What are the implications of using the tools of the dominant knowledge paradigm to protect Indigenous knowledge?
This question, with which many individuals working on the spectrum of intellectual property issues surely grapple, came up at the recent IPinCH symposium “Cultural Commodification, Indigenous Peoples & Self-Determination,” held at the University of British Columbia on May 2, 2013.
As this was my first IPinCH event since becoming a Fellow with the project in January 2013, I decided to contribute to ongoing IPinCH dialogues by inquiring: How might we unsettle categories informing the dominant knowledge paradigm? And, what possibilities does this open for recognizing the radically different ways of being which colonial processes seek to eradicate?
At the symposium I witnessed a clear concern expressed by presenters about the fact that although a separation between the tangible and intangible inheres when approaching intellectual property issues through the tools of the colonizer, this separation does not apply from within Indigenous ways of being (also see Anderson 2012:2). This paradox marks my own entry into the dialogue: if these dualistic categories are dubious, how can we approach what we call “Indigenous knowledge” without imposing an a priori separation?
My intention here is to draw on recent anthropological scholarship to provide some tools for unsettling common-sense assumptions about what counts as “knowledge,” in order to open space for modes of being which stand outside of colonial categories. As James Leach (2012) argues, although knowledge appears to be everywhere, its apparent ubiquity reveals confusion around the production and recognition of what fits into the category. Acknowledging that the category of knowledge is shifting and ephemeral, rather than fixed and static, demonstrates the need to attend to what happens as a thing, process, practice or relationship shifts registers and comes to be treated as knowledge (Leach 2012:210). The type of translation that takes place as a certain practice or process is officially recognized as knowledge shifts the topography of engagements that can happen around it. As a practice or process comes to be labelled as “knowledge” by the state, for example, it may become unrecognizable from its original form, since the state can only accommodate positivistic cause-effect relations in its definition of what knowledge is. Subsequently, more subtle or unexpected aspects of the relations at play may be missed (Leach 2012:211-214).
Admitting at the outset that we cannot say for certain what knowledge is (sensu Leach 2012:211) can have powerful implications for unsettling the effects that dominant categories hold. Without such an admittance, Marilyn Strathern (2013) suggests, a radical divergence of what counts as knowledge may be initiated and concealed at the moment of agreement between parties. For example, a UK-based working group on human remains in museum collections initiated a dialogue between scientific experts and Indigenous groups in Australia, New Zealand and North America whose ancestral remains were under discussion. As Strathern argues, by framing that project as one of “knowledge exchange” aiming to trigger dialogue and establish “an agreement” whereby both scientific study and repatriation could be carried out, the working group assumed dialogue to be possible; that is, they assumed scientific and Indigenous knowledge to be in symmetrical relation to the remains. In response, many Indigenous participants were offended by the conviction that their relations with ancestral remains could be reduced to a mere “perspective” that could then be compared to that of the scientists. In this way, that project revealed a divergence so radical that there was no agreement to debate (Strathern 2013:3-8). By admitting and staying open to the idea that the category of knowledge is quite slippery, these types of dialogues may open space for alterities that otherwise go unnoticed.
If Strathern shows the danger of assuming what counts as knowledge, Helen Verran (2013) imparts how the category might be disrupted altogether. In describing a ceremony known as Ngathu, performed by Yolngu Aboriginal Australians, Verran shows how the ceremony enacts Yolngu politics. In the ceremony, cycad nuts are split, dried, then placed in bags and soaked in bodies of water. By the third day of soaking, the poison, known as “fighting of trouble” (Verran 2013:2), has leached out of the nuts, making the surrounding land and people strong. The soaked nuts are then ground to a paste, shaped into loaves, and eaten according to strict protocols. This process of decomposing and recomposing, of reshaping the many into one and back into many, is articulated through various stories and images and informs Yolngu territory, law, and partnerships (Verran 2013:1-5). Verran shows that the performative “doing” of Yolngu politics doesn’t depend on a category of knowledge concerned with Ngathu and its effects; rather, the ceremony, on its own terms, actively does the work of ordering relationships among humans and non-humans, of binding people to land, and of safeguarding country.
Though categories may, at times, be necessary in order for conversation to take place, the aim of this discussion has been to loosen the grip that some categories hold. By constantly questioning how we qualify what counts as knowledge and where the boundaries of this category might lie, we allow for radically different modes of being to flourish. My own curiosity leads me to ask: In what ways are IPinCH-related projects loosening, hardening, reinforcing or interrogating the category of knowledge?
Anderson, Jane. 2012. On Resolution: Intellectual Property and Indigenous Knowledge Disputes. Prologue. Landscapes of Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal Devoted to the Study of Violence, Conflict, and Trauma 2 (1): 1-14.
Leach, James. 2012. Recognising and Translating Knowledge: Navigating the Political, Epistemological, Legal and Ontological. Anthropological Forum 22 (3): 209-223.
Strathern, Marilyn. 2013. Opening Up Relations. Paper presented in “Indigenous Cosmopolitics,”John E Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures, University of California, Davis.
Verran, Helen. 2013. Carrying the Dead Along. Towards Ontologically Canny Politics. Paper presented in “Indigenous Cosmopolitics,” John E Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures, University of California, Davis.