Henry P. Huntington

Henry Huntington
Henry P. Huntington

Henry P. Huntington

The Many Dimensions of Knowledge
By: Henry P. Huntington

January 28, 2019

On one hand, the idea seems pretty simple: combine knowledge and information from different sources to improve our understanding and make better decisions. Surely, we do this sort of thing all the time. Farmers know their land and their crops and draw on the knowledge of weather forecasters to help decide when to plant. Architects get information from seismologists to help make buildings safe in earthquake zones. Why should it be any different when connecting an Indigenous hunter with, say, a climatologist?

On the other hand, such connections are fraught with the potential for misunderstanding. If meteorologists’ probabilities are heard as certainties, farmers may be in for an unpleasant surprise. Different earthquakes have different characteristics, so data from the most recent event may not prevent damage from the next one. Indigenous hunters may have a very different understanding from climatologists about what causes changes in weather patterns. Making real connections across knowledge systems takes effort, patience, and humility.

Another complication is that the term and concept of “Indigenous knowledge” can be misleading. There are many ways of knowing, and there are many aspects to knowledge. There is knowledge of how to do a certain thing, for example, recognizing indicators of a change in the weather. There is knowledge of how things are connected, such as the reasons why those indicators work. There is knowledge of why things are the way they are, for example, the relationship between humans and their surroundings. There is knowledge about how we should act, for example, to sustain a mutually respectful and beneficial relationship with the rest of creation. Undoubtedly, there are many more types of knowledge to recognize, but these four are enough to explore for now.

Indigenous knowledge about how to do things has long been valued by travelers, scientists, and others. Local people know their way along a coast or through a forest, or where to find certain plants, animals, or geological formations. Not sure if a dead polar bear is unusually skinny? Ask a polar bear hunter. Wondering if low water levels are a regular occurrence or something anomalous? Ask someone who lives on the lakeshore. Relying on this kind of information is relatively straightforward. There is still ample opportunity to misunderstand, but in most cases, the discussion concerns something tangible, and the exchange is one of observations. Neither participant is required to reconsider how she or he understands the world but is simply getting more information to apply in one’s existing knowledge system.

Knowledge of connections gets trickier. Cloud caps on a nearby mountain may be a reliable predictor of rain. One explanation may be that the mountain is looking out for the people and providing a warning. Another explanation may be that cloud condensation around a peak is a sign of rising humidity, which often results in rain. It is often easier to reject another’s explanation than it is to change the way one understands how the world works. Thus, some scientists and natural resource managers find that Indigenous observations are worth paying attention to but have a harder time with Indigenous explanations. It’s important to note that such skepticism can go in both directions.

The divergence in worldview can become even more pronounced when we consider knowledge about relationships between humans and the rest of the world. Many Indigenous hunters understand a powerful reciprocal relationship between themselves and the animals they pursue. Animals exist to provide for the well-being of people, and people have the obligation to care for the animals and their habitats, too. On one level, such a view seems similar to a modern conservationist mindset, at least when it comes to protecting animals and habitats. On the other hand, Indigenous views often include a deep sense of spiritual connections that may be tied to the specific animal that is hunted, rather than to the abstract idea of an animal population.

This difference grows further when it comes to determining the correct actions for humans to take. Reducing harvests is a standard biologist’s response to a wildlife population decline. Indigenous hunters may see the failure to take an animal that is available as a break in the relationship between animal and person, which will lead to greater scarcity of the animals in the future. In other words, one side may think there is too much hunting, and the other side may think there is too little hunting. Reconciling diametrically opposed views is going to be hard, and trying to do so while maintaining mutual respect for one another’s system of knowledge may be even harder.

So, what does this all mean in practice? The idea of respecting and including Indigenous knowledge in environmental research and management is a laudable step in a positive direction. But good intentions are not sufficient. It is tempting, when engaging with a different system of knowledge or different type of expertise, to pick those facts and views that accord nicely with what we already believe. Accepting Indigenous observations as reliable contributions to the scientific knowledge base is engagement only at the superficial level. And even here, we may dismiss observations that do not accord with our understanding, such as the persistent reports by Indigenous peoples in northern Alaska about the ten-legged polar bear.

Engaging with Indigenous knowledge about how the world works and why it works in that way is a much harder task. Scientists may justly say that their worldview is responsible for stunning advances in our capabilities to do things and make predictions. Indigenous peoples can, with equal justification, point out that their worldview has sustained them for generations, demonstrating the replicability that is also a hallmark of science.

I do not suggest that scientists must accept Indigenous ways of understanding, such as the idea that animals make themselves available or not according to the qualities and intentions of the hunter. Neither do I suggest that Indigenous hunters should abandon such views in deference to carefully built scientific understanding of mammalian biology. Instead, I suggest that everyone be more aware of the different dimensions of knowledge, Indigenous or scientific, and recognize what they are trying to achieve by engaging with one another.

The rapid growth of interest in Indigenous knowledge is wonderful to see, but may have outpaced our ability to recognize the diversity and complexity of the worldviews that we lump together under that single term. One result may be frustration, both that engaging with Indigenous knowledge can seem so much harder than expected, and that such engagement may not extend beyond an initial exchange of factoids, thus failing to reach any deeper appreciations for Indigenous ways of knowing and being.

One way to help resolve this mismatch is to be more aware of the type of engagement we seek and which aspects of both Indigenous and scientific knowledge are most appropriate in each specific case. Exchanging facts can be beneficial and may be all that is required in some circumstances. An Indigenous hunter may listen to the weather forecast, not because she or he subscribes to the idea of an impersonal physical basis for wind and rain, but simply because the information is useful when planning the day’s activities. A scientist may use Indigenous observations of seasonal movements of fishes to plan a field project and to better understand how much those movements vary from year-to-year, without needing to come to terms with an Indigenous view that the fishes return specifically to provide for the fishers.

In other cases, it becomes more important to consider the deeper worldviews that shape the interpretation of observations. If an Indigenous community believes that the number of moose is fixed and that the only variable is whether the moose choose to be seen by humans, then a discussion about the results of aerial surveys and population modeling is not likely to promote a shared view of what management actions should be taken. Both sides face the harder task of trying to find common ground or at least mutual respect amid incompatible ways of understanding the world. Difficulty is not a reason to abandon the attempt to engage with Indigenous knowledge, but rather a sign of how important it is to make that attempt rather than to accept disagreement and conflict as inevitable, particularly when differences in power make it possible for one side to brush the other aside.

In short, finding ways to draw on Indigenous and scientific knowledge together is not a problem to be solved, but a journey to be taken. There will be many accomplishments along the way, as well as setbacks, and we should not expect to reach a final destination where every difficulty is resolved and every benefit has been realized. Instead, we should be open to ever deeper understanding, to the idea that we all have much to share and much to learn, and to a sense of shared purpose as we work together for a world we can be proud to pass to our children.

Last updated: January 28, 2019