The problem with “Indigenous science”

The logo of the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network

Last month I was invited by Frances Widdowson, a faculty in the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies at Mt. Royal University, in Calgary, to participate to a panel discussion on the topic of the “indigenization” of the university curriculum. It was a weird experience, to say the least. [Warning: if you think that as a White Male European I am automatically disqualified from offering reasoned opinions on matters pertaining the history of exploitation of Indigenous people by Western nations, you may want to stop reading and take a walk. I’m trying to save you a possible ulcer.]

Canada is in the midst of a process of reconciliation with its Indigenous people, who have been exploited in ways similar to those experienced by their counterparts in what is currently the United States, in Central America, and in South America. The details vary from place to place, and so do the modalities of the exploitation, but the problem is common to the entire continent.

In the specific case of Canada, an overview of the process is presented at the web site of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which “aims to reveal the truth about the history and the ongoing legacy of Canada’s residential schools [a system of boarding school aimed at integrating Indigenous kids into Western society, administered by Christian churches], and to guide a healing process of reconciliation among Canadians based on inclusion, mutual understanding, and respect.”

This post offers my thoughts as a layperson on Canada’s reconciliation process, and my opinions as a professional scientist-philosopher on the specific issue of indigenizing the science curriculum.

Before attending the panel I gave my customary talk on the difference between science and pseudoscience — the area of expertise that induced Frances to invite me in the first place. I also attended a talk by one of the panel members, David Newhouse, an Onondaga from the Six Nations of the Grand River community near Brantford, Ontario, and Chair and Professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies, Trent University.

The talk was on the broader process of reconciliation, and I will give you the highlights because they set the tone for what happened during the focal event, the panel discussion itself.

I learned a lot from David’s presentation. He talks calmly and deliberately, but his passion shines through nonetheless.

His first slide opened with the phrase “Before all other words are said we extend greetings to all of creation.” Which was a slight turn off to an atheist such as myself, but I didn’t mind, it was his talk after all. (Another participant to the panel, Root Gorelick, had, however, asked Frances to use “indigenous protocols,” and recommended that we “start with a local Elder smudging and welcoming everyone.” In response, Frances had argued that to participate in a ceremony with which one did not agree was not respectful, it was condescending.)

David explained that reconciliation is meant to correct what he called the “founding error,” the fact that no Indigenous people were present when the founding documents of Canada were drawn up.

He reminded us that the “long assault” on Indigenous people went on from 1857, with the passing of the Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes, to 1971, with the Withdrawal Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian policy, adding that the major tool of the long assault was the above mentioned network of residential schools. As a proponent of that approach once explained: “When one Indian boy or girl leaves this school with an education, the ‘Indian problem’ will forever be solved for him and his children.”

That sort of thing makes me cringe. It is abundantly clear to me, both from what I heard from David and from a bit of research on the topic done on my own, that the Canadian government’s approach had been a major blunder (even though it was probably well intentioned, from the point of view of the colonizers), and more broadly that a process of reconciliation is a very good way to go. That said, David used the highly emotional words “cultural genocide,” which made me a bit uncomfortable, both because of their obvious appeal to emotion, and because I tend to resist the metaphorical use of the word genocide, so not to diminish its impact when used in its original meaning of a deliberate, mass slaughtering of a particular people. (The term has been used by Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin.)

From then on, however, a few flags began to go off in my head as David continued his talk. For instance, David’s request for Indian control of Indian education, including the establishment of school boards, as well as the suggestion that Indians should be considered “citizens plus” with special rights, because they were charter members of Canada.

The problem with these sort of requests (other than that they will simply not be fulfilled, realistically) is that they fly straight into the face of Canada’s attempt to be a true multi-cultural society, welcoming people of all backgrounds and faiths. (Unlike, at the moment, its neighbor to the south.)

