed this knowledge, which expresses a different type of relationship with the natural world, as an alternative to the exploitative and disorganized practices of governments and large corporations: practices that are leading to the destruction of plant and animal resources, and thus imperilling the biodiversity of ecosystems and even the very survival of the planet. But despite the popularity of this subject in many spheres, it is still extremely difficult to describe this knowledge on a theoretical or methodological level, which leads to numerous problems when attempts are made to apply this knowledge. In this text I will examine some of the key questions currently being raised in regard to the links and correspondences between Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge, and especially in regard to the nature of the knowledge shared by Indigenous people and the transmission of this knowledge.

1. between contrast and integration

The knowledge specific to Indigenous people can be very broadly defined as oral information that has been handed down from generation to generation for hundreds and even thousands of years.4 This information consists of organized bodies of knowledge, or, in other words, coherent systems of knowledge, which several authors have referred to as Indigenous science (see in particular Clément, 1995). The production of this knowledge is based on a systematic approach aimed at comprehending reality; it relies on the accumulation of diverse data, using a number of methods and intellectual operations (observation, classification, transmission) as well as specialized concepts (Mailhot, 1993). This knowledge is thus seen as the expression of a particular means of apprehending reality; it is encoded in a culture, in the sense that it is a part of culturally-specific systems of representation, and it conveys values and a particular view of the world, of nature and of life.

Chapter 15, continued >


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