Indigenous Knowledge: Key Lessons Not Found in Books


Eighty-four-year-old Papa Mape, a Tahitian fisherman, knows that he can find spawning red squirrelfish in one of Mo‘orea’s lagoons when he sees the springfire tree’s bright red blossoms on the mountains. His fellow fishermen know this tip as well; in fact, it’s common knowledge in Mape’s village.

TahitiMooreaMapGenerations of knowledge have been passed down to help the current generation survive in places like Mo’orea, an island formed by a volcano in French Polynesia. This indigenous knowledge gives natives like Mape the skills to understand the weather, successfully fish for a living, identify species and maintain culture and language.

Important or Not?

UNESCO defines indigenous knowledge as:

“The local knowledge that is unique to a culture or society. Other names for it include: ‘local knowledge’, ‘folk knowledge’, ‘people’s knowledge’, ‘traditional wisdom’ or ‘traditional science’. This knowledge is passed from generation to generation, usually by word of mouth and cultural rituals, and has been the basis for agriculture, food preparation, health care, education, conservation and the wide range of other activities that sustain societies in many parts of the world.”

But how important is indigenous knowledge for people outside of their culture of origin? As it turns out, very important. Scientists have been working with native populations to incorporate their knowledge into the continuous learning about our planet – the weather, climate change, biodiversity, etc. However, it’s more than just science. We actually can take a few lessons from indigenous knowledge and apply it to the act of learning on a personal level.

Indigenous knowledge is traditionally passed along from one person to another by word of mouth. Most often, it’s not written down. It’s not included in textbooks or taught in university classes. Rather, people learn from and practice with their elders as they grow up and begin to understand what it means to survive and make a living. Indigenous knowledge, in a way, is like experiential education or informal education. One must “do” in order to learn.

Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, is meticulously recorded. Every observation, every new finding – it’s all written down for posterity. Notes are turned into papers, reports and books. Every detail is just a Google search away for other scientists, curious folks like you and me or school children writing up their science reports. It’ll be hard to ever lose any current scientific findings with all the technology these days, whereas indigenous knowledge always runs the risk of disappearing if it’s not passed along. In fact, this has already happened to a number of languages around the world.

Indigenous Knowledge Diversity

There are so many examples of indigenous knowledge – from Australia’s Murri people to Matsés shamans of Latin America to Nigerian farmers in Africa to the Arctic Inuits. Each community has its own culture, skill set and lifestyle based on generations of learning and sharing. Their passed-down knowledge dictates community decision-making and how natives live with the land to survive.

Talk, Listen and Learn

Most likely, Papa Mape’s knowledge of the springfire tree and the squirrelfish won’t come in handy for us. However, we can learn that we should be open to alternative forms of learning. Not everything needs to come out of a book (although a lot surely can!). And deeper yet, we should realize how much can be learned from other people in our lives, especially our elders.

My grandfather was (and continues to be) a skilled electrician. He’s been retired for years now from a career where he used his knowledge daily, but he still stays up to date on current electrical code requirements. My husband recently talked with him for a while about a home electrical challenge. After their brainstorming conversation, my grandfather smiled and said, “My whole life has been dedicated to learning this knowledge, but no one ever wants to talk about it with me anymore.”

My advice, then, is to take the time to talk and, more importantly, listen to what others (especially elders) have to say. It’s meaningful and empowering for them and, more likely than not, you’ll learn something new and will be participating in your own version of indigenous knowledge preservation. Oral traditions can, in fact, help keep alive fishing tricks and family stories alike.

Looking back at your ancestors, what knowledge is in your own family that should be passed down?


Content Development Manager, Bon Education

With backgrounds in journalism and international education, Michelle pulls from both fields and works at their intersection to encourage learning opportunities and inter-cultural connections. In addition to reporting for a newspaper, Michelle has worked in a university study abroad office, co-led conflict resolution teacher trainings in Colombia and co-written curriculum for various clients in the Middle East on topics including teacher and corporate professional development, distance education and STEM. She’s also been a part of various international organizations, including UNESCO and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies.

Michelle holds a BA dual degree in Journalism and International Affairs from the University of New Hampshire and a Master of Arts degree in International Educational Development from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Photo credit (top): Bernard Spragg. NZ
Photo credit (map): Kelisi at the English language Wikipedia

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