Considering Differing Paradigms of Knowledge and Ways of Knowing

In James S. Frideres’ novel, First Nations in the Twenty-First Century, he asks the question, “Does the existence of different paradigms of knowledge mean that all knowledge is relative and one is not better than the other?” For as long as Western science has existed and been compared to indigenous paradigms, the two ideologies have been analyzed alongside each other in an attempt to determine which is superior to the other. In reality, ways of knowing are most beneficial when they are utilized to complement the other. Each has it’s own origins, beliefs, values, moral bases, and overall approaches to the concept of knowledge and how one comes about comprehending it. Dennis Martinez, Founder and Co-Chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Restoration Network of the Society for Ecological Restoration International, refers to the Western scientific method as it, “views nature as without spirit,” and does not consider morality and core values when exploring nature. However, Indigenous methods of knowledge depends on and works in harmony with the land. When envisioning both ways of exploring life as we know and understand it to be, we can fill in the gaps of indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge and vice versa. While Indigenous ways of knowing are “intellectually evocative … unique, traditional, and developed around knowledge existing within a particular geographic location,” (Frideres, 46), Western science is more frequently referred to as “universal,” and is “developed historically within an increasingly secular and materialistic culture,” (Martinez). The benefits outweigh the disadvantages when blending both paradigms of knowledge. Although Western and Indigenous ways of knowing have large points of divergence, the overall consequences of the convergence of both knowledge bases would be most ideal in our society and could result in advances in education, healthcare, and environmental concerns.

Western science as we know it was developed in Europe in the past approximately 150 years and as a whole refers to the system of knowledge which relies on certain laws that have been established over the years through the application of the scientific method to phenomena in the world around us. Scientists generally refer to scientific knowledge as “universal”, although this clearly shows a contrast to Indigenous knowledge, assuming that it relates only to particular people and their understanding of the world. For example, a specific tribe but not the non-indigenous peoples around them (Barnhardt). While Western science can tell us a lot about the natural world, it is unable to tell us how to fully and successfully sustain ecological balance. Francis Bacon once said, “To understand nature is to control it,” and as Western paradigms of knowledge have developed historically, it has done so without spiritual reciprocal obligations to the natural world. Although it may have the tools it has come to learn and utilize, these could be used for either the benefit or detriment of the world and can also benefit Indigenous peoples and their ways of living as well. Western science is a creation that focusses on the orderly repetition of nature. By assuming that there is a recognizable regularity and order in the natural and social world and that events do not happen haphazardly, we are able to assume that if there is change, it is patterned and therefore is able to be understood. In order to record your observations based on the above, there are four categories that are considered necessary for the science model: the need for data, reductionism, the subservience of nature, and commitment to a realistic or objective quantifying view. To find data, you must use only sensory data — as in hearing, seeing, feeling, etc., the natural environment and it must be objective, empirically based, and assessed as so. In order to fully understand the hypothesis as a whole, it first has to be broken down into fragments by the scientist and reduced to its minimal parts and analyzed, then pieced back together while considering the laws of cause and effect. This way, researchers could begin to predict the future and the accuracy would depend on how well one could understand the detail of the natural phenomena. Nature is assumed to be manipulated by humans, thus it is subservient and puts humans at the top of the scientific linear scale. This is positivism, which frees the scientist from any world view or ideology, “employ[ing] inductive or deductive logic that is applied impartially to observations and to strike empirical methodologies (Frideres). Science depersonalizes people, objects, and events and are therefore quantified which allows for observation, labelling, and explanations to be given outside of the scientist themselves. In Western ways of knowing, rationalism and empiricism is the epistemology, and from these sources, Western science is said to be, “truth,” and, “the truth has some permanence.” Western ways of knowing are embodied in the thought that knowledge is justified and is true belief. Knowing that something is justified means that is has been obtained through the scientific method and that includes a sort of objectified stance on the subject and the assessing of reality. This is how scientists claim to know what they know. There are loopholes and places where science may fail and in this case, Indigenous ways of knowing would be able to fill in these gaps and advance science with Indigenous “science.”

The development of Indigenous knowledge and Aboriginal “science” systems covers all aspects of life, including the management of the natural environment, and has been a matter of survival for the people who created said systems. These systems are cumulative, representing generations of first-hand experiences, observations, and trail-and-error experiments (Hammersmith). They are dynamic as new knowledge is continuously added and refers to the unique, traditional and local knowledge that exists within the specific conditions of Indigenous men and women in a particular geographic location. For Indigenous thinkers, reality is constructed by our cultural and social values, and is not something in  the world that is awaiting discovery like a rare mineral – it is shaped and guided by human actions and goals. While some Western scientists reject its validity, some others acknowledge the existence, but consider it a “second tier” of knowledge, below Euro-centric science. It is considered that Indigenous knowledge has its own concepts of epistemology, but these are its own type of “scientific and logical validity” that are not parallel to Westernized science (Ball). We find that Indigenous ways of knowing are linked to land where proper ceremonies, stories, and medicines are held, making the structure and diversity of this type of knowledge reflect the stories of creation. The psychological connection of these stories to the people plays a large role in how they envision themselves in relation to each other and events. We acknowledge that knowledge itself is held in the relationships and connections formed with the environment that surrounds us and that it is not secular; it is a process made from creation and is sacred, connecting all nature and humans. Indigenous peoples throughout the world have sustained their unique world views and associated knowledge systems for millennia, even while undergoing major social upheavals as a result of transformative forces beyond their control. Many of the core values, beliefs, and practices associated with those world views have survived and are beginning to be recognized as being just as valid for today’s generations as they were for generations past. Their traditional education processes were carefully crafted around observing natural processes, adapting modes of survival, obtaining sustenance from the plant and animal world, and using natural materials to make their tools and implements. All of this was made understandable through demonstration and observation accompanied by thoughtful stories in which the lessons were imbedded. However, Indigenous views of the world and approaches to education have been brought into jeopardy with the spread of Western values, social structures and institutionalized forms of cultural transmission (Barnhardt). Frideres explains in First Nations and the Twenty-First Century that Indigenous ways of knowing also assume that meaning exists in a specific context — it is not universal like Western science is considered to be. It is difficult to interpret a particular idea from a specific context because knowledge is from one’s experience and it is this subjective experience that forms the basis for an objective explanation of the world. All human experience and all forms of knowledge contribute to the overall understanding and interpretation of the world.

