The American Indian Quarterly 28.3&4 (2004) 373-384
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Anticolonial Strategies for the Recovery and Maintenance of Indigenous Knowledge
Leanne R. Simpson
Indigenist thinkers have advocated for the recovery and promotion of Traditional Indigenous Knowledge (IK) systems as an important process in decolonizing Indigenous nations and their relationships with settler governments, whether those strategies are applied to political and legal systems, governance, health and wellness, education, or the environment.1 Recovering and maintaining Indigenous worldviews, philosophies, and ways of knowing and applying those teachings in a contemporary context represents a web of liberation strategies Indigenous Peoples can employ to disentangle themselves from the oppressive control of colonizing state governments. Combined with the political drive toward self-determination, these strategies mark resistance to cultural genocide, vitalize an agenda to rebuild strong and sustainable Indigenous national territories, and promote a just relationship with neighboring states based on the notions of peace and just coexistence embodied in Indigenous Knowledge and encoded in the original treaties.2
After centuries of benefiting from the promotion of European colonialism and the denial of Indigenous Knowledge as a legitimate knowledge system, the Western academy is now becoming interested in certain aspects of Indigenous Knowledge, particularly those aspects that directly relate to the Western conceptualizations of ecology and environment.3 Over the past fifteen years Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) has received much attention in United Nations–sanctioned forums concerned with biodiversity and sustainable development, and this has sparked the curiosity of scientists working in these areas.4 Those aspects of TEK that are most similar to data generated by the scientific method are seen as a potential resource, holding answers to the environmental [End Page 373] problems afflicting modern colonizing societies, while the spiritual foundations of IK and the Indigenous values and worldviews that support it are of less interest often because they exist in opposition to the worldview and values of the dominating societies.5 Most Western scientists focus on TEK as a resource for baseline data in areas where Western scientific data is lacking, since a greater volume of factual knowledge is equated with the better management of natural resources, primarily because it affords humans greater control over those environments.6 It is this line of thinking that drives ecologists to move from their intellectually comfortable spaces and forge into the alleged "practicality" of TEK.
Initially, many Indigenous people viewed this new interest with optimism and hope, seeing an opportunity to indigenize environmental thinking and policy to the betterment of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples and to advance the agenda of decolonization and liberation. An extensive review of the literature regarding TEK in these fields, however, tells a different story, as academics who forge into this new territory often repeat the mistakes of the past.7 This has not gone unnoticed by Indigenous Peoples, and interactions around TEK and resource management, conservation, sustainable development, and biodiversity have become important sites of resistance and mobilization for Indigenous Knowledge holders and political leaders advocating for Indigenous control over Indigenous territories and Indigenous Knowledge and promoting a decolonized and just approach to the coexistence of Indigenous and non-Indigenous nations.8
Much of the academic literature on TEK has focused on how to define it, why it might be useful to scientists, and how to integrate it into Western scientific frameworks to facilitate environmental management and problem solving.9 "The loss of Traditional Knowledge" has also become a prominent theme in the literature because it is of concern to Indigenous Peoples and academics alike. Yet a critical analysis of why Indigenous Knowledge is threatened or is becoming "lost" rarely moves beyond the rather simplistic assertion that the "Elders are dying" or the assumption that IK systems are more vulnerable than Western systems simply because they are oral in nature.10 This kind of Eurocentric analysis is unfortunate because it fails to recognize how and why Traditional Indigenous Knowledge systems became threatened in the first place, it undermines the inherently Indigenous processes involved in transmitting [End Page 374] IK, and it devalues the rigor...