Guest column: Indigenous traditional knowledge recognizes human relationship with land
In 2016, scientist, professor, enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and bestselling author of “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,” Robin Wall Kimmerer, traveled to Moab, Utah. She was there to participate in a gathering the Grand Canyon Trust had convened to discuss the future of what are now known as America’s public lands — lands that are, in fact, the ancestral homelands of Indigenous peoples.
During that visit, Kimmerer spoke at length about Indigenous traditional knowledge. Indigenous traditional knowledge — sometimes referred to simply as “traditional knowledge” and often abbreviated TK — comes up frequently in discussions about how best to manage public lands, so we thought it might be useful to revisit Kimmerer’s explanation of what it is. Kimmerer also shared the idea of a “knowledge garden” in which Indigenous traditional knowledge and Indigenous science help to guide Western science, just as corn and beans are planted together by traditional farmers.
What is Indigenous traditional knowledge?
Indigenous traditional knowledge, as Kimmerer describes it, is a way of knowing the world that is much older than Western science. Traditional knowledge isn’t just the result of observing the natural world. As Kimmerer explains it, while Western science demands objectivity, Indigenous traditional knowledge not only makes room for and acknowledges human relationships with land, but also respects the innate intelligence of the natural world.
“To me, the power and the promise of traditional knowledge is that traditional knowledge, instead of excluding emotion and spirit, invites it in,” Kimmerer explains.
“We live in almost an intellectual monoculture which has rendered traditional knowledge invisible and marginalized that knowledge,” Kimmerer says. “Though it is the elder knowledge, is the most solid, grounded, whole knowledge.”
Can traditional knowledge and Western science coexist?
If Indigenous traditional knowledge is often ignored in the face of the cold, hard facts of Western science, can the two ever coexist? Yes, according to Kimmerer, but “what would a symbiosis look like between scientific tools and Indigenous philosophy and wisdom?” she asks.
This symbiosis, Kimmerer goes on to explain, might resemble a “knowledge garden.”
Planting the corn and the beans together
Kimmerer refers to how Indigenous people often plant corn and beans together. In traditional gardens, corn serves as a trellis for the bean plants to climb. In return, the beans absorb nitrogen from the air and add it to the soil — a process known as nitrogen fixation. Corn needs a lot of nitrogen, and with the beans’ help it, it gets it.
Kimmerer presents a metaphor in which Indigenous traditional knowledge is the corn, and Western science — which, as a scientist herself, she recognizes the value of — is the bean.
“That bean I think is a really good metaphor for science,” Kimmerer explains. “It’s curious. It’s always wandering in new directions. And it’s powerful, powered by that nitrogen fixation. But beans, unguided, make a mess of the garden. They take over things. They can actually reduce your garden to chaos. And sometimes I feel like science is like that bean, because science is unguided by emotion and spirit. It’s unguided by compasses of empathy and compassion.”
Kimmerer envisions a knowledge garden in which Western science is guided by Indigenous traditional knowledge.
“To me the great promise here is the same promise that comes when corn and beans grow together,” she says. “It’s more powerful...it feeds us more fully.”
As a scientist, Kimmerer embodies her vision for combining the wisdom and experience of Indigenous traditional knowledge with the tools of Western science in her work, and in her writing, and offers a useful way of remembering how the two can help each other flourish, just like the corn and the beans.
Dr. Kimmerer is a mother, plant ecologist, writer, and State University of New York (SUNY) distinguished teaching professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She serves as the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment and is engaged in programs which introduce the benefits of traditional ecological knowledge to the scientific community in a way that respects and protects indigenous knowledge.