Cosmopolitanism is simply incompatible with special rights and exclusive education. And while it is perfectly understandable where such requests come from, in terms of historical wrongs, they would simply be wrongs of another type. It was a grievous mistake to attempt to eliminate Indigenous culture by forced assimilation into its Western counterpart. But it seems to me that respect for cultural traditions does not require a special status, something that in a sense embodies the opposite mistake of that represented by the residential schools. Indeed, it would be a disservice to Indigenous kids to isolate them culturally from the variety of traditions that characterize the rest of modern Canada, in the way a number of religious minorities in the United States wish to shelter their youth from the “corrupting” influence of other ways of thinking about the world.

Finally, David claimed that the process of reconciliation ought to be one for which there is no end point. This is odd, to say the least. The point of other truth and reconciliation commissions — in South Africa and Rwanda, for instance — has always been precisely to reach an end point, to acknowledge past wrongs, set up a proper system of reparations, and then shift to educational objectives to prevent future recurrences of the original problem. If people don’t accept an end point then resentment festers, perpetually undermining the goal of establishing a more harmonious society, constantly pitting people of different histories and cultures against each other, and generating further resentment on both sides.

And we finally come to the panel discussion itself. The point of contention was how to interpret article 62 of the recommendations issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which reads in part:

“We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to … Provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms. [and to] provide the necessary funding to Aboriginal schools to utilize Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in classrooms.”

The keywords to pay attention to there are “Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods.”

The Commission goes on to explain: “Incorporating Indigenous knowledge in education is not only useful in building stronger intercultural relationships, and making the classroom more inviting to aboriginal students, it also provides alternative ways of teaching many concepts to children especially when it comes to topics related to the environment. Some schools that incorporated Indigenous learning into their curricula had lessons where students went on nature hikes, and learned how to grow traditional plants. Indigenizing education does not simply mean adding a chapter about residential schools to the textbook; it means including an Indigenous perspective in schools that would involve getting lessons from elders, taking nature walks to understand science, studying Indigenous language, and ultimately learning what it means to coexist in a just and peaceful way.”

Most of which I find entirely unobjectionable, as stated. The problem, apparently, is in how to interpret just how far this process should go.

The panel was made up of the organizer, Frances Widdowson; David Newhouse; Root Gorelick — who describes himself as a feminist anarchist evolutionary theorist, who primarily researches evolution of sex and diversity; Shawn England, who teaches Latin American and US history at Mount Royal; and yours truly. The whole thing was moderated by Gerry Cross, a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Computing at Mount Royal.

My notes on the individual presentations are not detailed enough to attempt a play-by-play report, but Frances told me that there is a good chance an edited volume or special journal issue will soon be in the works, including some contributions from scholars who couldn’t attend the panel, so stay tuned.

I will, however, comment on a few important points. Root, for instance, is a really nice guy with whom I had genial conversations over dinner and lunch. But he insisted that there are radically different ways of doing science — in support of the notion that there may be different ways to achieve knowledge, including Indigenous ones. For instance, he claims that unsystematic observations are perfectly valid scientific data. I responded that unsystematic observation may very well represent the beginning of a scientific investigation, but that “data” means one has some specific idea in mind, a theoretical framework to guide his investigations, and systematic sources — be they observational or experimental. Root also suggested — in a move eerily reminiscent of those of American creationists — that (Indigenous) kids should be exposed to both Western science and traditional “ways of knowing” so that they can decide what best fits their needs. To which I replied that no, education isn’t about subjecting students to all sorts of notions and let them decide. It is about sharpening their tools for better thinking and providing them with the best notions that human knowledge has arrived at so far. And yes, I’m perfectly aware that “best notions” and “better thinking” imply value judgments.

Shawn’s role was that of presenting a middle way between Root’s and David’s position on one side, and Frances’ and mine on the other. (If you want a taste of Frances’ take on this matter, check this article. In the interest of balance, here is one by Root.) In an attempt to strike a compromise, he claimed that indigenization can open new venues of inquiry, at which point I asked for specific examples, without getting much of a response (more on this point in a minute).

David attempted to pre-empt criticism along the lines that requiring the teaching of Indigenous “science” would run afoul of the principle of academic freedom by saying that “we don’t require other faculty to teach this.” In other words, the idea is to hire Indigenous faculty to teach Indigenous science. But, I replied, that’s simply dodging the bullet. Imagine for a minute someone wishing to teach homeopathy as if it were sound medicine and reassuringly telling the medical school that they are not required to do it, someone else will do it for them. That would be to spectacularly miss the point, I should think.

