Romanticizing the indigenous

Climate & Natural resources,Development Policy31 Mar 2010Pepijn Jansen

I was reading some of the posts of the Global green economics blog, and was triggered by the comments on indigenous knowledge. Many people see indigenous knowledge as a vital part for revitalizing our “western” vision on nature and the connection between nature and society. Indigenous knowledge is, in this view, superior to western knowledge in the sense that indigenous people apparently live “in harmony with nature.” This is, of course, an overly romanticized, idealized and perhaps even racist view on indigenous people, and their “culture.”

This is not to say that indigenous knowledge has no value, or that “western” knowledge is superior. But it seems to have become a mantra for better, greener, more social. While we must not forget that a lot of the issues the development sector wants to tackle – such as equal rights for women – go against many indigenous knowledge systems. And, when you look at it semantically, indigenous knowledge is of course nothing more than knowledge that evolved locally (i.e. all knowledge is indigenous, somewhere on the world).

But the main point I wish to make here is that there is a tendency – and there has been for decades – to romanticize indigenous… well, indigenous everything. People, culture, customs, knowledge, medicin, food… (okay, maybe not the food. I never liked the guinea pig in Ecuador…). But in doing so, we are also very much limiting the conception of what would be “indigenous culture.” We tend to forget that maybe, just maybe, indigenous people are also just people – like everyone else. They are not all the same, nor will they always be the same people they are now. People created a racist view of indigenousness, pretending that being indigenous means:

  • Living in harmony with nature;
  • Living in harmony with each other;
  • Putting social live above economic live or profit;
  • Using local medicine;
  • Putting bones through your nose;
  • And the list can go on for a while.

In creating this image, a boundary is created for indigenous people. If, for example, some people in an indigenous village in the Amazon do want to cooperate with the mining industry because they see it can bring them profit, this can of course create some tensions within the village. That’s quite normal. But then the developmentalists arrive and start supporting the people that do not want to cooperate with the mining people (because mining is always bad). The villagers who want profit are not really indigenous people, because they do not live in harmony with nature etc., so they can never be subject of any help or aid whatsoever. They are the outcast of indigenous society, because they do not fulfill the role they should play as indigenous people.

Seeing indigenous knowledge as fixed and stable systems is an illusion. A powerful one, but still… it is a false image that is created. Knowledge is never stable, always changing and contested. To think that we can somehow “incorporate” indigenous knowledge into our own thinking and knowledge systems is just, well, ridiculous. Even if some local ideas from another place are incorporated in your thinking – which will always happen to everyone – that is not a well thought-through process that you can steer. Nor should it be desirable to push people into thinking one way or the other. Imagine what you would think of a local shaman somewhere in the Amazon who tells his village that they should abandon their way of living and thinking, and incorporate western style individualization, democracy and capitalism instead.

And how is that any different from thinking the other way around?