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Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress ( 2008)

DOI 10.1007/s11759-008-9058-8

The Idea of Indigenous Knowledge

Kai Horsthemke, Wits School of Education, University of the
Witwatersrand, St. Andrews Road, Parktown, Johannesburg,
Gauteng 2193, South Africa


The idea of ‘indigenous knowledge’ is a relatively recent phenomenon that,

amongst other things, constitutes part of a challenge to ‘western’ thinking
and conceptualization. Advocates of indigenous knowledge maintain that its
study has profound educational and ethical relevance and also emphasise
its significance in antiracist, antisexist and postcolonialist discourse, in
general, and in terms of the ‘African Renaissance’, in particular. This paper
argues the following: (1) ‘indigenous knowledge’ involves at best an
incomplete, partial or, at worst, a questionable understanding or conception
of knowledge; (2) as a tool in anti-discrimination and anti-repression
discourse, ‘indigenous knowledge’ is largely inappropriate. I show, further,
that in the development of ‘knowledge’, following some necessary
conceptual readjustments in our understanding of this term, there is
considerably greater common ground than admitted by theorists. It is this
acknowledgement, not adherence to a popular concept of debatable

ARCHAEOLOGIES Volume 4 Number 1 April 2008

plausibility that has profound educational, ethical and political

Resumen: La idea de ‘‘conocimiento indı́gena’’ es un fenómeno

relativamente reciente que, entre otras cosas, constituye parte de un desafı́o
al pensamiento y la conceptualización ‘‘occidentales’’. Los abogados del
conocimiento indı́gena sostienen que su estudio tiene una importancia
profunda para la educación y la ética, a la vez que enfatizan su significancia
en el discurso antirracista, antisexista y postcolonial en general, y en
términos de ‘‘Renacimiento Africano’’ en particular. Este artı́culo argumenta
que (1) ‘‘conocimiento indı́gena’’ implica un entendimiento o concepción de
‘‘conocimiento’’ incompleta o parcial, incluso cuestionable; (2) como
herramienta en el discurso anti-discriminatorio y anti-represivo, el concepto
de ‘‘conocimiento indı́gena’’ es inapropiado. Más aún, muestro que en el
desarrollo de ‘‘conocimiento’’-siguiendo algunos reajustes conceptuales
necesarios para nuestro entendimiento del término-existe un plano de
consenso mayor al que admiten los teóricos. Las profundas consecuencias

 2008 World Archaeological Congress 129


educacionales, polı́ticas y éticas son consecuencia de este reconocimiento, y

no de la adhesión a un concepto popular de plausibilidad debatible.

Résumé: L’idée d’une « connaissance autochtone » est un phénomène

relativement récent qui, parmi d’autres choses, constitut une partie du défi
posé à la façon de penser et à la conception occidentale. Les défenseurs de
la connaissance autochtone maintiennent que son étude a une profonde
pertinence pédagogique et éthique en insistant sur sa signification
antiraciste, antisexiste et le discours postcoloniale, en général, et sur les
termes de la « renaissance africaine », en particulier. Cet article argumente
que : (1) la connaissance autochtone implique au mieux une incomplète,
une partielle ou au pire une questionnable compréhension ou conception
de la connaissance ; (2) et que comme un outil du discourt
antidiscriminatoire et antirépressif, la « connaissance autochtone » est
largement inappropriée. Je montre aussi que le développement de la
« connaissance », suivant certains réajustements nécessaires de notre
compréhension de ce terme, qu’il y a un plus grand ensemble d’opinions
communes que ce qui est accepté par les théoriciens. C’est cette
considération qui a de profondes conséquences pédagogiques, éthiques et
politiques plutôt que l’adhérence à un concept populaire de présomptions