Since David too, like Shawn, insisted that indigenizing the university would be a plus because it would introduce both faculty and students to other ways of knowing, I asked again for specific examples. I finally got them.
Here are the only three that were presented during the entire panel discussion:

i) Indigenous people know the local flora and fauna well, including some of their medicinal properties (Indigenous biology).

ii) Chairs can change into bears, because energy is in movement and can change into matter (Indigenous “physics”).

iii) Going into a sauna and smudging some local plants on one’s skin is an effective way to “cleans” one’s mind, body, and spirit — though from what is not at all clear (here is a pretty much unhelpful description of the process).

Clearly, the first is an example of local knowledge that is not different in kind from scientific knowledge; and indeed, it’s a routine practice of botanists and zoologists all over the world to take advantage of such knowledge, there being nothing “alternative” about it. The second example has a vague whiff of quantum mechanics — which was, indeed brought up during the discussion — but no, chairs ain’t gonna change into bears (much less with a probability of “about 1%,” as stated by David during his talk). The third example is vaguely spiritual, perhaps hinting at the supernatural, and hardly seems to merit a spot in a science curriculum.

In a nutshell, it was clear to me that the positive claims made by supporters of Indigenous science reduce to an attempt to introduce what to me clearly qualifies as pseudoscience in the university curriculum. When they experience some pushback, however, they shift to a position that is entirely unobjectionable — like bringing students to nature walks or teaching them about the medicinal properties of the local flora. But such unobjectionable proposals seem to be obviously designed as Trojan horses to get the real crazy stuff in by way of a secondary entrance. Once a university hires an Indigenous scholar to teach Indigenous “science” there is very little oversight over what, exactly, the fellow will be teaching in the classroom. And the problem with Trojan horses, even when they are so obvious to spot, is that they tend to work — just ask Odysseus. This makes me worry for the future of Canadian education, as well as for the possibility of copycats soon appearing south of the C-border.


201 thoughts on “The problem with “Indigenous science”

  1. Robin Herbert

    I doubt I could add to what Massimo and Frances have said on “Indigenous science”. The only question seems to be, how do you convince others?

    Part of the problem is that people can call science “Western” science. There isn’t any Western science, just science – it doesn’t belong to any group or culture.

    And there is nothing respectful on failing to call nonsense something which is nonsense – just because it has been expressed by a particular minority view. In fact it is patronising to indulge ideas like this on the basis of culture.

    In Australia there was a group who said that there should be a separate indigenous science on the basis that cosmology said one thing and “we have our own creation stories”. But that never seemed to catch on with the majority of Indigenous Australians.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Thomas Jones

    Big fish eat little fish.

    Some have touched upon this metaphor, but only inadequately in terms of the OP, a subject about which I can add little, but–rightly or wrongly–most of the comments depart from the OP’s central concern with “The problem with ‘Indigenous science,'” or as Massimo further elaborates, “[his] thoughts as a layperson on Canada’s reconciliation process, and my opinions as a professional scientist-philosopher on the specific issue of indigenizing the science curriculum.”

    Instead, when even approaching the topic, commentary has been painted with a broad brush regarding “culture,” a concept that is bandied about as if there were some common understanding of how it’s being used with respect to the OP.

    There is more than enough in the OP to contend with or to request further clarification such as the following:

    “Cosmopolitanism is simply incompatible with special rights and exclusive education. . . . But it seems to me that respect for cultural traditions does not require a special status, something that in a sense embodies the opposite mistake of that represented by the residential schools. ”

    [followed by] “The point of other truth and reconciliation commissions . . . has always been precisely to reach an end point, to acknowledge past wrongs, set up a proper system of reparations, and then shift to educational objectives to prevent future recurrences of the original problem. If people don’t accept an end point then resentment festers, perpetually undermining the goal of establishing a more harmonious society, constantly pitting people of different histories and cultures against each other . . . .”

