The pluralities of Indigeneity and Knowledge systems


Indigenous knowledge have a lot to offer to the world and the need of the hour is to protect and conserve – and not marginalise and erase –them.

The Soliga - indigenous people in India
Teaser Image Caption
The Soliga, one of India's scheduled tribes, live in India's Western Ghats. They have deep knowledge of the wild plants in the region, but this knowledge is slowly dying out.

On 29December 2021, The Wire, a well-known e-magazine, published a piece by Rahul Siddharthan titled “The IIT Kharagpur Calendar is the Right’s Attempt to Appropriate the Indus Valley Civilisation”. The Indian Knowledge Systems at IIT Kharagpur had circulated a calendar, which had imagery and symbols, which it claimed to be the feats of ancient Hindus. This was done as claimed by the institute, with the intention not so much as to study but to right a wrong: The idea, now well established, that India’s Vedic culture is not indigenous1. As expected the move generated a lot of controversy.

Such attempts, however, are not isolated incidents but are part of the endeavour to marginalise voices and contributions of groups that do not identify with the values and worldview of the dominant community. When people, including political leaders, proudly mention Indian philosophy or traditional knowledge of India, they mostly allude to Aryan knowledge consisting of literature on medicine, agriculture and yoga. The phrase Indian culture, thus, seeks to homogenise and erase cultural diversity for the benefit of the dominant community’s culture written and propagated in Sanskritised texts. Attaching the word Indian in front of culture or knowledge is the language of an ethnocentric coloniser.

All of this, in many ways, stems from the position of the Indian government that the word indigenous is not synonymous with tribes, first peoples/ nations, aborigines, ethnic groups, Adivasi and janjati. Their position is that tribals survive but not as indigenous people. Instead, in India, the official term used to categorise such groups is ‘Scheduled Tribes’ (ST) based on Article 366 of the Indian Constitution, which gives power to the President of India to notify any group as Scheduled Tribes in relation to a particular state or union territory. This makes the act of identifying such groups a process “more of politics than of law”2.

This is in contrast to the global thinking formulated by various United Nations bodies, which includes the terms mentioned above to be part of the lexicon for identifying indigenous groups. This follows from the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169, which puts forward two criteria for identifying indigenous peoples – subjective and objective. The subjective criterion is self-identification at the individual level and being accepted by the community as being their member. The objective criterion is descent from populations who inhabited the country or geographical region at the time of conquest, colonisation or establishment of present state boundaries and/ or retention of some social, economic, cultural and political institutions irrespective of their legal status. Both the criteria are a product of the common theme of indigenous experience: the discriminatory, patronising and paternalistic attitude of the dominant groups towards them.

Though not spelt out in the Indian Constitution, Scheduled Tribes have been identified to have the following features: (i) indications of primitive traits, (ii) distinctive culture, (iii) geographical isolation, (iv) shyness of contact with the community at large, and (v) backwardness. This is not far from how the erstwhile colonists view the indigenous communities in the Americas, Russia, the Arctic and many parts of the Pacific. Discrimination and harassment subsequently follow. This is also evident in many parts of Asia (including the Indian sub-continent) and Africa, where dominant groups, apart from white settlers and colonists, suppress marginalised groups using similar approaches. Indigenous identity, as stated in the State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples report3, therefore, is not exclusively determined by European colonisation. This makes the term ‘indigenous’ contrary to the position of the Indian government, applicable to the Schedule Tribes in India as well.

Viewing indigenous communities as primitive, backward and needing guidance has echoes of “the White Man’s Burden”, which can be attributed to the Occidental gaze of describing the world, which has infiltrated many cultures, including ours. Internal colonialism in India, where the state is anti-indigenous by origin, views indigenous cultures as ‘other cultures’. Modern science, anthropology and worldview stems from the Occidental approach, and thus the criteria to define what is and isn’t indigenous itself comes from outside.

As a result, although there are many important constitutional provisions for educational, economic, public employment-related and political safeguards, and agencies for monitoring the safeguards, the country witnesses numerous atrocities perpetrated on indigenous groups by non-indigenous groups (which include the modern state). This includes displacement and dispossession of millions from their lands. This was starkly brought out in 2019 when India's Supreme Court ordered that more than a million tribal families living on forest land be evicted.

Our ontological understanding of the world is one-directional; it is through the West that we see the rest of the world. There is always a mainstream to which there is always an ‘alternative’ named and categorised by the mainstream (in this case, western science and anthropology) in an attempt to ‘discover’ the world. Even by the highly restrictive current definitions, i.e., as Scheduled Tribes, indigenous communities constitute approximately 8.6 per cent of the total population of the country.4 Found to be living in about 15 per cent of the country’s geographical areas, they are among the most marginalised in the country5.

