What Does Indigenous Knowledge Mean? A Compilation of Attributes.

April 06, 2018

What does Indigenous knowledge (IK) mean? That’s a big question because “there are approximately 370 million Indigenous people in the world, belonging to 5,000 different groups, in 90 countries worldwide. Indigenous people live in every region of the world...” [1] At this point, there isn’t a hard and fast definition accepted and recognized by all; it can mean different things to different societies and cultures.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) uses this definition:

Local and indigenous knowledge refers to the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. For rural and indigenous peoples, local knowledge informs decision-making about fundamental aspects of day-to-day life.


This knowledge is integral to a cultural complex that also encompasses language, systems of classification, resource use practices, social interactions, ritual and spirituality.

These unique ways of knowing are important facets of the world’s cultural diversity, and provide a foundation for locally-appropriate sustainable development. [2]


Why should non-Indigenous people take the time to learn about Indigenous knowledge?
Because, western science is increasingly recognizing the value of IK and is collaborating with communities to incorporate their knowledge in related research projects.

We wanted to put some flesh on the bones of the UNESCO definition so did some research [3] and have developed a compilation that we hope encompasses the primary tenets of Indigenous knowledge in Canada. Interspersed with the tenets are some quotes, expressions and proverbs from Indigenous leaders.

Indigenous knowledge is:

Adaptive. It is based on historical experiences but adapts to social, economic, environmental, spiritual and political changes. Adaptation is the key to survival.

Cumulative. It is a body of knowledge and skills developed from centuries of living in close proximity to nature.

Dynamic. It is not rooted in a particular point in history but has developed, adapted, and grown over millennia; it is not static.

Holistic. All aspects of life are interconnected, are not considered in isolation but as a part of the whole. The world is believed to be an integral whole. Indigenous knowledge incorporates all aspects of life - spirituality, history, cultural practices, social interactions, language, healing.

Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.

Chief Seattle [4]

Humble. Indigenous knowledge does not dictate how to control nature but how to live in harmony with the gifts of the Creator.

Intergenerational. The collective memory is passed, within a community, from one generation to the next orally through language, stories, songs, ceremonies, legends, and proverbs.

Invaluable. It has been argued that Indigenous knowledge, not capital, is the key to sustainable social and economic development. There is a growing recognition and respect for IK and a desire to collaborate with Indigenous communities on environmental monitoring projects.

Only when the last tree has died
and the last river has been poisoned
and the last fish has been caught
will we realize
we cannot eat money.
Cree Indian Expression [5]

Irreplaceable. There is nothing western science can do to replace or replicate Indigenous knowledge. An aspect of Indigenous knowledge that is sometimes overlooked by scientists, and others, is the critical connection between IK and language. Indigenous languages are in decline and as languages die, so goes the Indigenous knowledge that is part of that language and the collective memory of the speakers of that language.

Moral. There is a morality in Indigenous knowledge - a right and wrong way to interact with nature; there is a responsibility given from the Creator to respect the natural world.

Non-linear. Time, patterns, migrations and movements of animals are cyclical.

"The circle, being primary, influences how we as Aboriginal peoples view the world. In the process of how life evolves, how the natural world grows and works together, how all things are connected, and how all things move toward their destiny. Aboriginal peoples see and respond to the world in a circular fashion and are influenced by the examples of the circles of creation in our environment". [6]

Observant. Since Creation, Indigenous leaders have observed their environment and made decisions for their community’s well-being based on those observations. But their decisions also weighed what would be best for the community seven generations in the future.

We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors,
We borrow it from our Children
Indian Proverb [7]

In our every deliberation,
we must consider the impact of our decisions
on the next seven generations.
Iroquois Confederacy Maxim [8]

Relative. Indigenous knowledge is not embodied at the same degree by all community members. Elders will obviously carry more knowledge than younger community members.

Responsible. Indigenous Peoples generally believe they are responsible for the well-being of the natural environment around them.

Spiritual. Indigenous knowledge is rooted in a social context that sees the world in terms of social and spiritual relations among all life forms. All parts of the natural world are infused with spirit. Mind, matter, and spirit are perceived as inseparable.

Unique. Indigenous knowledge is unique to a given culture or society. While there may be many similarities of IK between communities, it is the lived experience of each community that informs IK.

Valid. It does not require the validation of western science.

As with most articles on our blog Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples® we strive to provide information and encourage readers to investigate further to build their own understanding of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

Here's a free eBook with some tips on what to avoid saying and doing when with Indigenous Peoples. 


[1] Cultural Survival website

[2] United Nations Educational, Scientifical, and Cultural Organization

[3] Definitions of Traditional Knowledge National Aboriginal Forestry Association

[4] Dunn, Michael. Quotes on indigenous knowledge systems (13th September 2013). theoryofknowledge.net. http://www.theoryofknowledge.net/areas-of-knowledge/indigenous-knowledge-systems/quotes-on-indigenous-knowledge-systems/

[5] ibid

[6] Dumont, J. (1989). Culture, behaviour, & identity of the Native person. In NATI-2105: Culture, behaviour, & identity of the Native person. Sudbury: Laurentian University Press.

[7] Dunn, Michael. Quotes on indigenous knowledge systems (13th September 2013). theoryofknowledge.net. http://www.theoryofknowledge.net/areas-of-knowledge/indigenous-knowledge-systems/quotes-on-indigenous-knowledge-systems/

[8] ibid

Topics: Indigenous Peoples

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