Indigenous knowledge, ‘Western’ thinking, Conceptualization



‘African solutions to African problems’ has become a well- and widely-used

slogan in the years since the transition to democracy in South Africa (see,
e.g., Seepe 2000:119). Insofar as HIV/AIDS is (also) an African problem, it is
little wonder that several ‘solutions’ have been suggested, ranging from a diet
of African potatoes and garlic to the amaqhikiza system (a type of mentor-
ship programme among older and younger girls ‘to ensure sexual abstinence’
until the latter are ‘ready to take full control of their affairs’) and ukuhlolwa
kwezintombi or ‘virginity testing’ in girls (that ‘seeks to achieve the goal of
purity in the context of the spread of HIV/ AIDS’; Ntuli 2002:61–62). More
often than not, suggestions such as these are referred to as examples of
‘indigenous knowledge’, as are conflict resolution, traditional healing in gen-
eral, and also soothsaying, acquaintance with the tokoloshe and mantindane,
The Idea of Indigenous Knowledge 131

rainmaking and the like. (The tokoloshe and mantindane are claimed to be
‘fearful’, ‘extremely aggressive and viciously cruel’ creatures that reside in
southern Africa, with a penchant—respectively—for ‘sexually assaulting’ and
even raping women, ‘challenging benighted travellers to stick fights’, and
repeatedly ‘kidnapping’ and ‘ill-treating’ people by ‘scooping out flesh from
their legs, thighs and even buttocks and upper arms’. For detailed descrip-
tions of these creatures and their exploits, see Mutwa 1996:31–32.)
Conceptions of indigenous knowledge, development and struggles for
cultural autonomy are usually articulated in terms of critiques of ‘western’
knowledge, development and hegemony. There are, broadly, two types of
defence of ‘indigenous knowledge’. The more radical defence joins, and
avails itself of, ‘post-colonial’, ‘post-modern’ and relativistic critiques of
the ‘western’ notion of ‘universal knowledge’. The more cautious approach
emphasises the different ways in which particular disciplines—like anthro-
pological cultural relativism, radical constructivism and realism—deal with
questions of knowledge.
The present paper eschews the popular and ‘politically correct’ option
of embracing the idea of indigenous knowledge. I argue here that extant
defences of ‘indigenous knowledge’ err in several significant respects.

Brief History and Socio-political Background

The manifestation of what is taken to be indigenous knowledge could pre-

sumably be traced back roughly to the origins of humankind. Yet, the idea
of indigenous knowledge is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has arguably
gained conceptual and discursive currency only during the last twenty-odd
years (see Horsthemke 2004a). Especially in recent years it has been the
subject of congresses, conferences—for example, the 2004 Indigenous
Knowledge Systems (IKS) colloquium (see Nel 2004); the 2004 SAARDHE
(South African Association for Research and Development in Higher
Education) conference in Durban; to date, three international conferences
on ethnomathematics—meetings, as well as anthologies and a plethora of
reports, papers and articles (see Semali and Kincheloe, Higgs et al., and
Odora Hoppers). An initial concern appears to be the ‘bandwagon’
syndrome—a popular concept with wide-ranging educational, political and
economic currency being adopted and adapted for all kinds of causes and
purposes, and frequently coupled with talk of Africanisation (for a critical
discussion of this notion, see Horsthemke 2004b), the African Renaissance
(Ntuli 2002:60; Crossman and Devisch 2002:98; Odora Hoppers 2002b:2)
and ideas like ubuntu (Odora Hoppers 2005:3, 4), as part of the project
towards ‘decolonisation of the mind’ (Macedo 1999:xv; Ntuli 2002:53–55).