These populations are found practising unique traditions retaining social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from the dominant societies in which they live. This includes local knowledge systems and worldviews, which were initially recognised in global United Nations and World Commissions events in 1980s and 1990s as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)6. Marginalisation of indigenous communities has had an adverse impact, especially on how their knowledge systems have been viewed and treated. 

Indigenous Knowledge Systems

In their paper “Indigenous knowledge, peoples and sustainable practices”, Douglas Nakashima and Marie Rouelooked at the concept as knowledge of all sciences instead of only ecological, making the term ecological in “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK) obsolete. Indigenous peoples, according to Nakashima and Roue, do not share the same outlook as western science, which separates “material from the spiritual, humankind from all other life forms, nature from culture”.7 Indigenous knowledge encompasses ecological, traditional technological knowledge and traditional values and ethics—together these become the foundation of any culture, belief system or way of life.

By the 21st century, however, the usage of the term traditional to describe indigenous knowledge systems was also dismissed because the knowledge system is always evolving, innovating and adapting8. An example of an evolving indigenous knowledge system is the art form of Warli painting, practised in Maharashtra’s tribal areas. Tribal activist and Warli painter Prakash Bhoir, a resident of Mumbai’s Aarey forest, paints helicopters, vehicles and a metro car shed. “People ask me how Warli paintings can have modern objects in them. I tell them this is what my children and I see around us today. My daughter paints Adivasis protesting, being arrested and jailed for wanting to protect nature. I am yet to see what my granddaughter will paint,” Bhoir told one of the authors last year.

Indigenous knowledge—the term being used widely today—includes not only theoretical knowledge but also the practical know-how, learnt, accumulated, passed on and practised by first nations of the world. According to D.M. Warren from the Iowa State University, such knowledge from first nations/ indigenous communities of the world provides “insights on how numerous communities have interacted with their changing environment, including its floral and faunal resources”.9

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) currently uses the phrase ‘Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems’ (LINKS) to describe knowledge systems described above. The terminology of indigenous knowledge differentiates and sets it apart from all scientific knowledge. It does so temporally, geographically, culturally and socio-politically. Albert Wiggan, thus, uses the phrase ‘indigenous science’. An Aboriginal Australian, Wiggan asked in his TED talk in 2019: Did science as a field of empirical study only originate in the West?

In his talk, Wiggan stated that indigenous science is based on the same principles as western science—“observation, experimentation and analysis”. The only important difference between indigenous science and western/ international science is where they are placed in the hierarchy of sciences10. International science holds the power to discriminate and marginalise as it has been doing to people of colour, women and queer identities all this time, whereas indigenous science as a knowledge is practised and preserved by peoples who for a long time have fought colonialism, both external and internal, for survival.

Unlike western science, indigenous science is spiritual and material, emotional and physical, superstitious and scientific. Along with empirical knowledge, indigenous science also includes myths and beliefs. The central idea in indigenous ontology and epistemology is that of what the Quechua people of South America and the indigenous peoples of Africa call Been Vivir and Ubuntu respectively11. The two similar-meaning terms signify a connected life where the individual is not opposite to community and society is not opposite to nature. It means that an individual’s wellbeing lies in community wellbeing and community wellbeing lies in nature’s wellbeing.

Scholars like M. Dastider suggest studying indigenous philosophy as ‘ecosophical’ thinking that challenges and is different from the supposedly universal industrial modernity. The existence of this “different rationality” proves that the rationality of the modern state is problematic and can be challenged. Thus, Dastider refers to indigenous philosophy as the “(alternative) political position that questions the sovereign power of the modern state”12. Along the same lines, in his book on indigenous knowledge, ecology and evolutionary biology, R. Pierotti writes that indigenous concepts and environment-centred culture can become the basis for alternative politics as well as ethics.13

Today, world leaders at climate conventions, as recent as the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference of 2021, are stressing on including indigenous leaders and communities in the climate conversation in order to save the earth. As such, the call for inclusion stems from the idea that indigenous knowledge system is an “alternative” way rather than the primordial way of thinking and living in and with ecosystems, whereas indigenous knowledge is and always has been community knowledge—today, a fast disappearing community knowledge.

Disappearing indigenous knowledges

Sonja Brodt tried to understand this process of erosion (but also conservation) of indigenous knowledge in the case of central India, which is home to many indigenous groups. Breaking down the knowledge system into levels of concept and practice where practice is real and concept is abstract, she found that the erodibility or vulnerability of a piece of knowledge depends on its place in this hierarchy of conceptual and practical levels. The other factor that the persistence of knowledge depends on is the scale of the knowledge itself 8.