With incorporating an anti-colonial approach to education can raise many concerns and, due to the heavily Westernized way of teaching in this day and age, many people are hesitant to accept what is considered as “other” or alternative medicine, education, and knowledge in general. However, Indigenous knowledge is carried down generation by general orally; it cannot be preserved in libraries (Martinez). The survival of this knowledge depends solely on the survival of Indigenous cultures and by losing Indigenous knowledge, Western science also loses a time-tested model for sustainability. Hundred of thousands of years of knowledge of how to care for the land is lost. They have detailed, long-documented ecological knowledge of local places that is encoded in a language that will be lost. This fact alone should encourage the teachings of indigenous paradigms of knowledge and creation stories — if only to preserve the spiritual perspective on the world. However, this is not the only benefit integration in education curriculums, healthcare and environmental concerns Indigenous knowledge would give. Modern day environmental issues have socialized cultural dimensions which would benefit from varying perspectives and not only Western science. Indigenous knowledge could be a useful contribution to these problems. Traditional landcare practices can also assist Western conservation biologists and restoration ecologists conserve biodiversity. Eighty percent of the world’s biological diversity occurs on Indigenous ancestral lands, and it has the utmost care from generations of learning from the generations previous (Hammersmith). By incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing into education systems that currently only offer Westernized ways of knowing, students will develop an increased respect and understand of other cultures, and an ability to think more broadly when exploring social and environmental problems. By learning of both paradigms of knowledge, they will have an awareness of the relationship between people and their environment, as well as an understanding of their local Indigenous histories. Indigenous knowledge has provided Western ways of knowing with important insights into the workings of the world in a number of areas, such as medicine and relationship or “talking” therapies. Frideres argues that understanding Indigenous knowledge will result in healing and rebuilding sovereignty within First Nations cultures. Finally, an appreciation of Indigenous knowledge gives us a better understanding of the cultural influences on school achievement by students whose cultures and languages differ from our Eurocentric culture (Frideres). As Martinez says, “the world can no longer afford the questionable luxury of working solely within the Western tradition if we are to learn to live sustainably. Conserving our options means, in part, conserving the diversity of ways of thinking about problems—including climate change—for the generations coming after us.” By integrating both knowledge paradigms in education, future generations will have more diversity and a broader understanding of how the world works, and in what ways they can go about sustaining the land they live on.

Knowledge can be found in learning and instruction as general and specific, concrete and abstract, formal and informal. They all play a pivotal role in attributing to a universal knowledge. By having options and varying methods of knowing, students are able to consider the larger picture and Aboriginal science offers both challenges and opportunities for science education because of its vast knowledge base and insights. They parallel what some of the most creative and reflective thinkers of our time are encouraging, and Aboriginal perspectives have the potential to give great insight and guidance to environmental ethics (Snively). Although both Western and Indigenous ways of knowing have large points of divergence, the overall consequences of the convergence of both knowledge bases would be most ideal and beneficial in our society and could result in advances in education, healthcare, and environmental concerns.

Works Cited

Ball, Jessica. “Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge in Post-Secondary Teaching.” Teaching Large Classes. Ed. M. Cherian. Singapore: McGraw-Hill Education, Published 2003. 84-101. Accessed Feb. 8th, 2015. Web PDF. <;

Barnhardt, Ray. “Creating a Place for Indigenous Knowledge in Education.” The Alaska Native Knowledge Network. Published 2005. Accessed Feb. 8th, 2015. Web. <http://>

Frideres, James S. First Nations in the Twenty-First Century. “Indigenous Ways of Knowing: 41-55.” Oxford University Press, Published 2011. Accessed Feb. 8th, 2014. Print.

Hammersmith, Jerome Alvin. “Converging Indigenous and Western Knowledge Systems: Implications for Tertiary Education.” Comparative Education, University of South Africa. Published Nov. 2007. Accessed Feb. 8th, 2015. Web. < Hammersmith/Hammersmith.pdf>

Martinez, Dennis. “The Value of Indigenous Ways of Knowing to Western Science and Environmental Sustainability”. The Journal of Sustainability Education. Accessed Feb. 8th, 2015. Web. < indigenous-ways-of-knowing-to-western-science-and-environmental- sustainability_2010_05/>

Snively, Gloria and Lorna Williams. “The Aboriginal Knowledge and Science Education Research Project.” Canadian Journal of Native Education. 29.2, Published 2006: 229 – 244. Accessed Feb. 8th, 2015. Web. < docview/230304347>


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s