Indigenous Knowledge in the Decolonial Era
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The American Indian Quarterly 28.3&4 (2004) 618-633



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Indigenous Knowledge in the Decolonial Era

Western knowledge faces two dilemmas. First, Western knowledge rests itself on a foundation of reason to understand the true nature of the world, yet it also privileges itself as the fiduciary of all knowledge with authority to authenticate or invalidate other knowledge (when it gets around to it). Colonial-power-knowledge conceptualizes intellectual colonization in Foucaultian terms, in this case with a Western knowledge fiduciary acting as guardian over its Indigenous knowledge ward (Foucault 1977; Feldman 1997). I suggest that the resulting contradiction embroiders some Western knowledge expertise with unreasonableness through its ignorance of other knowledge. Posing as the fiduciary of all knowledge exposes the limits of Western knowledge.

Early twentieth-century poet Carl Sandburg poses the knowledge landscape as circles in the sand that help explain Western knowledge's conundrum. "The white man drew a circle in the sand," Sandburg begins immediately, "and told the red man 'This is what the Indian knows.'" Continuing, Sandburg describes the white man drawing a big circle around the smaller one: "This is what the white man knows." Then, as though responding to international development and Western knowledge experts, Sandburg shows the Indian sweeping an immense circle around both rings in the sand. "This is where the white and the red man know nothing" (Sandburg 1971, 30). Often it never seems to dawn on experts that there are limits to their knowledge.

In the early twentieth century the philosophical syzygy of modernity included the spheres of Marxian ideology and liberal theory. Sandburg poses his view of colonial-power-knowledge amidst Western self-doubts after the horrors of attempted world colonization became known and [End Page 618] disasters like the Titanic and World War I suggested certain Western hubris. In "Worms and the Wind" Sandburg describes creatures surviving in the dark in an earthen myopia. "Worms would rather be worms," he writes. "Ask a worm and he says, 'Who knows what a worm knows?'" In this worm world we are told that worms like tunnels. They like the dark, though worm multiculturalism includes zigzag worms that hate circle worms, and curve worms generally mistrust the squares. Social classes include a longer class that slithers further than a short class, with middle-class satisfaction at being "neither long nor short." In their sightless, myopic night, worms fight worm wars and didactically instruct their young not to feel sorry for the aged "unless you have a been a worm and lived in worm places and read worm books" (Sandburg 1971, 72). The intellectual tone concerns only the need to consider knowledge of the worm world at the exclusions of nonworms.

Ironically, though Sandburg is a product of his time and space in the early 1900s, he creates a tableau that allegorically describes my argument. Often Western knowledge experts behave similarly to Sandburg's worms. They seem unconcerned with other knowledge except to validate their own master narrative. The final line of Sandburg's poem depicts Western knowledge's tunnel vision. "Worms underground never hear the wind overground and sometimes they ask 'What is this wind we hear of?'"

Colonial-power-knowledge communicates particular cultural presuppositions that elevate Western knowledge as real knowledge while ignoring other knowledge. To show the wormish myopia of this stance, my discussion appears in two sections that divide the intellectual nightcrawlers into two parts. First, I examine theories that portray large systems or schemas to the unfolding of history and human development. This type of schematic or paradigmatic view of development has Marxian implications. I describe this view to demonstrate that generalized views of human development exhibit common features and themes shared among many Western knowledge experts. For example, academics Immanuel Wallerstein (1995) and Eric Hobsbawm (1999) promote the Western knowledge master narrative. Second, I review popular literature to demonstrate how the master narrative is communicated—in this case Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999) and Krech III's The Ecological Indian (1999). These Western knowledge theorists popularize progress and evolution as...