What, then, is ‘indigenous knowledge’? Oddly, this question is usually

treated as secondary to the question, What is the emphasis on indigenous
knowledge meant to achieve? In response to the latter, there are several
related ideas that appear again and again (see Semali and Kincheloe 1999a;
Higgs et al. 2004; Odora Hoppers 2002a, 2005): reclamation of cultural or
traditional heritage; decolonisation of mind and thought; recognition and
acknowledgement of self-determining development; protection against
further colonisation (and its modern heir, globalisation), exploitation,
appropriation and/or commercialisation; legitimisation or validation of
indigenous practices and worldviews; and condemnation of, or at least
caution against, the subjugation of nature, and of the general oppressive-
ness of non-indigenous rationality, science and technology (Semali and
Kincheloe 1999b:27–29, 43).
Catherine Odora Hoppers brings up her big guns in a recent publication.
She refers to the nonwestern world’s ‘epistemological disenfranchisement’
(Odora Hoppers 2005:8, 14) and ‘defeated knowledges’ (Odora Hoppers
2005:14, 17) at the hands of the western world, as well as the ‘knowledge
apartheid’ (Odora Hoppers 2005:17) and ‘subjugation of diverse knowl-
edges’ sponsored by the latter (Odora Hoppers 2005:8; see also Semali and
Kincheloe on indigenous knowledge as ‘subjugated knowledge’; Semali and
Kincheloe 1999b:31–32). Do any of these notions make sense? The answer
to this question arguably depends on what is meant by ‘knowledge’, first
and foremost, and will be put on hold, for the time being.

The Ambit of ‘Indigenous Knowledge’

‘Indigenous knowledge’ is generally taken to refer to alternative, informal

forms of knowledge, including ethnomusicology, ethnomathematics and
indigenous science. Indigenous science is usually taken to cover indigenous
astronomy, indigenous physics, ‘ethnomedicine’, ‘ethnobotany’, ‘ethnozool-
ogy’, as well as ‘ethnopsychiatry’.
According to Odora Hoppers,

Categories of these traditional knowledges include agricultural, meteorologi-

cal, ecological, governance, social welfare, peace building and conflict resolu-
tion, medicinal and pharmaceutical, legal and jurisprudential, music,
architecture, sculpture, textile manufacture, metallurgy and food technology.
There is cultural context surrounding the practice of these knowledges,
including songs, rituals, dances and fashion; it also includes technologies that
range from garment weaving and design, medicinal knowledge …, food pres-
ervation and conservation, and agricultural practices … to fisheries, metal-
lurgy and astronomy. (Odora Hoppers 2005:3)
The Idea of Indigenous Knowledge 133

What is ‘Indigenous Knowledge’?

A lot has been said and continues to be said about the idea of indigeneity.
Although some writers (Macedo 1999:xv; Semali and Kincheloe 1999b:23)
reject this contraposition, ‘indigenous knowledge’ is commonly contrasted,
implicitly or explicitly, with ‘knowledge from abroad’, a ‘global’, ‘cosmo-
politan’, ‘occidental’, ‘formal’ or ‘world’ (system of) knowledge (see Semali
and Kincheloe 1999a passim, Higgs et al. passim, Odora Hoppers 2002a
passim, Odora Hoppers 2005).
Regarding the purported definition of ‘indigenous knowledge’, it is gen-
erally understood to cover local, traditional, aboriginal or ‘oriental’ or (in
our case) African beliefs, practices, customs and worldviews. Odora Hop-
pers writes that

the notion of IKS has been defined as the sum total of the knowledges and
skills which people in a particular geographic area possess, and which enables
them to get the most out of their environment … Traditional knowledge is
… the totality of all knowledges and practices, whether explicit or implicit,
used in the management of socio-economic, spiritual and ecological facets of
life. In that sense, many aspects of it can be contrasted with ‘cosmopolitan
knowledge’ that is culturally anchored in Western cosmology, scientific dis-
coveries, economic preferences and philosophies. (Odora Hoppers 2005:2)

