Indigenous Knowledges Essay

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The plural term indigenous knowledges is used to reflect the great diversity not only among native peoples of the world, but within any continent or area. Indigenous means to be of a place. Thus, indigenous knowledges are approaches to understanding reality among persons and groups who understand the living energy and relationships from inhabiting an area for a very long time. This conception excludes Western civilization, which through colonization has carried its knowledge from a primarily European home to all parts of the world. The colonizing Western powers denigrated native ways of knowing, considered themselves superior, and often ignored the great diversity of native peoples and the opportunity to learn from them. While recognizing the great diversity, this entry admittedly cannot do justice to all indigenous peoples’ knowledge. Its focus is on the indigenous peoples of North America.

Written Versus Oral Tradition

Writing is a linear process and involves a complex relationship between the writer, reader, and text. Describing the holistic knowledge of native peoples in a linear way distorts it, especially given the social, cultural, and historical contexts that too often considered indigenous knowledge unworthy of any consideration; it was deemed nothing more than myths and superstitions of an illiterate people. Oral stories, so vital to native cultures, allow for circular holism and speaker-listener interaction.

Oral stories reflect the nature of indigenous knowledge: It is a lived knowledge; knowledge based in experience rather than divorced from human action; fragile and noneternal. Indigenous people believe that by listening and seeing the connectedness of all things around them, understanding begins. Seeing is not merely perceiving images, but seeking to understand relationships. Listening is not merely receiving sound, but hearing to see or to understand. Nothing is strange or out of place in this perspective, as seeming incongruities are remembered to be understood as more experience is obtained. Stories are altered and added to as knowledge is gained through living in a connected relationship with all that is around.

These relationships are important because native understanding begins with personality or answering the question “Who am I?” For native persons, this is not an individual inquiry, separate from the world; rather, it recognizes the collective. The universe is personal and connected; knowledge of self is not separate from other knowledge. Native people believe that a living energy fills the universe and is in all things. This power, along with place and relationships among all things, produces personality.

Looking At Relations

For indigenous people, all things have personality in that all things have energy and are related. Indigenous knowledge is interested in the personality of all things. Western knowledge seeks to measure shape, form, and characteristics so that things might be classified. Native peoples look for actions of things in relation to other things. By observing correlations, native peoples begin the process to understand the totality of relationships. They are not so much interested in cause and effect in an isolated, singular way, but seek to understand a holistic interaction.

Whereas Western knowledge is divided among literature, philosophy, science, and religion, native knowledge does not make such divisions. Whereas Western knowledge elevates some areas above others and perhaps totally dismisses some areas, native knowledge does not. This results from the differences in knowledge sources. Western knowledge consists of data that are justified as true through evidence. Native knowledge is lived knowledge gained from experience in listening and observing while paying attention to relationships. In living, the stories, beliefs, and observations are related and unified into a holistic, harmonious, balanced vision of life.

Here is an example of the holistic nature of indigenous lived practical experience from the Senecas. Three sisters came to say that they wished to establish relations with people. The three sisters were corn, beans, and squash. The three sisters provided ceremonies so that if they were performed, they would become plants that would feed people. The one requirement was that they had to be planted together. By doing so, the Senecas fed themselves productively for a long time.

The colonizers from Europe tried planting one crop at a time and soon depleted the soil. Adding chemicals to the soil had side effects. Western science eventually confirmed that planting the three sisters together created a natural nitrogen cycle. The Senecas, rather than relying on abstract principles of scientific laws, observed and listened to the Earth and respected the relationships through religious, literary, philosophical, and scientific means at once through experience. The Senecas did not ask an abstract question in the search to discover knowledge. They participated in making meaning by living a shared experience in relation to everything. They did not forget the things around them. What was true—planting the crops together— was also the right thing to do. The universe is moral, personal, and unified in this view. All of the experiences of all of the parts are brought together in the process of understanding.

There are levels of indigenous knowledge. In all of them, relations and connections are maintained because they are essential to finding understanding. General knowledge is synthesized from the specific as more and more data through experience are gained. Indigenous people do not stop to formulate questions but constantly think and observe, which provides a great deal of data. The stories that develop from experiences are theories undivorced from community.


  1. Brayboy, B. (2005). Toward a tribal critical race theory in education. Urban Review, 37(5), 425–446.
  2. Fixico, D. (2003). The American Indian mind in a linear world: American Indian studies and traditional knowledge. New York: Routledge.
  3. Reagan, T. (2005). Non-Western educational traditions: Indigenous approaches to educational thought and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  4. Waters, A. (Ed.). (2004). American Indian thought: Philosophical essays. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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