    Ms Widdowson’s comments are the most pointed in the thread. And yet, perhaps, cannot be generalized outside her work in Canada. Nevertheless, statements like the following are problematic for me:

    “We don’t expect any other group to go back to what their ancestors were doing thousands of years ago; however, this is what is proposed by indigenization initiatives because it is assumed that aboriginal culture is tied to ‘race’/DNA (it is passed down from one generation to another, goes the argument, and therefore to transform it is ‘genocidal’).” [“We”?]

    Or: “The reason why it is being promoted is that is a lucrative way to extract rent from governments (neotribal rentierism).” [Really? In contra-distinction to what Amish communities do as opposed to, say, what welfare free riders as opposed to how Corporations extract “rent”?]

    But my comments, at best, only serve to enlarge the context of the OP, which seems more limited in scope, which in itself presents special problems for the average reader.

    Still there is commentary worth consideration even if outside the scope of the OP, like:

    “The danger, I think, is in lumping these claims of indigenous knowledge with geniune practices that are culture-specific – for example, naming, marriage, burial rites and rituals; kinship relations; dietary habits; cultural icons, symbols, fabrics, colors; and perhaps most importantly, language, literature, and mythos.” [Haulianlal] Or Socratics, “And back to that word ‘evolution,’ and another word used above, ‘progress.’ In general, cultural evolution no more denotes progress than does biological evolution.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. SocraticGadfly

    Michael, true that, on language and descriptions. I don’t believe that a full-blown version of Sapir-Whorf is true, but I do believe there’s some fair degree of truth to an ameliorated version.


  4. Michael Fugate

    No group could go back – it can only go forward. Much like the myth of living fossils – there might be an appearance of stasis, but so much has gone on under the hood that the groups are not in reality very close. These are modern people, not some fossil culture unearthed from long ago like a Siberian mammoth meat in a snowbank. Oral traditions allow for much change with it seeming to occur to even the people involved.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. wtc48

    The divergence of this thread from the original topic suggests the existence of much larger issues in the background. On the one hand, there is globalization of culture, most obvious in Americanization through the media of TV, movies, pop culture: T-shirts in Africa, McDonald’s everywhere, etc. The other side of this is a mosaic of cultural enclaves within the dominant culture of particular regions, often intent on establishing a separate identity and resisting assimilation, but also wanting a piece of the economic and social pie.

    The grandfather of all such groups is that of the Jews of the Diaspora, who managed to preserve their religion and traditional ways in Europe and Asia for over 1000 years.

    The indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere present one enormously tangled history, and the Africans who were brought there against their will present another.

    The problematic status of the Kurds in the late Roman Empire is mentioned by Gibbon, and is still going strong.

    The Mormons had a tempestuous history in America before compromising their principles to achieve statehood in Utah.

    The issues between Palestinians and Israelis have been unresolved for at least 70 years, and no end in sight.

    Separatist movements abound, in Scotland, Quebec, Hawaii, and other places, while Putin strives to rewire the USSR.

    In brief, globalization seems to be linked with an equally strong current of fragmentation.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. brodix

    Underlaying even this OP is the capitalist tsunami, in which these cultural artifacts are pulled from their context and commodified, which Prof Widdowson referred to as neotribal rentierism. Hunting money, instead of seal.
    When that wave crashes, they better not have forgotten how to hunt seal.


  7. brodix


    “The grandfather of all such groups is that of the Jews of the Diaspora, who managed to preserve their religion and traditional ways in Europe and Asia for over 1000 years.”

    The advantage of a cultural monolith, when one is a minority. The disadvantage appears to be reconciling it with governing a modern pluralistic society. Witness Israel. There is no inherent tension to keep it from feeding on itself, other than the organic liberalism developed over the Diaspora, of sustaining that distinct identity in larger societies.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. brodix

    I suspect if one were to really go back into pre-history, the basis of the concept of god is the group identity. That of the people as a larger organic whole. That this sense of spiritual entity being projected onto other features of the environment was then likely an early form of anthropomorphism.
    The power of this collective identity is that it held the group together in a hostile environment. Which is often what Jews, as a self identified separate group, often found themselves in. Yet the downside, as a formal religion and not just an instinctive response, is it does create barriers to the outside world. Of course this applies to any such group; Kurds, Armenians, etc and the consequent need to have an established space or country.
    Creating a homogenized culture has its own drawbacks, such as providing a universal goal, as opposed to simply defending one’s group against threats. Enter capitalism and money as quantified hope.

