What researchers and journalists miss out on: The ethics of writing on indigenous peoples and cultures


News reports and research papers written mostly by non-indigenous journalists and researchers often trivialise and misinterpret the indigenous cultures and knowledge systems.

Bhagoriya fairs
Teaser Image Caption
Bhagoria festival. Photo: Geetanjali Gurlhosur

A week before many people in India celebrate Holi, the indigenous communities of central India begin celebrating the harvest season and their new year by gathering in large numbers in colourful clothes in village grounds, shopping and dancing to the rhythms of indigenous instruments. The Bhagoria/ Bhagoriya fairs are part of the biggest indigenous festival of central India that brings together Bhil tribes and sub-tribes from the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra for culture and knowledge sharing. And to the dismay and disgruntlement of the indigenous peoples of this region (Malwa), dominant Indian publications like the Hindustan Times, the Outlook, SheThePeople and others have branded their festival as a ‘love fest’, a ‘marriage market’ and ‘the tribal way to Tinder’.

Trivialising Adivasi way of life

If one were to look for literature on the Bhagoria festival, one would find a few rehashed news reports and anthropological papers written by non-indigenous journalists and researchers. The last 50 years of writing on Madhya Pradesh’s Adivasi culture and marriage customs trivialises, romanticises and misrepresents the indigenous festival of many meanings and histories to a fair where young people elope. Among non-Adivasis, almost all narratives of the origin of Bhagoria are related to eloping or myths of eloping, whereas, on my visit to the tribal district of Alirajpur, men and women told me that arranged marriage or maangni-jodke has been the usual form of marriage in the tribal villages here.1

Such misrepresentations, however, are not isolated incidents. Indigenous knowledge and way of life, under the eyes of the colonial and then the postcolonial anthropologist, have suffered a great deal. Another example of this is the perception about jhum shared by many in the mainstream, particularly among policymakers. Before the practice of jhum cultivation, in the states of Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram was recognised by the state and non-state actors as grounds of learning, re-learning and sharing indigenous knowledge2, for decades it was critiqued harshly. The knowledge of jhum—or slash and burn as it is called by non-indigenous researchers—cultivation was labelled a destructive farming activity by, first, researchers and then by the state.

However, this has been found not to be true. In Nagaland, jhum cultivators improve land fertility through a farming system based on alder trees, which is nitrogen-fixing tree species. This has proven to increase jhum crop yield.3But the perception created and promoted by policymakers still continues to colour research and literature. The amount of harm such misrepresentation has done to jhum cultivators, their lifestyle and the ecosystem is insurmountable.

With lack of communication between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous writers and an unethical documentation of indigenous ways of life, we can safely assume that post colonialism, the power of storytelling continues to lie with the non-indigenous. If at all social and ethnic minorities are represented in the media, they are represented through the dominant narratives and worldview. In my article for the NewsLaundry, I break down the dominant media presentation of the indigenous and how it works against the indigenous way of life. Romanticisation of indigenous culture and social life through the tropes of singing, dancing and ‘eloping with consent’ leaves gender violence within indigenous communities unnoticed and unreported. Today, ‘eve-teasing’ and sexual harassment, and consequently state-policing, are a common sight at Bhagoria melas (fairs). Locals blame the media.

Neglecting Indigenous Worldviews

While indigenous cultural and ecological assets are sought for tourism and for gaining international attention for developmental funds, the knowledge systems that keep these cultural and ecological assets intact are hardly recognised. The gaze of the anti-indigenous state other-ises, exoticises and looks down on indigenous cultures and communities, all at the same time. The northeastern front of the country bears the brunt of other-isation geographically, culturally as well as economically.

