Who’s indigenous? And does it matter? These are significant questions, with significant answers. They are relevant to TOK both through the new area of knowledge, indigenous knowledge, and an old area of knowledge, ethics – as well as to all the ways of knowing involved in classifying our concepts. Two stories in this past month’s news bring them to life: a court contest in Canada about who is classified as “aboriginal” and a conflict in Tanzania over whether indigenous people have any claim to their traditional land.

Indigenous knowledge is an area not classified according to the same criteria, it seems to me, as the academic areas of knowledge.   But I could be wrong. Is scientific knowledge defined as the knowledge held by scientists, or are scientists defined as the people who have studied science? Which comes first – the definition of the knowledge or the definition of the people? Do we define and classify in the same way for indigenous knowledge as we do for the sciences or other areas of knowledge? Maybe yes, maybe no. (See my September post asking “What/when/who?” about IK: Indigenous Knowledge: definition, implications, and controversy

Canada:  Who is classified as “Indian”?

If indigenous knowledge is tied inextricably to the people who hold it, then this week’s decision by the Supreme Court of Canada gives us an interesting story to follow in TOK: the Court has accepted to hear a legal case  to decide whether Métis and non-status Indians fall into the category of “Indian”, as Inuit and status Indians do. The classification carries some important implications: only “Indians” have certain entitlements under the law. Métis and non-status Indians are arguing that they should have the same rights, but the federal government is arguing against including them and therefore being compelled to extend the benefits to them.


 To what extent are our areas of knowledge categorized by who is doing the knowing? Compare the natural sciences, the arts, religious knowledge, and indigenous knowledge for the role of the knowers in the definition of the knowledge.

What is the impact on our knowledge of the ways in which we categorize our world? What ways of knowing are involved in classifying?

Tanzania: Is Indigenous Knowledge dependent on connection with the land?

If indigenous knowledge is tied to traditions from the past (the when of indigenous knowledge), then removing people from their lands and way of life affects both the people and their knowledge; traditional ways of living die out. Although it would be easy to find examples all over the world of indigenous peoples expelled from their lands, and of cultural knowledge being lost, the situation facing the Masai of Tanzania has hit international news again this week: “Tanzania accused of backtracking over Masai’s ancestral land”: “Tanzania has been accused of reneging on its promise to 40,000 Masai pastoralists by going ahead with plans to evict them and turn their ancestral land into a reserve for the royal family of Dubai to hunt big game.”

Being expelled from their lands, the Masai insist, would destroy their heritage – their way of life and all the knowledge that goes with it. Last year, the Tanzanian government said that it was dropping plans for a hunting zone for a company in the United Arab Emirates, but that cancellation is now being seen by some as merely a ruse to deflect international protest.


What kinds of knowledge are held by indigenous peoples living a traditional life on ancestral lands? (What experiential knowledge? What how-to skill? What kinds of knowledge claims?) To what extent does the existence of that knowledge depend on sustaining the connection between the people and their traditional way of life on their traditional lands?

To what extent can understanding an area of knowledge be separated from understanding the characteristics and methods of the people who possess it?

Should indigenous knowledge be protected and/or sustained? What ethical perspectives come into play in attempting to respond to this question?


Beyond TOK: In the conflict of interests between groups with claims to land, what ethical guidelines would you argue should be followed in political decisions, and why? (Yes, this question is a big one – and takes us right to the border between applied TOK and global issues. In my opinion, discussions within global issues benefit enormously from TOK thinking.)

These two stories, from Canada and from Tanzania, highlight different aspects of indigenous knowledge. Both also highlight, strikingly, the way in which indigenous knowledge has a geographical, social and political context. In my mind, the issues of social context ripple right through all of our areas of knowledge.

Further reading/viewing

Catherine Saez, “What Protection of Traditional Knowledge Means to Indigenous Peoples”, August 20, 2013. https://intercontinentalcry.org/what-protection-of-traditional-knowledge-means-to-indigenous-peoples/

“Maasai”, IC Magazine, Supporting the Indigenous Peoples Movement. Intercontinental Cry https://intercontinentalcry.org/peoples/maasai/

video: https://intercontinentalcry.org/peoples/maasai/


Steve Rennie, “Supreme Court to hear landmark case involving Metis non-status” The Canadian Press, November 21, 2014. in Turtle Island News (North America’s #1 Native Weekly Newspaper. Canada’s Only National Daily Native News Service) http://www.theturtleislandnews.com/daily/mailer_stories/nov212014/Supreme-Court-to-hear-landmark-case-involving-Metis-non-status-10112114.html

David Smith, Africa correspondent. “Tanzania accused of backtracking over Masai’s ancestral land”, The Guardian, November 16, 2014.


image of classification: Flickr commons from www.GlynLowe.com