    Now all we have is ISIS and the Evil Russians to defend ourselves against.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Markk

    I feel torn on this one. If I was to take a course called “Science” and it ended up being chair-bear science, I would no doubt feel cheated. But if the course was called “Chair-Bear Studies” or something, at least I know what I’m getting.

    On the other hand, this reminds me of something I read recently about the Soviet Union, which had “scientific communism” courses – quote: “everybody knew it was a pseudoscientific scam, but you were still advised not to say that out loud. But in private, achieving perfect scores on your mandatory “scientific communism” course was considered to be a smirch on your academic record by real professors in science and mathematics.”

    Such courses may acquire a veneer of respectability if they appear in well-regarded institutions and have the government’s stamp of approval. But society at large will still judge them for what they are, potentially creating a trap for unwitting students.


  10. Markk

    I’ll take it as given that no bear has a chair origin. Nevertheless, if bears in Canada are in such plague proportions that it was thought they emerged spontaneously from inanimate objects, I am never ever going there.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. SocraticGadfly

    WTC, Indeed. I’m sure Garth is quite familiar with Parti Quebecois in his own Canada, speaking of … well, not fragmentation, but, never-assimilation.

    So, is French Canadian culture doomed to be wiped out?


  12. ejwinner

    Thomas Jones side remark on the Amish is illuminating here (and I used to have Mennonite friends who forced me to rethink many issues). On the basis of the principle of religious freedom, we do not (and the courts have ruled we cannot) demand of the Amish that they teach their children according to public school curricular policy. Fair enough; that might inhibit their children’s intellectual development, but after all, as long as they remain within the Amish community, they will have as much as they need.

    But the Amish do not ask for government assistance in the education of their children, and indeed are suspicious of offers of such assistance.

    I don’t know much about native American ‘rentierism’ in Canada. Certainly native Americans should be allowed grants and leverage, considering how badly they’ve been treated historically. But does this mean that the government should pay for a restructuring of education outside of the native American communities to favor the myths of their history? This seems asking too much.

    One can choose not to be Amish; and while one cannot choose not to be native American by ancestry, one can certainly leave the native community behind. When you choose to come to Rome, you choose to live as the Romans do. Including their education.;

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Frances Widdowson

    Hello all:

    I am glad that the conversation is a little more focused now. I realize that this subject touches on many different things, and I will try to respond as directly as I can to the various points that have been raised.

    First, I want to clarify why I mentioned the idea of neotribal rentierism. The reason for this was because the whole idea of indigenization and the promotion of “indigenous science” is incomprehensible without it. I sat through many government meetings 20 years ago, where diamond mine executives and government officials all said that incorporating “traditional knowledge” was vital, but they had no idea what it was or how it differed from science. It was pretty obvious that the reason why the importance of “traditional knowledge” was being asserted was political – it justified bribes to indigenous groups in exchange for them allowing development to proceed. This enabled “rent” to be extracted by lawyers and consultants and circulated within neotribes (kinship groups that have become transformed in their interactions with capitalist processes).

    This is exactly the same thing that is happening with respect to the demands that “indigenous science” be incorporated into the university curriculum. No one has any idea what this is, and an educational benefit has not been demonstrated. Why then are many professors and administrators supporting this initiative? Administrators think that it is good public relations, because it shows that their university is intent on “decolonization” and “reconciliation”. Some professors are sentimental and think that supporting anything that an aboriginal groups says, even dubious ideas that an ethnic group has an inaccessible but nevertheless important form of “knowledge”, shows that they are compassionate. Other professors, however, stand to gain from the Canada Research Chair positions that will be granted in “indigenous science” and other funds that are diverted towards indigenization.

