Knowledge Tensions

Eurocentric vs. Indigenous Knowledges

“We need to be attentive to how asymmetrical power relationships have enabled conventional Western knowledge to produce hierarchies of knowledge that too often mute modes of understanding in the world as deeply connected and interconnected.”1

Gina Starblanket and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark

To consider the tensions between Eurocentric and Indigenous knowledges, we have to revisit the history of 500 years of European colonization and global imperialism, and how it co-evolved with western science. For the European colonizers of the Americas, land was seen as terra nullis or empty, its wilderness to be tamed, its possession as property to be expanded, its resources to be exploited for human use. This perspective was reinforced by European natural and human sciences, based on philosophies such as Cartesian dualism, separating body and mind, matter and spirit. It was coupled with a view of history as linear, moving toward a higher state of universal progress, epitomized by more recent notions of modernity, development, and globalization.

At a recent Canadian gathering of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars reflecting on contemporary resurgence of Indigenous peoples and efforts toward reconciliation, settler and political scientist James Tully synthesized the impact of this view of knowledge:

“Western sciences often dismiss Indigenous knowledges and life ways as primitive, superstitious, soon to die off, lower, or less-developed relative to the superior knowledge and processes of civilization, modernization, and globalization spread around the world by Western peoples. And these two imperious attitudes to the living earth and Indigenous peoples are closely related historically and conceptually. ” 2

Climate scientists and environmental activists are recognizing that the current crisis is rooted in this world view of separation from and possession of land for human use, and greed.

“Dispossession from the living earth is thus not only a monumental ongoing social injustice to Indigenous peoples. It is also a monumental ongoing ecological, epistemological and social injustice to one and all.” 3

In contrast, Indigenous cyclical ways of being and participatory ways of knowing are central to understanding the interdependence of humans with ‘all our relations’ (as acknowledged in the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address). For Indigenous peoples, knowledge is a process and not a product, and is co-created in relationship with other living entities on the earth. As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist, asserts “The land, aki, is both context and process.” 4

This different way of knowing is reflected in Indigenous languages, as Mohawk professor Ryan Decaire reflects in the photo essay “Language and Food.” The word Tyonnhekhwen, refers not only to the vegetables and fruits we eat (as objects) but how they sustain us and provide us with life.

While there is a stark contrast between some forms of Eurocentric thought with Indigenous ways of knowing, in recent decades there has been a convergence of earth and human sciences, quantum physics, and integral ecology, with Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledges. James Lovelock dug even deeper into ancient European philosophies in formulating his Gaia hypothesis, which was built on the Greeks belief in the animacy (breath, spirit, energy) of the living earth. This theory has been endorsed by many scientists who are part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

American evolutionary theorist and biologist Lyn Margulis interpreted the Gaia hypothesis as symbiosis, “the immensely complex webs or networks that link all forms of life in relationships of reciprocal interdependence. Temporally, these networks are cyclical.” 5

Robin Wall Kimmerer, plant ecologist and Potawami knowledge-keeper, was trained in western science: “The questions scientists raised were not ‘Who are you?’ but “What is it?’. No one asked plants ‘What can you tell us?’ The primary question was ‘How does it work?’ The botany I was taught was reductionist, mechanistic, and strictly objective.” 6

Kimmerer has created spaces for conversations between the western science she was trained in and Indigenous traditional ecological knowledges: “Reciprocity – returning the gift – is not just good manners; it is how the biophysical world works.”7

Simply put, Kimmerer concludes: “Plants can tell us her story. We just need to learn to listen.” 8

James Tully, ally with Indigenous peoples, has come to the same conclusion: “The way people come to know what ways of life co-sustain their interdependent neighbours, human and more-than-human, is to enter into dialogues of mutual learning with them.” 9 Tully sees this shift in thinking as representing two epistemic revolutions among non-Indigenous people: recognizing our interdependence with the living earth and with Indigenous peoples.

Mohawk food leader and Legacies collaborator Chandra Maracle draws from both western science and Indigenous knowledge: “I love science as a way to explain things but I’m also deeply soulful and spiritual and looking into cosmology, and sometimes science falls a little short of Indigenous knowledge. So I like the interplay of both.”

