Indigenous ways of communicating knowledge

Storytelling and the imagination

Elder members of indigenous societies oversee the learning process. In addition to acting as guides to the land and its flora and fauna, they also convey knowledge to younger individuals by telling stories. These stories provide wide-ranging information to their listeners, such as how the earth was created, the way in which animals and plants came about, why certain moral rules exist within that society, and so on.

They are imaginative stories that not only portray and celebrate the inherent beauty of the environment, but also allow their listeners to relate to the objects of the story, and empathize with them. Those listening to the stories imagine what it is like to be the animals in the story, and experience the world from their perspective.

As the Cree Indians put it: The hunter tries to think what the bear is thinking. Their minds touch. The hunter and the bear have parallel knowledge, and they share that knowledge. So in a sense they communicate. Laurelyn Whitt

The songlines

Stories and knowledge may be passed on via many different ways. For Australian aborigines, information about the landscape is traditionally turned into songs. These songlines are then passed down from generation to generation, and help those who know them to get from one place to another. Once you have learnt the songlines – first the witchetty grub rock on your left, then the kangaroo ravine on your right – you can navigate your way through the harsh environment of the Australian bush.

The Songlines also provide an account of how the world came into being. For Australian aborigines, the period before our existence is known as ‘The Dreaming’, when only the Creator Being existed. This Creator Being then began to sing, and the earth and everything upon it appeared. So when the songs are sung (and sometimes danced), not only do they provide a practical guide for getting from one place to another, they also recreate the birth of the earth, simultaneously blending the physical and metaphysical worlds. Children learn the songlines from a very early age, carried around on their mother’s backs. The result is a unique fusion of imagination, artistic ability, and navigational skill.

…a Bushman child will be carried a distance of 4,900 miles before he begins to walk on his own. Since, during this rhythmic phase, he will be forever naming the contents of his territory, it is impossible he will not become a poet.

Dance as a way of passing on knowledge

In the southern African San society, important skills that are vital for survival are conveyed in the ceremony of the great dance.

This life-giving ceremony is both musical and rhythmic, but at the same time deeply serious and at the heart of all the hunter-gatherers’ concerns. In it, they learn over many, many years how to enter the world of the spirits and to ask their god for the power to heal the sick, to make rain, or to influence the movements of the animals. Their skills that we, as outsiders, find so remarkable, they owe to the acquisition of power in this way, and to paying close attention to hundreds of stories and accounts of how to behave in different situations. Sam Challis

There are two important implications of using these methods of passing on knowledge. First, the need to use one’s imagination means that listeners develop a profound bond with the environment in which they live, and the rules required to live successfully within it. Second, the story telling, song learning, or ritual dance helps to strengthen community bonds, with the younger generation learning from the older, and building a respect for their knowledge and position in society.

This is why many indigenous societies consider written knowledge to be inferior to spoken knowledge, and why some have even rejected the former. They see the advantages of learning empirically and personally as more than making up for the insecure position it places them in when it comes to protecting their knowledge. Having said that, it does make them more vulnerable. As the linguist K David Harrison says:

…this knowledge dissipates when people shift to speaking global tongues. What the Kallawaya of Bolivia know about medicinal plants, how the Yupik of Alaska name 99 distinct sea ice formations, how the Tofa of Siberia classify reindeer. Entire domains of ancient knowledge, only scantily documented, are rapidly eroding.

Unfortunately, many governments and corporations have taken advantage of this vulnerability, realizing that if you take away the language of an oral society, you also take away its identity and knowledge. You are then free to take away its possessions, which are often considerable.

Language use

We have begun to see the crucial role (spoken) language plays in indigenous societies. In a non-literate culture, you lose your language, and you lose your identity. It’s also worth considering how skilfully language is used by many traditional peoples, and we can do that by putting it in the context of our own experiences in the IB. Part of the selling point of the IB Diploma is the way in which it encourages language learning. We may congratulate ourselves for knowing a second or third language, and some of us are lucky enough to be bilingual, speaking and understanding our first two languages equally fluently, and sometimes even trilingual. However, such an achievement would not be regarded as in any way remarkable in many of the indigenous societies.

Jared Diamond talks about spending time with a group of 20 New Guineans. Amongst them, the smallest number of languages anyone spoke was 5. Several understood between 8 and 12 languages, and one of them could communicate ably in 15 different languages. These were all totally different languages, rather than various different dialects; some were tonal like Chinese, and some were non-tonal.

The anthropologist Peter Sutton provided a similar picture for aborigines in the Cape Keerweer area of Australia, with the average number of languages spoken as 5, and with marriage between different language-speakers accounting for 60% of unions. Even more extreme are the Indians living in the Vaupes River area on the border between Brazil and Colombia. Marriage between two speakers of the same language is virtually unheard of, and it is the norm within family ‘longhouses’ for communication to be carried out all the time in four different languages.

The implications of living in a multilingual society are various, but modern neuro-science is systematically showing that speakers of more than one language have advantages when it comes to problem solving, and the increased day-to-day activity of their brains may even help to stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. (see Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday).

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Indigenous ways of communicating knowledge. (10th June 2022).


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