While the Indian media views geographical, ecological, ethnic and socio-cultural diversity of the Northeast region as a matter of pride, it also fails to recognise the local indigenous worldview, knowledge and lived realities. It neglects the fact that practising in the tribal lands is learning and teaching. Without being able to farm, sing, dance, tell stories and make art, indigenous knowledge will not be transmitted. In her chapter in the book ‘Sharing Life: The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity’, Linda Chhakchhuak refers to jhum fields as the ‘University of the Tribe’. Practising jhum cultivation is a way for communities to manage their landscapes through mosaics of fire.4

If indigenous spaces of celebration and sharing are compromised, like that of the Bhagoria festivities, then, indigenous way of life is compromised. People from the Bhil villages complain of appropriation of Bhagoria by the Indian government for political gains. In the last decade, the Madhya Pradesh government repeatedly proposed plans to promote the indigenous festival through tourism and competitive events, but tribal organisations have vehemently opposed this idea.5 Activists of the region irritably state that the then district collector proposed putting up a marriage registration tent at Bhagoria melas to stop couples from eloping.

For close to ten years, tribal activists and organisations from the central tribal belt have been attempting to correct the mainstream’s representation of their culture, but the mainstream news channels and publications have paid no heed to the practitioners of the culture it proudly writes about. In exasperation, some even proposed changing the name of the biggest festival they grew up witnessing, but faced opposition in their own community. Rajendra Dindor, a Bhil writer from Jhabua, writes on social media in Hindi: “When it comes to Adivasi culture, nobody wants to get to the bottom of it.”1

Western researchers and those from hegemonic cultures within India study indigenous knowledge systems only with the intention of describing indigenous communities anthropologically or bringing them to the tables of climate change conversations. The approach is not without a hierarchical gaze though. One of the inevitabilities of non-indigenous researchers studying indigenous way of life is that it is done so through the lens and language of western science.

In 1998, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) delineated the ethics of researching and writing about indigenous science and knowledge systems. Firstly, the IDRC guideline states that research must look at indigenous knowledge as science—as complicated, nuanced and interconnected as it is with human and nonhuman life. Indigenous knowledge is a collective knowledge, say philosophers like Andreas Weber in the book Sharing Life: The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity, published by HBS6. Researchers should be a part of that collective and help western worldview transform (back).

Secondly, indigenous knowledge cannot be studied by separating it from its holders. Research must strive to be participatory in which it empowers local structures that either challenge or subvert government’s existing development agendas. Thus, participatory research must aim to help in rural governance, local sustainability and building policy. Kaladas Dehariya, an indigenous trade union activist of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), raised a pertinent question in an interview with the author. He asked, “Hundreds of villages in the tribal areas of Bastar region have been identified as ‘Ayurved Gram’ where villagers gather medicinal plants and conduct research. While it is important to document our indigenous knowledge, it is also important to document the destruction of the homes of knowledge holders. How do we continue to protect this knowledge if its practitioners and their homes are under threat?”

Thirdly, research in indigenous communities must be gender-sensitive and inclusive. Each community’s knowledge is a sum of its men’s and women’s different knowledge capacities. Because of divided labour usually on the basis of gender, people hold different kinds of knowledge and this must be taken into consideration while researching and documenting. Womens knowledge specifically in seed conservation, dairy industry and forestry forms the majority of local knowledge in food production. Women constitute 75 per cent of the farm workers in India and produce 60 per cent to 80 per cent of the country’s food7. Thus, their knowledge of agriculture contributes to the majority of the knowledge on conservation of land and other natural resources.

Ecofeminist and anti-globalisation author Vandana Shiva wrote in her paper on indigenous women’s knowledge and biodiversity for the India International Centre Quarterly: “The marginalisation of women and the destruction of biodiversity go hand in hand.” When indigenous women, their needs and knowledge are outside the conversations of development, biodiversity and conservation are affected directly. Exclusion of indigenous women and their knowledge in research and writing would mean excluding more than a half of the community’s knowledge, experiences and history. 

