Scholars Question Boundaries Between Indigenous, Scientific Knowledge

Story posted April 09, 2008

By Emily Guerin '09

It is rare to find an academic conference where much of the debate is centered around whether or not the subject of the conference actually exists, and if it does, how to define it. Yet this is what happened at the Indigenous Environments: African and North American Environmental Knowledge and Practices Compared conference held at Bowdoin College April 3-5, 2008.

The conference, which drew prominent scholars from universities throughout the country and Canada, invited debate over the definition, uses and preservation of indigenous knowledge in a world increasingly dominated by science and western medicine. Some scholars say that indigenous knowledge is the body of information accumulated by a community or group over time. Others contend it is a political construction used to empower native people. (Read panelist abstracts.)

"Before science it was all indigenous."

Arun Agrawal, associate professor of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan, questioned the conventional wisdom that separates indigenous knowledge and science in his keynote speech: "My reservation is not around the term indigenous," he argued, "but about the effort encoded in the term to try and create these boundaries. Before science it was all indigenous."

In addition to clarifying the definition of indigenous knowledge, Agrawal also explored how indigenous knowledge can paradoxically both advance and be threatened by science and development. He discussed power dynamics between governments and indigenous people, and questioned whether both parties have the same goals and definitions of success when it comes to rural development programs. "How is power conceptualized in various interpretations of results?" Agrawal asked.

Support for Conferences
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Support for faculty engagement with professional peers is a key component of The Bowdoin Campaign, which ends in 2009. Funding allows faculty members to organize national events on campus and also attend conferences to pursue scholarly interests and reinvigorate their teaching.


Panels on the relationship between indigenous knowledge, science and medicine brought to light questions about accommodation and resistance of indigenous societies to these Western disciplines. Later panels discussed tenure rights and the claims of indigenous societies to both land and marine resources, as well as the romanticized or stereotypical ideas of indigenous people, their knowledge and relationship to their environments. The final panel of the conference offered a discussion of religion and indigenous knowledge.

Bowdoin Assistant Professor of African History David Gordon, who helped to organize the conference, called it a great success. "It was interesting to note the divergence of views between scholars of Africa and Native America," he reflected. "Viewing indigenous knowledge in this comparative framework has not been previously attempted; it challenges all of us to re-think the way we employ concepts within our sub-fields."

South African environmental historian Lance Van Sittert, Bowdoin's Environmental Studies Mellon Global Scholar, said that the sophistication of the debate is absent from South African literature. "I was struck by the insularity of the South African debate. I would look very strongly at trying to do a reciprocal meeting in South Africa because I think the conference had huge value."

The conference was co-sponsored by the Environmental Studies and Africana Studies programs with additional funding from The Mellon Foundation.

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