    The big issue, which is being disguised by references to “indigenous science” and the promotion of indigenization more generally, is the undeveloped character of aboriginal cultures. I am sympathetic that aboriginal peoples will want to hang on to various cultural features – languages, spiritual beliefs, kinship connections, etc. – because this provides them with meaning. No government should actively try to obliterate these features (as occurred with the residential schools). However, it is another thing entirely to argue that public funds should be diverted away from much needed services pertaining to scientific health care, rigorous education, safe water, and adequate housing so that aboriginal shamen can engage in “healing” rituals and nonsense can be taught in the educational system. This will not do anything to address the anomic conditions in aboriginal communities, which are related to the fact that aboriginal people are having a difficult time making sense of what is happening in the world. Their traditions cannot help them with this, although it may provide some comfort in their everyday lives. It is a stopgap, not a permanent solution, to the developmental gap that exists.

    Aboriginal people, in terms of their culture, are not environmentalists. The environment remained relatively unscathed before the arrival of Europeans because of the less developed stone age technology and the subsistence character of hunting and gathering/horticultural economies. The spiritual beliefs that aboriginal people had were animistic, and they believed that spirits should be propitiated to ensure hunting success. This had nothing to do with the notions of sustainability that we have today, which only came about because there was a realization that humans were having a negative impact on the environment.

    Aboriginal peoples should feel free to learn their languages, but these languages are pre-literate and do not have the capacity to discuss philosophy and science. They are equipped to tell stories, communicate about hunting and gathering, and recognize kinship obligations. It could be argued that these languages should be preserved for study but one cannot teach modern school subjects with them. It is possible that teaching them as a second language could be done in the early grades to enable the young and the old to communicate with one another.

    Aboriginal people are not “nations”; they are neotribes that lack the political and economic relationships that are needed to sustain a modern state (unlike the Quebecois, which have the capacity to form a state). This means that the problem of integration cannot be avoided. Right now, the dominant viewpoint is that the revitalization of aboriginal traditions will solve the problems that isolated and uneducated aboriginal people are experiencing, because it will raise their self esteem. But this is a misdiagnosis of the problem and seems to be connected to the idea that aboriginal culture is innate. Aboriginal youth watch television and just want what others have. They are bored and resentful because they are unable to access what they see occurring in the rest of Canada. A focus on revitalizing traditions will do nothing to improve aboriginal living conditions and their ability to participate in a global society.

    Liked by 7 people

  14. Haulianlal Guite

    The conversation has become quite informative and engaging without the usual ruckus, great to see this for a change! Let me see what I have learned so far, with my own observations.

    A. I largely agree with Socratic’s insight on how an entire way of life is lost when a culture gets lost, on the dangers of equating “change” with “progress”, and of our ability to make normative judgments on cultural issues.

    B. Michael’s point that “knowledge how” (non-propositional) as opposed to propositional knowledge (“knowledge that”) gets lost when a culture is lost, is a very significant point worth considering. Because certain practices are honed over hundreds and even thousands of years (for example, ability of aborigines to detect the presence of water from hundreds of miles away), all these disappears when the cultural practitioners disappear too, and this lost is just incalculable. Preservation of non-propositional knowledge should therefore be another goal a cosmopolitan polity must attempt to do.

    However, the point about “no turning back”, that forms of life which once disappears are permanently gone, is trivially true, of course, since time doesn’t stay still but moves. More substantially though, there are certain things that can be recovered. Modern Israel’s stupendous success in recovering ancient Hebrew and making it a living language again, is one exemplar; there may be some others (of course its arguable there is a certain unique Jewishness). If a dead language (which is the fulcrum that powers an entire cultural mosaic) can revive, why can’t other cultural elements be too?

    Even my own culture, which was basically destroyed in much of its content when Christianity (or “Anglotianity” as I’d like to call it) came a hundred years ago, have made strident attempts to revive certain practices, with mixed results. The return to “ancient” dietary habits is one area where we have succeeded. It will be encouraging to do others as well.

