Indigenous Knowledge


Illustration by Genie Espinosa
Words by Iris Du

We often only hear about Western contributions to scientific and technological feats. Innovation and understanding is frequently expressed to us as the products of rigorous research, logical deduction and scholarly debate.

However, there is a far less discussed group of people with a different approach, who have contributed equally to developments in science — past and present.

TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge), also known as Indigenous Knowledge or Traditional Knowledge, is a field of study based on the collaboration between Western and Indigenous communities by giving more attention to the deep knowledge Indigenous communities have of the environment. 

Indigenous peoples have a relationship with their surroundings that leans on cross-generational observations passed down through oral culture, a perspective that falls outside the bounds of Western science.

Indigenous cultures are often built around a deep and intimate understanding of ecology, allowing them to notice, observe and infer patterns in nature through a very different yet powerful lens.

With environmental understanding and sensitivity becoming ever more important, researchers are starting to take more notice of what other cultures can bring to the table.

It’s a form of enhanced mindfulness… you see it in most hunter-gatherer groups. It’s an extremely developed skill base of cognitive agility, of being able to put yourself into a viewpoint and perspective of many creatures or objects.
— Felice Wyndham, Ecological Anthropologist & Ethnobiologist

Knowledge from Indigenous cultures has already helped us develop Aspirin, canoes, and the domestication of vegetables like squashes, potatoes, and beans. In 1977, Western scientists were concerned over the fatally low bowhead whale populations, only to realise after consulting Inuit hunters that the whales they were searching for actually did not swim near offshore ice — attributing their low numbers to a flaw in methodology.  

Around the world, researchers are quickly realising that other cultures can help combat Westernised blindspots. In particular, one dominant benefit of Indigenous Knowledge is that it’s often entrenched in generations of rich observations — something entirely unreplicable through controlled and intentional short-term studies. 

The collaboration between different social groups for scientific knowledge is a matter of complementation rather than opposition. By joining perspectives, both Western and Indigenous cultures can begin to glean a far more holistic understanding of our collective surroundings. 

Shared knowledge is powerful and beneficial in most situations. Why not challenge what is recognisable, especially in a time when our climate is becoming more unrecognisable than ever?

Keep reading:

Long-read article from Yale School of Environmental Studies link
How Traditional Knowledge is the perfect complement to Western science link
Video detailing Inuit observations on climate change link