Ives Goddard, map of native languages, Wikipedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Langs_N.Amer.png

In TOK, “indigenous knowledge” has been added to the spectrum of areas of knowledge we treat in the course. Yet what is the basis of this category “indigenous knowledge”?  The map above is of aboriginal languages before colonialism, and what a diversity of language and culture it reflects even within the single continent of North America!  Perhaps a good look at this map, and further examination of the extreme diversity of indigenous languages and cultures across the world, will prompt some serious knowledge questions about classification of groups as “aboriginal” or “indigenous”.  Is the classification — using observation (WOK sense perception and reason) and WOK language — based on cultural characteristics held in common, or instead on historical and political situations imposed in common upon groups of unlike people?

Even more central to TOK are questions about the commonalities of knowledge within these diverse groups.  In the Theory of Knowledge IB course companion, I follow the features proposed by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), such as knowledge that is holistic and rooted in the specific land on which a cultural group lives.  Yet I remain uneasy.  Do these features freeze the knowledge of cultural groups at a particular historical moment — as if they learned nothing more after they were colonized?  If we are talking about traditional knowledge, why pick out the traditional knowledge specifically of conquered and colonized peoples?

Personally, I find the inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge within TOK areas of knowledge fascinating and magnetic, partly because coming to grips with what it even means involves challenging categories of knowledge — and considering who developed them, when, and why.  Including it also requires that we recognize the contexts of politics and power within which knowledge is embraced or marginalized — or even suppressed, as were so many of the aboriginal languages shown on the map above.

If we aspire to be open-minded inquirers, as in the IB Learner Profile, then discussion of Indigenous Knowledge in a class context stands to take us into appreciation of the “values and traditions of others”, applied to cultural knowledge.   If we approach it without these qualities, however, we risk adding further misunderstanding and affront to groups and individuals whose knowledge, historically, has so often been trampled.


Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick.  Theory of Knowledge IB Course Companion.  Oxford University Press, 2013. https://global.oup.com/education/product/9780199129737?region=international

Max Fisher, “40 more maps that explain the world”, Washington Post, January 13 at 10:00 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/01/13/40-more-maps-that-explain-the-world/