In conversation with Chandra, settler farmer Dianne Kretschmar also recognizes the need for an Indigenous perspective on our relationship with the land, and the limitation of “the European fixation on land ownership, because in actual fact, you can’t own land, the land owns you, if you have any respect for the land.”

Perhaps we need more poetic forms of language to express this world view rather than the academic discourses which often reflect Eurocentric ways of knowing. Joy Harjo, member of the Mvskoke Nation and the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, captures this ultimate integration of all our relations in her poem “Bless This Land”:10

Bless this land from the top of its head to the bottom of its feet

From the arctic old white head to the brown feet of tropical rain

Bless the eyes of this land, for they witness cruelty and kindness in
this land

From sunrise light upright to falling down on your knees night

Bless the ears of this land, for they hear cries of heartbreak
and shouts of celebration in this land

Once we heard no gunshot on these lands; the trees and stones can be heard singing

Bless the mouth, lips and speech of this land, for the land is a
speaker, a singer, a keeper of all that happens here, on this land

Luminous forests, oceans, and rock cliff sold for the trash glut
of gold, uranium, or oil bust rush yet there are new stories to be
made, little ones coming up over the horizon

Bless the arms and hands of this land, for they remake and restore
beauty in this land

We were held in the circle around these lands by song, and
reminded by the knowers that not one is over the other, no
human above the bird, no bird above the insect, no wind above the grass

Bless the heart of this land on its knees planting food beneath the
eternal circle of breathing, swimming and walking this land

The heart is a poetry maker. There is one heart, said the poetry
maker, one body and all poems make one poem and we do not
use words to make war on this land

Bless the gut labyrinth of this land, for it is
the center of unknowing in this land

Bless the femaleness and maleness of this land, for each holds the
fluent power of becoming in this land

When it was decided to be in this manner here in this place, this
land, all the birds made a birdly racket from indigo sky holds

Bless the two legs and two feet of this land, for the sacred always
walks beside the profane in this land

These words walk the backbone of this land, massaging the tissue
around the cord of life, which is the tree of life, upon which this
land stands

Bless the destruction of this land, for new shoots will rise up from
fire, floods, earthquakes and fierce winds to make new this land

We are land on turtle’s back—when the weight of greed overturns
us, who will recall the upright song of this land

Bless the creation of new land, for out of chaos we will be
compelled to remember to bless this land

The smallest one remembered, the most humble one, the one
whose voice you’d have to lean in a thousand years to hear—we
will begin there

Bless us, these lands, said the rememberer. These lands aren’t our
lands. These lands aren’t your lands. We are this land.

And the blessing began a graceful moving through the grasses
of time, from the beginning, to the circling around place of time,
always moving, always

  1. Gina Starblanket and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark. “Towards a Relational Paradigm – Four Points for Consideration: Knowledge, Gender, Land and Modernity”. In Michael Asch, John Burrows, and James Tully (eds).
  2. James Tully. “Reconciliation Here on Earth.” In Michael Asch, John Burrows, and James Tully (eds). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 85.
  3. James Tully. “Reconciliation Here on Earth.” In Michael Asch, John Burrows, and James Tully (eds). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 108.
  4. Leanne Simpson. Pedagogy as Land, page 7. Quoted in Gina Starblanket and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark. “Towards a Relational Paradigm – Four Points for Consideration: Knowledge, Gender, Land and Modernity”. In Michael Asch, John Burrows, and James Tully (eds). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 183.
  5. Lynn Margulis, quoted in James Tully. “Reconciliation Here on Earth.” In Michael Asch, John Burrows, and James Tully (eds). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 98.
  6. Robin Wall Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2014, 42.
  7. Robin Wall Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2014, 100;
  8. Robin Wall Kimmerer. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2014, 10.
  9. James Tully. “Reconciliation Here on Earth.” In Michael Asch, John Burrows, and James Tully (eds). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 114-115.
  10. Reprinted from World Literature Today, Autumn 2019.