Saturday, April 26, 2014

Accessing Indigenous Knowledge


Every now and then, in this column, I will share my research on indigenous knowledge systems of Papua New Guinea. In the next few articles I want to share my research on sacred and secret knowledge in our traditional societies. There are challenges we face as researchers from our own societies.

The study of indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants is incomplete without understanding the way in which knowledge is anchored in the indigenous societies. Researching indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants without considering the links that plants have with the cultural and linguistic contexts in which people anchor them there is a high chance of overlooking their importance to those who use them.

It is well known that sacred and secret knowledge are important anchors for certain plants and animals in our cultures and societies world over.

The relationship magic utterances have with plants and the biological environment is sometimes poorly understood when we carry out prescriptive researches to document plants physical and limited uses in society. We need to understand the place magic has in the cultural world of the people, which in turn will reveal the importance of plants used in medicine in that society.

A lesson I picked up in my research of indigenous knowledge is in the area of gender utterances, narratives, and ways of knowledge. I do not have access to the world of women and the sacred and secret knowledge of women. This is one area that researchers have poorly researched and understood.

A decade ago I last visited the Nagum Boiken communities between Wewak/Passam/ Kubalia Area, East Sepik Province to collect medicinal plants I took along a female student to interview and document the sacred and secret knowledge of women. As it turned out that approach did not work. The women who were approached for interviews said they did not know anything. Even if they know something it was nothing significant for our research, they argued. One woman shared a narrative about a medicinal plant, but only within the earshot of her husband and in a space shared by others.

The indigenous societies are structured in complex ways that their knowledge systems are anchored in various tissues and layers of various discourses in a society. Most Papua New Guinean societies are structured along patriarchal lines, that so much indigenous knowledge has males as principle players in the performance, dissemination, censorship, and deployment of such knowledge. Where societies are structured along matrilineal lines, the indigenous knowledge is often deployed along lines of inheritance or through the observation of responsibilities and functions of various rituals and activities prescribed only as women’s responsibility and activity.

My failure to document women’s knowledge system in Nagum Boiken societies in no way indicates my lack of understanding of the gendered aspect of indigenous knowledge systems, but a deep awareness of its immense value to society.

I discovered that the world of the women is also structured within the language or the texts of utterances that people use in their everyday lives and in their rituals, customs, and practices of  knowledge they hold important to their survival.

In contemporary Melanesian countries, the practice of custom allows the process of gift exchange and trade to dominate traditional way of life. This process allows traditional knowledge and cultural practices to circulate within traditional trading partners and now-a-days external to that circle.

This dynamism of cultural centrifuging and cross-cultural hybridisation means there are primary, secondary and tertiary owners of traditional medicinal knowledge.

My research reveals that the difference in sacred and secret knowledge is often considered on the level of ownership, rights, practices and contexts in which they are played out. The negotiation process to access the sacred and secret knowledge involves inter-relational approaches at the person, family, and community level. Some of the most interesting case studies done on culture and cultural property rights in the New Guinea Islands of Papua New Guinea were carried out by five students at the University of Papua New Guinea and supervised by anthropologist Karen Sykes of Manchester University and sociolinguist Sakarepe Kamene of the University of Papua New Guinea.

The seven case studies revealed the culturally specific ways in which both sacred and secret knowledge were organized and observed. One of the students studying her own society realized that as a younger member of society she has limited knowledge and access to her own cultures. Approaching this in a more reflexive way she realized that the ownership of myths that she has access to was in someone else’s custodial care. She could not access that knowledge as expected. In a similar vein Sakarepe Kamene had to negotiate with his family members to document the knowledge of the Pig Dance in his Zia community. The point here is that access, claim of ownership, and transmission of sacred and secret knowledge is very much the prerogative of those who have own such knowledge and who is authorized to use such knowledge.
The knowledge of land, access to certain parts of the land, the observation of protocols involve in cultivating, gardening, hunting, and using of the land remain in the hands of those who own it, use it, and live in it.

It took me more than five years to finally get an elder in my village to collaborate with me in my research. At first he refused to work with me in the documenting the knowledge that he has. His argument was that since my father had never paid in full my mother’s bride prize I have no access to him because he is the great uncle of my mother. It took a third party to negotiate my access to the old man, which turned out to be a very moving experience as he showed me a sacred object and led me to record the sacred and secret knowledge of my mother’s people. Soon after that the old man became too old to speak and passed away.

A lot of our traditional knowledge systems are vanishing every day.

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