Take indigenous farming practices, for example, which as a result of the Green Revolution are not as widely accepted as global technology, chemical fertilisers and pesticides today. If government subsidies, global technology and politicians helped scale up indigenous practices by making them economically and logistically viable, indigenous farming practices would be as universal as the damaging use of chemical fertilisers themselves.

The extent of disappearing indigenous knowledge and practices and its impact can be seen in indigenous fishing communities like the Kolis of Maharashtra’s coast. Over the years, many of the artisanal fishers have stopped fishing using indigenous science. They now depend on modern technology such as GPS tools. Little to no financial support, low subsidies, unsustainable infrastructure projects and the worsening climate change further push the fisherfolk out of practice and thus out of business. Today, the government is asking and trying to convince indigenous fishers to replace open-sea fishing with commercial fish cultivation. With whole topographies and demographics changing along the coast, the way of living of the Kolis and other fisher communities is drastically disrupted. So are their food systems, culture and consequently their future. 14

The death of indigenous languages and dialects is also directly linked to disappearing indigenous communities and their knowledge systems. The loss of language is a loss of culture, of a people’s way of understanding, communicating and making sense of the world7. The UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues report of 2018 estimates that more than a half of the world’s approximately 6,700 languages will become extinct by 2100 and with them, whole repositories of undocumented oral knowledge and histories will vanish. This is an unfathomable loss. This loss will lead to different ways of storytelling.

UNESCO categorises any language spoken by less than 10,000 people as potentially endangered. India has the highest number of endangered languages in the world, followed by the United States. A 2020 media report in Down To Earth (DTE) put the number of endangered languages at 19715. India lists its official languages as those spoken by more than 10,000 people in the country. The exclusion of language spoken by less than 10,000 people directly results in the further erasure of indigenous languages and peoples.

Last year, UNESCO announced the decade 2022-2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. It set up a global task force in 2021 to protect indigenous peoples’ rights and to promote linguistic diversity. In the DTE report, tribal development expert Manoj Lakra suggested making films and TV shows in indigenous languages to popularise and revive them within the communities. Kadey Soren of the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS), Bhubaneswar suggested integrating modern and indigenous sciences in school curricula because indigenous languages are a key “to understand the world we live in, our origin, the roots that we all came from and what humans are capable of”. 15

It is evident now more than ever that indigenous knowledge systems have a lot to offer to the rest of the world and it is what is needed at this hour. The country needs it, the world needs it.



1Siddharthan, R. (2021). The IIT Kharagpur Calendar is the Right’s Attempt to Appropriate the Indus Valley Civilisation. Retrieved from

2Chakrabary, S.P., and Kaur, R. (2021). A Primer to Traditional Knowledge Protection in India: The Road Ahead. Liverpool Law Review, 42, 401-427.

3Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) (2009). State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Social Policy and Development Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, UN.

4Priyadarshini, P., and Abhilash, P.C. (2019). Promoting tribal communities and indigenous knowledge as potential solutions for the sustainable development of India. Retrieved from

5Ministry of Tribal Affairs (2006). National Tribal Policy. Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India.

6Mahalik, P.R. and Dr. R.K. Mahapatra. (2010). Documenting indigenous traditional knowledge in Odisha. Orissa Review, (May-June): 99-103. Retrieved from…

7Nakashima, D. And M. Roue. (2002). Indigenous knowledge, peoples and sustainable practices. Social and economic dimensions of global environmental change, 5(2002): 314-324.

8Brodt, S.B. (2001). A systems perspective on the conservation and erosion of indigenous agricultural knowledge in central India. Human Ecology, 29(1): 99-120.

9Warren, D. M. (1996). Indigenous knowledge, biodiversity conservation and development. In (ed.) V. James, Sustainable development in third world countries: Applied and theoretical perspectives. London: Praeger.

10Grenier, L. (1998). Working with indigenous knowledge: A guide for researchers. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre.

11Roy, A.N. (September 10, 2020). Revisiting indigenous epistemologies of north east India. Heinrich Boell Stiftung. Retrieved from

12Dastider, M. (2020). Practices as political: Tribal citizens and indigenous knowledge practices in the east Himalayas. Economic and Political Weekly, 55(46): 49-55.

13Pierotti, R. (2011). Indigenous knowledge, ecology and evolutionary biology. New York: Routledge.

14Gurlhosur, G. (2021). State of urban agriculture in Indian cities: Mumbai. People’s Resource Centre. Retrieved from

15Mohanty, A. (August 26, 2020). Seven decades after independence, many tribal languages in Indian face extinction threat.    Down To Earth. Retrieved from