The experiences of living in indigenous communities and having adeptness in different skills depend on age, gender, needs, division of labour, social hierarchy and local governing bodies, which includes customary law and cultural values. “Recognition, however, has not automatically led to acknowledgement and the need to share benefits with the community is regularly overlooked,” write Douglas Nakashima and Marie Roue in their article for the Encyclopaedia of Global Environmental Change. Access to indigenous knowledge and culture by non-indigenous cultures can often result in appropriation of this knowledge, and subsequently indigenous cultures. Indigenous researcher Nakashima and environmental anthropologist Roue add that the “quest for natural products to be exploited for commercial gain is explicitly targeting traditional knowledge holders”.8

Let us look at, for example, the fashion industries of the West as well as in India that plagiarise and appropriate indigenous artwork and, subsequently, indigenous culture without the consent of the communities. To be specific, the black and red stripes and the hand woven prints of the Ao Naga traditional shawl are found on clothes sold online, and ten years ago, it was found on the tails of Air India aircrafts. None of this was done with consent from the Ao Naga tribe and none of the commercial benefits shared with the indigenous artists, most of whom are women.9

Another concern, citing works of Ash Narain Roy of the Institute of Social Sciences and Koteswara Rao Kodirekkala of the University of Hyderabad, is that indigenous knowledge is fast disappearing not only because of appropriation and commodification of indigenous culture, but also because of the absence of documentation and the heavy distortion of knowledge10 due to local socio-economic changes in society and environment like urbanisation, loss of land rights and loss of forest cover11.

Importance of proper documentation

Thus, not only is it urgent to document disappearing indigenous languages, art forms and knowledge systems, it is also important to document them as they change and evolve due to the above-mentioned factors. And we must do so outside the gaze of the hegemonic culture and science. The gaze forces a kind of scrutiny of indigenous knowledge for selective documentation that is counter-productive in protecting the rights and interests of indigenous peoples.

Sonja Brodt, Associate Director at the University of California, recommends the documentation of indigenous knowledge beyond practices to “reinforc(e) indigenous ideas”. She is talking about the communication and documentation of conceptual knowledge of practices. Her approach views knowledge as independent yet connected subsystems, and would allow scientists and anthropologists to focus on specifically endangered subsystems of indigenous knowledge.12 It is still unclear, though, if recommendations made 20 years ago by researchers like Brodt have found their way to the basis of understanding, documenting and employing indigenous knowledge.

Some government-led projects and community initiatives like radio broadcasts and programmes, online music channels and cultural events are working positively toward protecting indigenous languages, music and art. The All India Radio’s music broadcasts of the endangered folk music, Khunung Eshei, is one of them. This is conducted in collaboration with local artists and music teachers. Another is the Odisha government’s Multi-Lingual Education (MLE) programme, started in 2006 to help tribal children learn at school. Dictionaries for 20 indigenous languages of Odisha were also printed to encourage learning and production of literature.13

A non-governmental initiative is the Honey Bee Network, a working knowledge and innovations network that involves traditional knowledge holders, farmers, research community and local communities. Developed by the Society for Research Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies (SRISTI), the Network since the previous century ensures that commercial benefits from the knowledge used are shared with its holders. All documented intellectual knowledge is owned by local communities and kept with the Department of Science and Technology through participation and consultation with the community. Systematising of indigenous knowledge requires regional and national resource centres to document, form databases of and control and share knowledge.14

A very important consideration regarding documentation is the issue of consent. According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s (WIPO) toolkit of 2017 for documenting indigenous knowledge, a documentation project requires prior informed consent of the people and local communities. The community’s consent on purposes, procedures, potential risks and implications and any other issues in documenting their traditional knowledge should be taken either when the project is in planning stage or on site. Consent may be granted by elders, community representatives, traditional authorities or any community structure entitled by customary law or even national regulation. WIPO suggests that the consent taking and decision making processes happen through traditional mechanisms of the community. It is valid through oral acceptance, a traditional act/ practice/ custom or a written agreement between the documenter and community.15

Any documentation outside these ethics can affect indigenous philosophy, communities and their way of life. The written word is a powerful tool; it can build and it can erase. Any writing by the non-indigenous, thus, has to be done with a reparative responsibility to the indigenous peoples, their histories and futures – the responsibility of countering hegemonic representations of indigenous peoples. Only then can you begin to do justice to their narratives.

