Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Our aim is to promote dialogue and discussion, to discover what we can learn from each other and, in particular, to explore the limitations that may be inherent in one particular knowledge system—that known as Western Science. It is an exploration of two different ways of knowing, two different worlds of consciousness, and a discovery of the ways that peoples can begin to have dialogues with each other, enter into relationships, and offer each other respect and courtesy that is the hallmark of humanity.   

But how is such a dialogue to commence? Many of the world’s spiritual traditions speak of the impossibility of the rational mind ever approaching a deep understanding of another way of being. The same thing applies, I believe, to cultures that lie outside our own. One can no more understand them from the outside than one can describe the taste of an orange to someone who had never eaten such a fruit, nor a sunset to a blind person. How then can we grasp the flavour the odour, the spirit of a profoundly different worldview, one that cannot be approached by reason, analysis, description, and accumulation of facts alone?

The answer I believe is that we can come to some form of knowing, albeit in a strictly limited way, through an actual change in consciousness. It is my belief that, at its deepest level, the dialogue between Western and Indigenous science will engender an increasing flexibility in human consciousness, an ability to leave the boundaries of our own egos and worldview and temporarily enter those of another. And, in so doing we will engage in a new relationship; we will both give and receive; we will create alliances and become one with a much greater spectrum of consciousness, one that involves not only humans but other beings, forces, and powers of the natural world.

F. David Peat

Visions from Two Worlds

A tantalizing paradox presents itself. On the hand it seems that the very activity and busy-ness of our analytic, linear Western minds would obstruct us from entering into Indigenous coming-to-knowing, yet, on the other, scientists who have been struggling at the cutting edges of their fields have come up with concepts that resonate with those of Indigenous science.

Western Science

Quantum theory stresses the irreducible link between observer and observed and the basic holism of all phenomena.

Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Indigenous science also holds that there is no separation between individual and society, between matter and spirit, between each one of us and the whole of nature.The physicist David Bohm has spoken of what he calls the implicate, or enfolded, order (an order in which the whole is enfolded within each part) as being a deeper physical reality than the surface, or explicate, order that is immediately perceived by our senses.In a similar way, members of the Gourd Society wear a necklace of mescal beads in which each bead symbolizes the cosmos and reminds them that within each object is enfolded the whole. Today a symbol is generally understood to stand for something and is not seen as possessing a numinous power of its own. The mescal bead, however, is no mere symbol. For those who wear it, it really does enfold the universe and bring them into direct contact with all creation.In modern physics the essential stuff of the universe cannot be reduced to billiard-ball atoms but exists as relationships and fluctuations at the boundary of what we call matter and energy.Indigenous science teaches that all that exists is an expression of relationships, alliances, and balances between what, for lack of better words, we could call energies, powers, or spirits.Several leading-edge thinkers in physics suggest that nature is not a collection of objects in interaction but is a flux of processes.The whole notion of flux and process is fundamental to the Indigenous science of Turtle Island. Algonkian-speaking peoples, such as the Cheyenne, Cree, Ojibwaj, Mic Maq, and Blackfoot, all share a strongly verb-based family of languages that reflects this direct experience.Some physicians question our current medical models and suggest that healing involves the whole person—body, mind and spirit.Native healers have never fragmented their vision of health, for it is regarded as emerging out of the whole of nature and is one with the processes of renewal.Ecologists stress that we must attend to the basic interconnectedness of nature and to the sensitivity and complexity of natural systems.This has always been the approach of Indigenous peoples. The traditional Thanksgiving Address of the Iroquois people, for example, specifically acknowledges the wholeness that is inherent within all of life.Scientists have alerted us to the fragility and sensitivity of our planet.It is the tradition of the Iroquois people that in arriving at a decision they consider its implications right down to the seventh generation that comes after them.