Knowledge Tensions

Eurocentric vs. Indigenous Knowledges

Digging In
Digging In: Facilitating Dialogue and Action
Key Themes and Terms
Catalyzing Connections
Decoding Questions
  • Description: What are the tensions between Eurocentric and Indigenous knowledges described here? How do these ideas differ?
  • Personal Connection: Do you have personal experience working with plants and the Earth? Which ways of knowing most influences the way you think about your relationship to the Earth?
  • Common Themes: What issues affecting the Earth are both settlers and Indigenous peoples equally at risk of suffering from? 
  • Social Analysis: Around what issues do you see Indigenous and Eurocentric knowledges most in tension? How are different people, in different contexts, with different ways of knowing, organizing around these issues?
  • Planning for Action: What can you do in your day-to-day life to broaden your own ways of knowing beyond Eurocentrism?
Specific Questions
  • What are some features of Eurocentric knowledge? How were they introduced and maintained in North America/Turtle Island?
  • What are some features of Indigenous ways of knowing? How are these being maintained or lost? 
  • In what ways does Eurocentric thought not acknowledge Indigenous values like reciprocity and interdependence? 
  • Why is it important to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing, values, and participation in efforts to sustain food sovereignty? 
  • How is spirituality central  to Indigenuous ways of knowing? 
  • How does spirituality or storytelling help you connect to the Earth? To the food you eat? 
  • How are Indigenous ways of knowing considered to be living knowledges? What is one example of this?
Hands On Activities

During your next meal, photograph each serving of grain, fruit, vegetable, meat, or other food that you’re having. Review your photos and identify which foods you are most familiar with and which of them you are the least familiar with. Using those two foods, try to trace their origins back as far as you can. Consider how they have been processed.  At what point do you consider them to have been a living thing? Or to have stopped living? How near or far is this food from you? These connections to food can be from a plant, an animal, or the Earth itself.

As an added challenge, trace your own personal history and see where you connect to these foods. If your ancestors came from a different continent or country, how accessible would these foods be? When did you first make contact with the land that your food is connected to?

Intergenerational and Intercultural Dialogue

What traditional or cultural meals do you and your family eat together? Which parts of those meals can you find living locally to you? How does your family share (or not) knowledge about food traditions? How does this shape who you are as a person, a family, and a community?

Eurocentric knowledge has a colonial authority and power on colonized land. For settlers, this power and authority may dominate and not recognize Indigenous ways of knowing in certain institutions and situations. Where in your life can you recall seeing Eurocentric and Indigenous knowledges coexisting or working together? How about in conflict? 

Individual and Collective Action

Practice reciprocity with the Earth and your community by planting some of your favourite food this summer, look to see if there’s a community garden you can participate in. You could donate some of your fresh produce to a food bank or share amongst the other people at the community garden. Look up what Indigenous group’s land you live on and who it officially belongs to now. Research the time and circumstances under which it was first “owned”. 

Where in the area or close by would food have been grown? Is anything still growing now? Compare those plants and animals pre-colonization to your diet now. Look up plants local to you, food or otherwise, and research what function they play in the environment. In looking at their impact in the greater ecosystem, where do you fit in? Investigate ways in which you are hindering this plant or its ecosystems. Investigate ways in which you can help their survival and see what you can do to reconnect with the land and life closest to you. 

Write your own life story in the third person and focus on your journey connecting with the Earth. Capture the moments where you felt sustained and what those looked and felt like. Importantly, ask yourself how you have become independent from the land and the impact that has held on you.

Continuing the Conversation
Continuing the Conversation: Coming Soon
Digging Deeper
Digging Deeper: Resources for Further Research and Action
books & articles
  • Apgar, J.M., Mustonene, T., Lovera, S., Lovera, M. (2016). Moving Beyond Co-Construction of Knowledge to Enable Self-Determination. Institute of Development Studies, 47:6. DOI: 10.19088/1968-2016.199
  • Simpson, L. (2008). Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back. Chico: AK Press.
  • Simpson, L. (2008). Lighting the Eighth Fire. Chico: AK Press.
  • Simpson, L. (2013). The Gift Is in the Making: Anishinaabeg Stories. Chico: AK Press.

“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.