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Indigenous and contemporary frame of knowledge


August 20, 2016 by jayeren

“You would suffer if you close your ears to elder.” This is one saying that every Chinese child has been told by his/her grandparents. Few grandparents have professional knowledge in biology, sociology, or any other subjects you can name that require scientific method to gain knowledge; yet they tend to give out right suggestions about what you should eat at specific age stages, how you should behave so that you would get along with people, and all sorts of ideas about what works out, what doesn’t. We learn knowledge from grandparents that they gain from experience, and we learn theories at school from books that is alleged to be theoretically accurate for most of the time. This combination of rational and empirical thinking constructs our knowledge system of current times. Though some times there can be a conflict between the two thinkings, and we wonder which we should follow so that things turn out the best way. While we are trying to figure out how to make things work out perfectly, thousands of years ago before all sorts of revolutions, indigenous people were still working on how to make a living. How did they gain knowledge and make it last for generations? Is indigenous knowledge system any different from the one we have after centuries of evolutions? To what extent are they similar in terms of gaining knowledge? To answer these questions, we would need to compare the main features between these two knowledge systems.

Due to lack of systematic methods of utilising resources, indigenous people draw on past experiences to form their own knowledge system. Therefore, indigenous knowledge system is empirical, and this process rely heavily on sense perception and memory. They use the five sense organs to observe things. For example, Maoris may accidentally find out that friction between wood and hay makes fire. They see the blaring flame, they feel the heat, and they smell the burnt odour. Thus, in their memories, there is a connection between “friction in wood and hay” and “fire”. In the end they created a way of drilling wood to make fire according to their experiences. This is one of many phenomena that indigenous people observe in the wild nature.

Nowadays, people gain knowledge that is not taught at school by empirical means similar to indigenous people. Elderlies have longer experience, thus they find out patterns in life and make them better “prophets” than young people. The other component of the current knowledge system, rational thinking, also plays an irreplaceable role. Natural and human science, the two main categories of knowledge, requires rational thinking like logic and reasonings. People are taught with a system of logic that help us identify and value things. People use logic to form hypothesis about things and conduct experiments to prove their points. People gain knowledge and draw conclusion from this process. In the end, these would be transmitted to many other people as knowledge. Apparently indigenous people lacked this process of gaining knowledge, therefore their knowledge system is relatively less complicated than the one of current times.

Observation is the most primitive way of gaining knowledge that indigenous people adopt since there weren’t any ancient experience that they could learn from. As soon as they’ve formed a knowledge system that is suitable for a living, they would pass on the knowledge to the younger generation.  They do have their own language, though they do not keep a written record of the knowledge, they store and transmit knowledge by memorising and telling other people in person. Oral means is the main tool in the indigenous knowledge system. This is very different from how knowledge is transmitted in current times. Language has evolved over time so that things can be explained more clearly; invention of paper and printing occurred so that knowledge can be recorded without distortion of meaning or omissions of details. With the internet and electronics, knowledge can be easily recorded and sent to all over the world immediately. Combination of written records and oral lessons forms the modern knowledge system, which is more accurate, available for more people, and can be more easily traced to its origin when people want to question or challenge it.

Tracing back to the primitive indigenous knowledge system, we can find some connections between the ancient and modern times’ way of gaining knowledge. What is different is that after all the evolutions and developments, we own a more sophisticated and reliable path of gaining knowledge than before. Despite all these, it is the main idea of indigenous knowledge system that formed the modern one and brought the human kind uncountable treasure.


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