    C. Brodix, I do believe cultures can co-exist side by side, and furthermore, this should be the ideal and the goal. Cross-cultural exchanges can also happen without violence or coercion, even when the playing field is leveled. It has always happened of course; question is, whether this can be without coercion. The history of the Great Silk Route is one pointer that peaceful exchanges did occasionally happen indeed, sometimes across centuries, traversing continents.

    D. Robin, I definitely agree there is no such thing as “Western” or “Non-Western” science. However, even with respect to knowledge, Michael’s point that knowledge-how (which is culture-specific) is something that needs preservation, must be remembered. I believe this is somehow analogous to our desire to protect endangered species even when they no longer actively participate in the ecosystem’s food-chain.

    E. Thomas’s point that “culture” is not a monolith but something ill-defined, is true. But there is a certain family resemblance among various traits and practices which together can be held to represent a culture. One rather workable definition is to understand culture in terms of “human practices that are unique to a particular community, and makes no universalist claims to knowledge”. Within these we have all forms of art, architecture, music, cuisine, entertainment, games and sports, language, literature, mythos, kinship relations, and much more. The only things that are really excluded from culture thus will be such totalizing claims of theology, science, mathematics, philosophy, technology, and political structures.

    F. WTC’s observations on the clash between globalization and identity formation are quite prescient. However, while the world has become culturally flatter in certain areas (dominance of English, Hollywood, fast-food cuisines are the major areas), in many other respects, regional cultures simply internalize outside practices as their own. Large economies like America are particularly good in doing this. A glaring example is the adoption of pizza which, while being a diet of the Near East, now became a fabric of American culture once Brooklyn successfully commodifies and marketizes it. So when we think of pizza, America comes to mind – not Turkey. Another is cigar – an innovation of First Nation peoples, but which has become associated with the West.

    On the other side, regional economies too have managed to internalize outside practices too, albeit with limited success. China’s adoption of Tibetan noodles to make it their own, is one such; while the use of the spinning wheel as a symbol of India’s agrarian society (though first developed in Manchester), is another.

    G. I agree with Mark on the “chair bear studies”. I’d definitely be interested in knowing why a people would come to believe in such things, how this came about, and the extent of their beliefs – in addition to the actual content. This is simply anthropology however.

    H. Ejwinner, I agree with your comments. I do believe, though, that political representation through reservation of seats for them at all levels of government, is the most basic way forward to ensure they live according to their own whim instead of being spoon-fed by the generosity of others. This will prevent the need for those types of bribes Frances brought attention to, and allow for a more balanced negotiation table.

    I. France’s point about the need to balance cultural demands with welfare services is well-taken. I think the best way to go forward, here and elsewhere, is to ensure their political representation, and give their representatives the power to allocate funds meant for their community, in whatever way they want. If they squander them on healing rituals while the roads remain unrepaired or public delivery systems are a bust, good sense tells us these representatives will almost not get re-elected in the next term.

    As for their language being incapable of dealing with philosophy and science, while this is currently true (though these languages can always evolve, as English did), for utilitarian reasons its better to use just one language: English. Now this may offend non-English speakers of dominant languages like French and German, but, well, get in line! Like it or not, English is the lingua franca of international trade and commerce, philosophy, math, technology and science. The reasoning that applies to tribal languages must, in my opinion, apply to all languages too, except English.

    I must however vehemently disagree on the point that tribes are incapable of forming a modern nation-state. I don’t think any people are incapable of forming any independent state when such small nations like Monaco or Luxembourg (or the Micronesian nations) can exist.

    However, as part of the cosmopolitan ideal worth subscribing to, nation-states should be regarded a thing of the past, and no nation should be built along exclusive ethno-cultural lines (even as the core-periphery cultural division remains preserved). This goes for all existing nations too. So the most practicable solutions as I see it, is to nestle them within existing nation-states (which hopefully will wither away too), and give them political representation at all levels as a necessary first step.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Coel

    Hi ejwinner,

    On the basis of the principle of religious freedom, we do not (and the courts have ruled we cannot) demand of the Amish that they teach their children according to public school curricular policy. Fair enough; that might inhibit their children’s intellectual development, but after all, as long as they remain within the Amish community, they will have as much as they need.