According to Ladislaus M. Semali and Joe L. Kincheloe, ‘indigenous knowl-

edge (… native ways of knowing) … reflects the dynamic way in which
[individuals who live in a given locality] have come to understand them-
selves in relationship to their natural environment and how they organize
that folk knowledge of flora and fauna, cultural beliefs, and history to
enhance their lives’ (Semali and Kincheloe 1999b:3). In the International
Labor Organisation’s definition, IK is described as ‘that knowledge that is
held and used by a people who identify themselves as indigenous of a place
based on a combination of cultural distinctiveness and prior territorial
occupancy relative to a more recently arrived population with its own
distinct and subsequently dominant culture’ (International Labor
Organisation 1989: Article 1).
While several and frequent definitions of ‘indigenous’ have been forth-
coming, the same cannot be said of the understanding of ‘knowledge’ theo-
rists and policy makers work with. Rather perplexingly, I have yet to come
across a writer or author willing to furnish an explanation of their concep-
tion of ‘knowledge’. Odora Hoppers probably comes closest when she claims
that the ‘concept of IKS … delineates a cognitive structure in which theories
and perceptions of nature and culture are conceptualised’ (Odora Hoppers
2005:3). Although (or because?) the terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘epistemology/

epistemological’ are used in liberal abundance, no account is given of the

actual meaning/s of the terms. Thus, there is a general failure among theo-
rists to appreciate and engage with the ramifications of these concepts.
Instead, ‘indigenous knowledge’ is unquestioningly employed as an umbrella
concept to cover practices, skills, customs, worldviews, perceptions, as well
as theoretical and factual understandings.
A case in point: the theme of the recent conference, already mentioned
above, hosted in Durban, 10–12 June 2004, jointly by SAARDHE and the
Productive Learning Cultures Project, University of Bergen/ Norway, was
‘African indigenous knowledge systems in higher education’ (see Higgs et
al. 2004). Tellingly, not one of the presentations indicated what under-
standing of ‘knowledge’ the authors of the respective papers were working
with. There were frequent references to ‘changes in epistemology’ and to
‘knowledge as process, not as product’—but virtually no time or space was
spent on unpacking these ideas and their implications. My concern relates
to both ideas. What are these changes? And what do they imply for the
objectivity of knowledge per se? Presenters’ own ideas concerning these
changes were presumably advanced as objective, and preferably true,
knowledge claims. If advocates of indigenous (local, African) knowledge
adhere to a conception of epistemology as essentially changing, what does
this imply for statements of the kind made here? Second, if knowledge is a
‘process’, not a ‘product’, what—if anything—anchors it? How (or on what
basis) could we compare competing knowledge claims, if we can? Is
truth—that is, the truth of knowledge claims—also a process? Responses to
these concerns have not yet been forthcoming.
Before I go on to interrogate the notion of indigenous knowledge, I want
to state that I am in principle in complete agreement with what underpins
many indigenous knowledge projects. First, occidental knowledge, science,
technology and ‘rationality’ have led to, or have had as a significant goal,
the subjugation of nature, and so far have been devastatingly efficient. The
pursuit of nuclear energy, wholesale deforestation and destruction of flora
and fauna, factory farming of nonhuman animals for human consumption,
vivisection and genetic engineering are deplorable and—indeed—of ques-
tionable ‘rationality’. Second, the devaluation of indigenous peoples’ prac-
tices, skills and insights has, to a large extent, been arrogant and of similarly
questionable rationality, not to mention morality. Third, extant attempts by
wealthy industrial and high-tech nations to (re)colonise or appropriate for
commercial gain these practices, skills and insights are exploitative and
indicative of contempt for humankind, and for nature generally. (The final
verdict on the so-called ‘San-Hoodia deal’ may not be in yet, but it would
appear that it is an example of the interests of both the indigenous commu-
nity and big business—in this case, the pharmaceutical industry—being
served. Either way, the initial attempts to by-pass the San community in the
The Idea of Indigenous Knowledge 135

testing, patenting and licensing processes involving the plant in question

have been condemned, deservedly so.)
Having said this, however, I consider blanket appeals to the concept of
indigenous knowledge, and its ‘legitimisation’ or ‘validation’, as a remedy
or countermeasure, to be completely misguided. Any such appeal is inade-
quate, not least because of a general lack of appreciation of the semantic
and logical problems involved in employing and applying the concept of
‘knowledge’ beyond the sense of practice or skill, while still referring to the
knowledge in question as ‘indigenous’ and—as such—as ‘special’, ‘unique’,
‘fundamentally different’, and ‘incommensurable’ or ‘incompatible’ with
‘mainstream’ knowledge. As mentioned earlier, there is almost a complete
absence of definition, even of working definitions, of this crucial idea in
the various papers that have been written and published over the years. In
what follows, I will attempt to indicate what such a definition might look
like. This will serve not only as conceptual clarification but also as the basis
for my misgivings.