But, the best way to make sure indigenous stories, knowledges and worldview are documented and transmitted is simply to pass the mic (and other tools of mediated spaces) back to indigenous people, and listen.



1 Gurlhosur, G. (May 8, 2021). How non-Adivasi journalists trivialise and misrepresent Adivasi culture. NewsLaundry. Retrieved from https://www.newslaundry.com/2021/05/08/how-non-adivasi-journalists-trivialise-and-misrepresent-adivasi-culture

2 Chhakchhuak, L. (2020). Saving jhum, the crucible of life in Northeast mountains. In (ed.) Heinrich Boell Stiftung, Sharing life: The ecopolitics of reciprocity. Delhi: HBS.

3 Rathore, SS., K. Karunakaran and B. Prakash. (2010). Alder based farming system: a traditional arming practice in Nagaland for amelioration of jhum land. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, 9(4): 677-680.

4 Pendharkar, V. (July 31, 2018). Traditional knowledge of a northeast community holds answers to the misunderstood practice of shifting cultivation. Mongabay. Retrieved from https://india.mongabay.com/2018/07/traditional-knowledge-of-a-northeast-community-holds-answers-to-the-misunderstood-practice-of-shifting-cultivation/

5 Hatvalne, P. (Feb 27, 2012). Tribals oppose MP govt’s portrayal of Bhagoria haat festival. Times of India. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhopal/tribes-oppose-mp-govts-portrayal-of-bhagoria-haat-festival/articleshow/12050782.cms

6Weber, A. (2020). Sharing life: The ecopolitics of reciprocity. In (ed.) Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Sharing life: The ecopolitics of reciprocity. Delhi: HBS

7Kamdar, B. and S. Das. (March 12, 2021). Women grow as much as 80% of India’s food—but its new farm laws overlook their struggles. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/women-grow-as-much-as-80-of-indias-food-but-its-new-farm-laws-overlook-their-struggles-155083

8Nakashima, D. And M. Roue. (2002). Indigenous knowledge, peoples and sustainable practices. Social and economic dimensions of global environmental change, 5(2002): 314-324.

9 Basar, Dr T. (June 6, 2022). Protection of traditional knowledge calls for a serious action. LiveLaw.in. Retrieved from https://www.livelaw.in/columns/traditional-knowledge-traditional-knowledge-digital-library-copyright-community-tk-legislation-ipr-policy-200931?infinitescroll=1

10 Roy, A.N. (September 10, 2020). Revisiting indigenous epistemologies of north east India. Heinrich Boell Stiftung. Retrieved from https://in.boell.org/index.php/en/2020/09/10/revisiting-indigenous-epistemologies-north-east-india

11 Kodirekkala, K. R. (2017). Internal and external factors affecting loss of traditional knowledge: Evidence from a horticultural society in south India. Journal of Anthropological Research, 73(1): 22-41.

12Brodt, S.B. (2001). A systems perspective on the conservation and erosion of indigenous agricultural knowledge in central India. Human Ecology, 29(1): 99-120.

13 Mohanty, A. (August 26, 2020). Seven decades after independence, many tribal languages in India face extinction threat. Down To Earth. Retrieved from https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/governance/seven-decades-after-independence-many-tribal-languages-in-india-face-extinction-threat-73071

14 http://nbaindia.org

15 World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). (2017). Documenting traditional knowledge—A toolkit. Geneva: WIPO. Retrieved from https://www.wipo.int/edocs/pubdocs/en/wipo_pub_1049.pdf