'Let the World Speak': Towards Indigenous Epistemology

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The central tenet of indigeneity is the idea of a kinship based relationship between humankind and natural world environments. Formal indigenous cultures place an emphasis upon this idea - it is central to their culture - and they give active and ongoing expression to it in their activities.

In this monograph, Charles Royal calls for the development of indigenous epistemology to serve two purposes. The first purpose is to provide depth and guidance to the various institutions, organisations and initiatives that now exist and which are dedicated, in some way, to advancing mātauranga Māori in Aotearoa-New Zealand. The contribution of indigenous epistemology in this arena is to enable the transition from cultural restoration and revitalisation to cultural creativity. Indigenous epistemology supports the move from a culture under stress (its preoccupation and commitment to protect preexisting traditional knowledge) to a culture that is able to live again creatively.

A second and important reason for indigenous epistemology arises from the crisis now facing humankind with respect to our relationship to the natural world, to our planet. Charles writes: ‘Global warming, ecological crises, energy problems and over population make it clear that the way human society relates to the natural world, to Planet Earth, requires considerable improvement. Whilst we are not suggesting that indigenous knowledge and epistemology will provide all the answers to the many pressing issues that face us, we wonder if the traditional preoccupation of indigenous communities with relating in a fundamental and kin-ship based way to the natural world might hold something of value for humanity in the years ahead.’

Following an introduction, the monograph commences proper with a chapter entitled ‘Towards Epistemology’. Why an interest in epistemology? Here the author discusses experiences with being a student of mātauranga Māori and, later, acting as Kaihautū (coordinator) of a masters programme in this subject. These experiences of teaching and learning mātauranga Māori catalysed Charles to think about the ‘creative potential’ of mātauranga Māori and how it can be used and grown in our time. This chapter is concluded with an introduction to epistemology itself. The chapter makes use of Robert Audi’s 1998 text, 'Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge'.

Chapter 3 provides an overview of indigenous philosophy and epistemology from three key regions in the world: Africa, North America and the Pacific. Whilst the survey is brief and not comprehensive, it offers a glimpse of the breadth and depth of indigenous thinking throughout the world. The chapter begins with the idea of ‘Africans doing philosophy’ and how quickly these discussions turn to matters of ethnicity. It touches upon the purpose of philosophy in the African setting. Similar discourses take place in North America as ‘American Indians’ wrestle with ‘doing philosophy’. Two further essays are considered which look at the substance of American Indian philosophy. The chapter concludes by exploring epistemology in the indigenous Pacific setting.  

Chapter 4 explores ‘Indigenous Epistemology in Aotearoa/New Zealand’. The monograph looks at texts by Anne Salmond, Te Maire Tau and by Roma Mere Roberts and Peter R. Wills. Each text explores the tensions with respect to the differences between mātauranga Māori and other kinds of knowledge. Salmond contends that mātauranga Māori is not as ‘closed’ as some assert whereas Tau argues that mātauranga Māori diminished because it was incapable of creating new knowledge in response to new phenomena. Roberts and Wills compares mātauranga Māori with science.

Chapter 5 introduces a ‘spectrum of knowledge and knowing’ based upon concepts that can be found in mātauranga Māori. At one of the end of the spectrum is the idea of knowledge as a discrete object, an externalised and detached representation of phenomena. Charles suggests that the word ‘mātauranga’ subsequently became used for this way of thinking about knowledge encouraged primarily by the introduction of literacy and education to iwi communities. At the other end of the spectrum is the absence of a concept of knowledge (such as we hold today) but rather an ‘experience’ when it seems that the natural world ‘speaks’ directly into the consciousness of an individual. This is what is referred to by the word ‘tohu’ and is what underpins notion of ‘indigenity’ and ‘Let the World Speak’.

The monograph concludes with Chapter 6, which is entitled ‘Towards Indigenous Epistemology’. It addresses questions such as ‘What is the purpose of indigenous epistemology?’ and outlines a number of approaches that might be taken. It explores how indigenous epistemology is to be conducted before providing some concluding comments on cultural revitalisation and the engagement with the world of our actual experience. ‘Māori need a larger goal than cultural revitalisation. Whilst it is important to repatriate traditional knowledge to Māori people, we must also open ourselves to the world – to its challenges, and problems, and also to its wisdom.’

The monograph concludes by saying ‘We have an important task: to remould humankind’s relationship to the planet in mutually enhancing ways.’

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'Let the World Speak': Towards Indigenous Epistemology
by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal
Published by MKTA 2009
(c) C Royal 2009
ISBN: 978-0-9582955-1-2

Digital download, PDF file, 9.9 MB
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