My Project

Five centuries after ‘the holocaust’, ‘the cataclysm that shook Africa’—the
slave trade, spread of European diseases, uprootment and displacement of
indigenous Africans—and that resulted in the disappearance of ‘African
genius’, archaeologists ‘began to pick up some of the pieces’, according to
Ivan van Sertima, Rutgers director of African Studies (Van Sertima
1999:307). Some evidence of early African metallurgy, astronomy, mathe-
matics, architecture and engineering, navigation, agricultural science, medi-
cine and writing systems has thus been unearthed, which Van Sertima and
others (e.g., Seepe 2000) have claimed to precede and/or to be superior to
the European sciences.
My concern is not with the idea of Africa being the cradle of human-
kind, and by implication of all human knowledge. Whether or not this is
so is both moot and irrelevant here. Rather, does what Van Sertima enu-
merates and elaborates upon constitute ‘indigenous knowledge’? Assuming,
for the sake of argument, that the archaeological evidence favours the view
espoused by Van Sertima, what we have here are extraordinary indigenous
skills—like the Dogon ability to perceive minute stars with the naked
eye, or Yoruba mathematics. But do they yield indigenous theoretical
knowledge, in any meaningful sense of ‘indigenous’?
In what follows, I argue that ‘indigenous knowledge’ is a misnomer. As I
see it, the dilemma for the ‘indigenous knowledge’ apologist is the following.
Insofar as the term ‘indigenous’ makes sense, it is not a matter of
‘knowledge’, strictly speaking, but rather of ‘indigenous skills/ practices’ or

‘indigenous beliefs’. Insofar as the term ‘knowledge’ is plausible in this con-

text, it cannot be ‘indigenous’, ‘local’, and so forth. It is ‘knowledge’ per se.

Towards a Definition of Knowledge

One generally distinguishes between three kinds of knowledge:

• knowing a person, a place, and the like;

• knowing-how (practical or procedural knowledge);
• and knowing-that (theoretical, factual or declarative knowledge).

While the first represents familiarity- or acquaintance-type knowledge,

the second denotes skill or ability, frequently also a practice or custom
taught or passed down from one generation to another. The philosophical
definition that has been proposed for knowledge-that has three essential
components: belief; truth; and adequate justification. In other words, a
person knows that something is the case if

she believes that it is;

it is so (or it is true that it is the case);
and she has adequate justification for believing that it is.

‘Adequacy’, here, is determined by the kind, degree, as well as the context

of justification. Kinds of justification include observation, sense experience,
testimony, memory, deductive and inductive reasoning, and so on. As far
as the requisite degree is concerned: minimal justification is clearly not
enough, while logically conclusive justification is usually not available.
Normally, that is, other than in mathematics and deductive logic, we
accept justification that is less than conclusive, that is, reasons that are
nonetheless compelling.
Yet, what makes justification compelling has partly, and importantly, to
do with context—for example, the environment, the cultural and social
biography, and/ or the reasoning level of the person making a knowledge
claim. Considerations of context determine leniency or stringency in
knowledge ascription. Thus, we are generally more lenient in attributing
knowledge (and, therefore, sufficient justification) to a younger person, as
opposed to an older, more mature and experienced person. Similarly, we
are considerably stricter (that is, we demand more, better, or additional
justification) when assessing the knowledge claims of an educated urban,
cosmopolitan citizen, than we are when dealing with a person from a
remote, rural area. In terms of this definition, it is important to note that,
while belief and justification may vary from individual to individual, from
The Idea of Indigenous Knowledge 137

society to society, from culture to culture, truth does not so vary. Truth
provides the objective anchor for knowledge.

