Traditional Aboriginal Knowledge and Science Versus Occidental Science

Prepared by Stephen J. Augustine
 for the Biodiversity Convention Office of Environment Canada, October 1997


The intent of this paper is to stimulate enlightened discussion about the definition, mechanisms and purpose of traditional knowledge (TK) and occidental science. It aims to provide both a clearer understanding of TK from an Aboriginal perspective and a more objective view of modern science. At best, it will create a renewed approach to the environment—and possibly combine the best of both sources of knowledge—by helping to forge a new sensitivity to Native American world views.

In comparing TK and occidental science, it is important to take the following basic premises into consideration:

1)   In the same way that occidental science does not define itself in relation to TK, TK need not authenticate itself according to the criteria of occidental science. TK exists in its own right, and its intrinsic validity stems directly from survival techniques used by generations of Native Americans. These techniques have been used in harmony with the land and other living entities, and have avoided creating serious ecological damage.

2)   There is considerable confusion in mainstream society over the link between spirituality and TK, which are often viewed as the same thing. Although spirituality is a part of daily life for Aboriginal peoples, it does not, in itself, constitute TK. Aboriginal beliefs arise from Creation stories, dreams and visions, while Aboriginal knowledge is based on observation, direct experience, testing, teaching and recording in the collective memory through oral tradition, storytelling, ceremonies, and songs. This knowledge is exercised within the context of the social values and philosophies of the tribe—that the Earth and every animal, plant and rock upon it is sacred and should be treated with respect. The fact that Native science is not fragmented into specialized compartments does not mean that it is not based on rational thinking, but that it is based on the belief that all things are connected and must be considered within the context of that interrelationship. In order to maintain harmony and balance, this holistic approach gives the same importance to rational thinking as it does to spiritual beliefs and social values.

3)   Althoughthe term "science" is most often taken to mean mainstream society’sscientific community, it is important to recognize that traditionalknowledge also comprises Indigenous science. For the purposes of thispaper, mainstream science will be referred to as occidental science, and Native American science as Indigenous or Native science. Environmental knowledge is an element of TK, and follows these same principles.

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