    But is an education that suffices only if they stay in one community fair on the kids? Surely the kids have a right to decide for themselves whether they want to live their adult lives in the Amish communities, and that means they deserve an education that gives them a proper range of options. That surely trumps the supposed “religious freedom” rights of parents to restrict them to a narrow and limited education.

    We have similar problems in the UK with some religious minorities. For example, some ultra-orthodox Jewish Charedi schools in London teach little but religious texts.

    One ex-student of illegal Charedi schools, now in his 20s and outside the community, told Newsnight: “I’m starting to study for my GCSEs. I’m maybe like an eight-year-old, nine-year-old. That’s my level of education.”.”

    Now these schools are illegal (schools in the UK are quite properly required to provide a proper education) but such is the unwarranted deference to religious minorities that the authorities usually prefer to ignore the situation and so fail the kids.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. brodix


    It does seem, like a lot of things, balance is required. Possibly not just integration and support from the dominant culture, but connections with other minority cultures, to give a better perspective on their own situation. As I’ve been pointing out here for some years, our current economic model of capitalism has mutated from treating money as a medium of exchange to increasingly a store of value. Consider that in the body, the medium is blood and the store is fat and you will have some essential idea of why this system is heading for another heart attack and eventually a catastrophic one. In which case, those more organic connections will prove invaluable.


    I certainly think cultures will always co-exist. Sometimes cooperatively and sometimes competitively, but that is as I see reality as a panorama of cyclical processes, basically analogous to the thermodynamic environment in which we evolved, rather than the linear goal oriented focus on detail to which our minds are usefully suited.


    The occasional black bears in this area are mostly harmless to everything but beehives.


  17. Haulianlal Guite


    || Surely the kids have a right to decide for themselves whether they want to live their adult lives in the Amish communities, and that means they deserve an education that gives them a proper range of options. ||

    Both claims are misleading; this is another huge propagandic myth perpetrated by the New Atheists. Adults have the right to decide for themselves how they wish to lead their adult lives. The question of whether kids have the right to decide how they live their childhood lives, does not arise at all, as they are yet incapable of making informed decisions (again, here as elsewhere, let’s not pretend to be duped by stories of “becoming atheists at 6 or 8” as if that’s a rational decision deserving respectability, no more than early religious conversions are). Therefore, it is but only logical that parents will bring up their kids the way they want. If the parents are atheists, why, bring them up in an atheistic environment in the way they want in the exact manner they want. If they are from a Christian environment, just as well. So long as the two most basic human rights – right to life and right against exploitation – remains inviolate.

    On growing up as adults, if someone wishes to rebel for whatever reason, he/she is free to do so – as adults, its their life to spoil or build, whichever way they choose. I’m sure in this day and age its easy to get one’s hands on virtually anything. The debate must therefore center on the age at which a person should be legally considered an adult, before which point none but the parents shall be their caretakers, and after which point he should be free to live the life he chooses.

    [this does not apply to public schools, where neither theistic nor atheistic teachings should be allowed in a secular state. But of course, Britain is not a secular state, so UK presents an exception again].


    There is no problem with cultures competing with one another – so long as its without violence, and in a level-playing field. Of course this is not the case currently, which is why states must strive towards flattening the playing field (politically and economically).


  18. SocraticGadfly

    EJ, I respectfully think your statement on Amish homeschooling isn’t 100 percent right. For starters, from Wiki’s page on homeschooling in the US:

    (T)he Runyon Court held that: recognized that “The Court has repeatedly stressed that while parents have a constitutional right to send their children to private schools and a constitutional right to select private schools that offer specialized instruction, they have no constitutional right to provide their children with private school education unfettered by reasonable government regulation.”

    Italics mine on the second half.

    And I’ve never heard of a state allowing homeschoolers to be educated without curriculum standards.

    That said, how much standards are imposed on home-schooled children varies from state to state. In other words, in the US, parents have a constitutional right to homeschool, but states have a right to set homeschooling standards.


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