Application of this Definition to ‘Indigenous Knowledge’

‘Indigenous knowledge’ is fairly uncontroversial when taken to refer to
familiarity/acquaintance and practical knowledge/skills. Acquaintance with
particular mentalities, states of affairs, and the like differs from individual
to individual, society to society and from culture to culture. Iraqi militants
are familiar with their geographical terrain in ways American and British
soldiers are not. It also makes perfect sense to say that (different individu-
als in) different cultures or societies possess skills or know-how not shared
by others. A traditional healer knows how to cure people, through the use
of certain roots, berries or bark. Of course, there is often a close connec-
tion between practical and factual knowledge (vide the numerous references
to ‘knowledge and skills’ or ‘knowledges and practices’, for example by
Odora Hoppers 2005:2, 3). A traditional healer knows how to cure peo-
ple—and this implies that she presumably knows that certain roots, berries
or bark have the requisite palliative and curative properties. The pertinent
question is whether the latter constitutes a case of indigenous knowledge.
I want to focus briefly on two problems with ‘indigenous knowledge’, in
the light of the definition of ‘knowing that’ given above:

• the problem of superstition (the blurring of boundaries between what

is knowledge and what is not, i.e. what is mere belief); and
• the problem of relativism (about knowledge and about truth).

Problems with IK in the Sense of ‘Knowledge-That’

Peter Crossman and René Devisch claim that ‘differential knowledge-prac-

tices are particular to authoritative knowledge-bearers in culture-specific
roles and status, such as healers, bards, soothsayers, diviners, messengers or
even judges, journalists and so on’ (Crossman and Devisch 2002:117).
According to Soweto-based traditional healer and prolific chronicler Credo

The tokoloshe is real—it does exist. … When Africans fear the tokoloshe they
are not fearing a figment of their imaginations. … There is another creature
which is not unlike the tokoloshe in its love of inflicting bodily harm, and
which is also greatly feared. … I have personally fallen victim to mantin-
dane—not once, but three times—and I still carry the scars on my body to
testify to the truth of what I say. (Mutwa 1996:32)

Such attestations, and accusations of (white) nonbelievers of unwarranted

scepticism, place Mutwa’s views squarely in the realm of ‘superstition and
fertile imagination’, to use his own words. None of his anecdotes establish
the ‘truth’ of his assertions. Further examples of superstition are the beliefs
about ancestral blessing and absolution, about witchcraft and around ‘the
technique of rainmaking and rain-discarding’ (Hountondji 2002:24):
‘Respected and sometimes renowned physicists and chemists, once they
leave their laboratories, do not hesitate to consult local rainmakers to
ensure that their guests will not be rained upon during, for example,
marriage, burial or other family celebration they wish to organise’
(Hountondji 2002:23).
In some instances, then, ‘indigenous knowledge’ is taken to cover all
kinds of beliefs, with what is at best a casual reference to truth or justifica-
tion. This elevates to the status of knowledge not only mere assumption
and opinion, but also rainmaking and rain-discarding, divination, sooth-
saying and the like. In the absence of any explicit mention of truth, then,
the applicable idea would be that of ‘indigenous beliefs’. Given the philo-
sophical definition of knowledge, belief—even justified belief—does not
amount to knowledge. The major problem here is that emphasis on ‘indig-
enous knowledge’ does not appear to render possible a distinction between
knowledge and non-knowledge.
Writers often refer to the (need for) ‘validation’ or ‘legitimization’ of
indigenous knowledge, or to ‘warranted’ and ‘valid’ knowledge (see Semali
and Kincheloe 1999b:35, Odora Hoppers 2002a:7, 12; Odora Hoppers
2005:13, 17, 24). All these references are tautologies. Considering the cen-
trality of justification, knowledge is necessarily valid, legitimate, warranted.
There simply could be no other knowledge, knowledge that is invalid,
illegitimate or unwarranted. It would not be knowledge then. This is not to
deny that knowledge can be and often is subjugated. A pertinent consider-
ation here would concern the impact of the first significant astronomical
discoveries on a flat-earth, geocentric worldview, or of the theory of evolu-
tion on an orthodox, god-fearing mindset, and the subsequent suppression
of these views. But here the emphasis has changed, subtly, to incorporate
truth. (It should be noted that reference to ‘true knowledge’, too, involves
a tautology.)
In other instances, reference to truth is explicit, the underlying assump-
tion being that with a multiplicity of indigenous cultures and subcultures
there exists a multitude of truths, none of which are superior to any other
(see Semali and Kincheloe 1999b:27–28; Odora Hoppers 2002b, 2005). This
position is exemplified in Semali and Kincheloe’s ‘rejection of a transcul-
tural referent for truth such as the Western scientific method’ and of mod-
ernism’s ‘one truth epistemology’ (Semali and Kincheloe 1999b:17, 27):
The Idea of Indigenous Knowledge 139

