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VIVIAN DELGADO COLUMN: Indigenous knowledge systems and traditional knowledge

Vivian Delgado

Recently, there has been big talk about the difference between Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Traditional Knowledge. Indigenous knowledge systems distinguish indigenous people based on the effects their environments and bioregions have on their societies. In essence, their environment identifies them, not people. Traditional knowledge, however, exists because one has knowledge of the environment they are speaking about based on centuries of living close to nature.

As Trent University Professor Emeritus Marlene Brant Catellano states: “The need to walk on the land in order to know it is a different approach than the one-dimensional, literate approach to knowing. Persons taught to use all their senses to absorb every clue to interpreting a complex dynamic reality may well smile at the illusion that words alone, stripped of complementary sound and color and texture, can convey meaning adequately.”

Traditional knowledge is a cultural identity and is present in indigenous homes where it is naturally expressed and shared orally and by doing, generation-by-generation. Both IKS and TK are important today because they are both based on epistemological pluralism, which means recognizing that there is more than one way of acquiring knowledge. In addition, some knowledge requires multiple ways of knowing.

Author-linguist K. David Harrison says hubris allows us cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunters/gatherers. What they know which we’ve forgotten or never knew-may someday save us.

More and more this type of intellect is being sought after as today’s environmentalists push for alternative ways of living sustainably. People who demonstrate that they don’t care about either IKS or TK make it difficult for those who do. Indigenous people see the importance of maintaining and reproducing their ancestral environments and systems as people and communities because it actualizes traditional knowledge.

Most indigenous people find it difficult to express IKS without speaking an indigenous language because your truth is in the land in which you emerged (land of origin). All land bases in Turtle Island have indigenous names. Indigenous ways of knowing are based on intricately, interrelated, elements and are multi-dimensional because true knowledge goes beyond words. Indigenous knowledge leaders are watchful; this allows them to intuitively apply all of their senses in order to communicate with their environment. In turn, that allows them to express their understanding of it. Indigenous knowledge leaders know that what is learned using IKS changes over time, but that the way of knowing remains the same.


It has come to my attention that there are those who do not understand why the term “indigenous” is frequently used to identify native people. Martinez Cobo, the academic who helped the United Nations develop its thinking on indigenous people, says that on an individual basis, an indigenous person is  one who belongs to these indigenous people through self-identification as indigenous (group consciousness) and is recognized by the group as one of its members (acceptance by the group). This preserves for those communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference.

We have seen more and more native people who are no longer eligible for tribal enrollment for various reasons and still remain indigenous on one or may levels. The bureaucratic process that is in use today to eliminate an entire race of people is ineffective among indigenous people and indigenous thinking. The purpose of these teachings and any teachings regarding wisdom is to eliminate pain and suffering among humankind.

Vivian Delgado is a professor of Native American Studies at Bemidji State University.