this Western modernist way of producing knowledge and constructing reality

is one of a multitude of local ways of knowing—it is a local knowledge sys-
tem that denies its locality, seeking to produce not local but translocal
knowledge. Such knowledge is true regardless of context … and is used to
wield power over people without access to such knowledge. … The denigra-
tion of indigenous knowledge cannot be separated from the oppression of
indigenous people. (Semali and Kincheloe 1999b:28–29)

This kind of view leads directly to epistemological relativism and to relativ-

ism about truth, with all their attendant difficulties. Why is relativism
problematic? Briefly, to be a relativist about knowledge is to maintain that
there is no objective knowledge of reality (or better: of realities) indepen-
dently of knowers from relevant social groups. The difficulty for relativists
is to avoid the inconsistent claim that the relativistic thesis is itself an item
of objective knowledge. Thus, when Crossman and Devisch claim that
‘knowing does not entail an objective and fixed knowledge in any scientific
sense’ (Crossman and Devisch 2002:110), they fail to anticipate the obvious
response that this particular knowledge claim is, presumably, not ‘objective
and fixed’ either.
To be a relativist about truth, similarly, is to maintain that there is no
universal truth, that there is only a multitude of truths. The difficulty
for relativists is to avoid the inconsistent claim that the relativistic thesis
is itself universally (translocally/transculturally) true. In a related sense, to
‘take issues of locality, cultural values and social justice seriously’, as
Semali and Kincheloe urge (Semali and Kincheloe 1999b:51), to condemn
‘denigration of indigenous knowledge’ and ‘the oppression of indigenous
people’, is to adopt a translocal standpoint, and to assume that there is at
least one transcultural value, that of respect (which might be taken to
include non-oppression).
Empirically, too, embracing relativism has undesirable consequences.
These become obvious when, for the sake of argument (and bearing in
mind that this cannot coherently be done in any non-relative fashion), we
assume that relativism is true. What would be some of these consequences?
First, we could not judge that the beliefs and practices of other societies
are epistemically and veritistically inferior to our own. We could not say
that something is a false belief or a superstition, or that something is a
laborious, time-wasting practice. Second, we could decide whether beliefs
are true or false and practices are the correct or incorrect ones simply by
consulting the standards of our society or epistemic community. Third, the
idea of progress (scientific and other) is called into doubt, as is the idea of
‘reform’. We would not be able to say that a new paradigm constitutes an
improvement on the older paradigm it has replaced. In view of these
consequences, not even considering the paradoxicality of denying the

objectivity and universality of knowledge and truth, it arguably makes

more sense to assert that there is considerably less disagreement than is
apparent and that social and ethnic groups share a considerable body of
factual and practical knowledge.


The implications should be obvious now. ‘Indigenous knowledge’ involves

at best an incomplete, partial or, at worst, a questionable understanding or
conception of knowledge. It might, fairly non-controversially, refer to indig-
enous acquaintance- or familiarity-type knowledge and to indigenous prac-
tical knowledge. If, on the other hand, it is intended to convey ‘knowledge’
in the factual, theoretical or declarative sense, then one might doubt either
whether it is essentially ‘indigenous’ (because the knowledge in question
would hold not only locally but transculturally) or whether it is a matter of
‘knowledge’ (as in the case of belief in witchcraft or in ancestors’ agency,
that sex with a virgin prevents or cures HIV/AIDS, and the like). Thus, what
is called ‘indigenous knowledge’ in this sense is interpreted more plausibly
either as knowledge proper (that is, not essentially ‘indigenous’) or as mere
(indigenous) belief/s—in the absence of truth and perhaps even justifica-
tion. As a tool in anti-discrimination and anti-repression discourse, in
the struggle for decolonisation of the mind (the seat of cognition and
knowledge-that), then, ‘indigenous knowledge’ is largely inappropriate.
If something is referred to as ‘indigenous knowledge’ in the sense of
factual or declarative knowledge, it must meet the requisite criteria: belief,
truth and adequate justification. If it does, it is relevantly similar and,
indeed, equal to ‘non-indigenous’ knowledge in a particular area or field.
Thus, the traditional healer’s knowledge would be as significant, epistemo-
logically, as that of a general medical practitioner, and the knowledge of a
naturopath or homoeopath. The insights into climate change, animal
behaviour and plant life cycles of the San, Inuit or Native Americans would
be no less important than those of occidental analysts, climatologists and
biologists. In fact, they could arguably learn from each other. It is impor-
tant to bear in mind that there is no question here of different truths
(different beliefs perhaps, different methods of justification almost
certainly), no question of (radically) different knowledges. Truth and
reality are essentially not in the eye of the beholder.
A San elder’s insight into the appetite- and thirst-suppressant properties
of the !khoba cactus, or Hoodia gordinii, constitutes an insight that may
not be shared by many—indeed, not even by the younger San—but it has
translocal value and application. There is a staggering amount of common
ground between cultures, not only in terms of factual knowledge but also
The Idea of Indigenous Knowledge 141

in terms of values. A rapprochement between so-called ‘indigenous’ and

‘non-indigenous’ insights is not only possible but also desirable—on educa-
tional, ethical and political grounds.

Concluding Remarks—Test Case: The Endeavours of the

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

I consider this conception of theoretical or declarative knowledge to be not

only plausible, but also indispensable for clearing up some of the confu-
sions in debates around knowledge. In other words, the philosophical
account of the nature of knowledge may be used as a yardstick. Thus, the
onus will be on anyone who is opposed to the analysis presented here to
propose an alternative and more feasible definition, one that is sufficiently
unambiguous and comprehensive to address the issues and problems raised
Finally, in order to illustrate the force of the proffered account, I want
to suggest a thought experiment. The Truth and Reconciliation Commis-
sion (TRC) was set up after the first democratic election in South Africa
in order to bring to light and address the injustices and moral wrongs
committed under apartheid—and indeed to ‘heal the divisions of the
past’ and contribute towards establishing ‘a society based on democratic
values, social justice and fundamental rights’ (see Horsthemke 2004c).
One of the principal contributions of the TRC was to turn knowledge—in
other words, that which so many people already knew—into public
acknowledgement, allowing the nation to acknowledge atrocity for what it
is (cf. Villa-Vicencio 2003:15). Asked to name the most significant
achievements of the TRC in a national survey, the vast majority of South
Africans, irrespective of race, referred to the disclosure of the truth about
the past.
Let us pause to think about the present use of the terms ‘knowledge’
and ‘truth’. Is the former something that is essentially uncertain, unstable,
an individual or social construct, something that necessarily expresses
power relations? Is the latter a matter of discussion or debate, synonymous
with ‘consensus’? I want to suggest that the use of the terms ‘knowledge’
and ‘truth’ in the particular enterprise referred to here cannot be relativist,
that knowledge and truth are not relative to a particular culture or social
context. If it did not involve an understanding of truth as transcultural
or universal (and as objectively anchoring knowledge), as reflecting what
actually happened, that is, facts about South Africa’s past, setting up a
commission like this would be pointless.

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