Three Maasai African women in traditional attire. thearclight.org

Indigenous Knowledge and the Threat of Erasure

Indigenous Knowledge, the Threat of Erasure and the Value of Work.

The products we craft at The Arc Light were originally produced and consumed within our communities as a way of life. By sharing our cultural inheritance with you, we seek to broaden our global relations by transforming cultural narratives that are connected to collective past experiences and memories, into a meaningful, coherent and culturally appropriate story, while using craft to enable social change and transformation. We share these ideas to help you understand our ways of thinking and knowing, and as a framework for the understanding of the items we craft.

If you enjoy handmade things, or if you carry around a desire to create and to make things, whether as a builder, a designer or a thinker, wherever you are, this long winded gem is for you. 

When a knowledgeable old person dies, a whole library disappears.
— African proverb

A lot of people are aware of the threat of extinction currently facing our ecological biodiversity, but few realize that Indigenous Knowledge and cultural mores are also threatened. The Heritage Craft Association has long warned that centuries-old skills such as forging, carving and basket weaving are at risk of being lost as demand for them falls in this digital age. Globally, some of these skills only remain in the hands of an aging population, and are at risk of fading away as years roll by. These skills can only survive if they live in each generation. Loss is experienced as techniques and tools become modified or fall out of use or through developmental processes such as non-inclusive educational systems or environmental degradation.

Currently, and especially internationally, Heritage art carries the stigma of bygone eras or inferiority, and is viewed as “decorative, peripheral and elitist.” But these art forms provide a link to our roots, and are part of our shared heritage. In addition to being figments of our cultural diversity, they are also the only source of livelihood for numerous craftspeople communities.

The term “indigenous” derived from old Latin, means “born or produced from within,” with primary definitions suggesting nativeness or originating or growing in a country. Fifty years ago, “indigenous” would have been applied predominantly to plants or animals. Today, it is a general name for human societies throughout the world, across a variety of social contexts, but who bear relatively deep roots to a place or who presently sustain deep connections with a place, and who were often called “primitive,” “native,” “tribal,” or “ethnic”. The term was made prominent and continues to honor those who keep the Law of the Land, especially the First Nations and the First Peoples in their respective communities across the globe.

In the context of people, it is worth noting that “tribal,” and “ethnic’ are currently viewed as inappropriate terms, similar to “Third-World Countries" (as opposed to "Developing Countries”)

Mention craft or artisanal today and the first thought the comes to mind involves brews, coffee, winemaking and if you follow the antics of celebrities— tequila. All good and lovely because craft is associated with a traditional way of making things and all of these allow people to engage in activities that make them happy or bring joy to others, especially in the case of a heady IPA or any of those crafted adult drinks.

Today, the modern craftsperson is characterized using nostalgia and romantic fantasy. However, this view can be understood as a response to the desire for authenticity in modern life in a way that appeals to conscious consumerism. Think of the feelings you get when you interact with any item you own that is ‘artisanal’, ‘bespoke’ or ‘handcrafted’ The desire for authenticity is a response to the need for human meaning.

Our cultures shape and give purpose to our existence, helping us understand how to uphold our responsibilities to one another and to the rest of creation, telling the truths of our presence in the world today, in days past, and in days to come. By holding true to the ideals and culture we were raised in— in which life was organized around a highly refined awareness of the environment, we learn that it is our ways, not our things, that grounds and sustains us. These experiences, customs, traditions, and ceremonies define our humanity. They help us create relationships and the kind of world that will nurture those who come after us, giving them cause to thank us rather than grieve our destructive selfishness. The relevance of such an education built around the human experiences of the learner is founded on the need to understand how and why things are, in a way that ensures continuity of life in society. As such, the idea of an individual as the source and the owner of knowledge runs counter to the Indigenous understanding that knowledge is a set of relationships.

Looking from the outside of this cultural frame of reference, this would appear to be a profoundly unusual method of containing and transmitting knowledge, instruction, history and culture! But Indigenous Knowledge, just like sustainable development, seeks to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Indigenous Knowledge is often contained in stories, art or tools and might be presented and transmitted through carvings, pottery, folklore, drawings, proverbs, paintings, rituals, weaving, songs, dance, theater among others.

In 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted. Since then, Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars have been demanding the inclusion of Indigenous Knowledges and cultures, into mostly scientific discourses. This is because Indigenous Knowledges and cultures have been viewed using derogatory descriptions such as: primitive, savage, barbaric, insignificant, and lacking scientific rigor and objectivity. This ignorance and neglect of Indigenous practices is a legacy of racist, colonial and neocolonial relations, where Indigenous Knowledge, cultures, social structures, religions, and worldviews were seen as inferior. In a particularly cruel twist, even strengths are presented as evidence of inadequacy. Any discussion of Indigenous Knowledge systems is always a polite acknowledgment of connection to the land rather than true engagement.

Indigenous Knowledge and cultural heritage matter. Today, these practices continue to seek recognition, respect and equality and not privilege. Since ancient times, Indigenous concepts and practices have long been central to such disciplines as law, social sciences, economics, and ecological knowledge, but they were invalidated and termed ‘traditional’ during the rise and spread of Eurocentric societies. A need therefore arises seeking to counter the very neocolonial practice of marginalizing and neglecting Indigenous thought, which has long excluded knowledge based on observation, oral tradition, digressive thinking, and even the spiritual. The apparent exclusion can also be viewed as hesitation to inclusion. This is due to the fear of potentially appropriating, tokenizing, and exploiting these knowledges and culture as has been happening in the pharmaceutical industry.

The celebrated Mi'kmaw scholar Marie Battiste defines Indigenous Knowledge as: a transcultural and interdisciplinary source of knowledge that…is systemic, covering both what can be observed and what can be thought and comprises the rural and the urban, and the settled and the nomadic. And all knowledge pertaining to a particular people and its territory, and the nature or use of which has been transmitted from generation to generation. Indigenous Knowledge is an adaptable, dynamic system based on skills, abilities, and problem-solving techniques that change over time depending on environmental conditions.

This wide range of tribal processes of perceiving, thinking, acting and understanding defies categorization because it constantly evolves through human experience and our interaction with the natural world. This type of knowledge and practices are not static, traditional, or stuck in the past. They are dynamic, adding new knowledge as they go, and they are also innovative and ever adapting according to natural influences such as interactions with, and stewardship of the environment. Nomadic communities in Kenya view it this way: if you don’t move with the land, the land will move you; there is nothing permanent about settlements and the civilization that create them.

A relatively new concept in alternative medicine, is actually old news to the medical community which long realized the importance of a holistic approach that includes the physical, spiritual, sociocultural, and psychological well-being of a person when considering matters of health. This approach has long been the basis of many traditional systems. This holistic approach also applies to education, as we saw when we did a social impact assessment of our education program.

Craft authenticity is based on provenance, linking an activity or product to a physical location or a place of origin, thus providing an indication of its superior quality, engendered value, and connections to a people, place or time. Crafting items based on authentic ways also means producing and consuming things with a focus on a desired future that anticipates and responds to societal and ecological issues. Craft therefore offers a potentially different sense of time: one that enables an experience of events in place and time, expressed through cultural and social activity and based on affective relations between humans, materials and the planet.

Fun exercise: Look around the room you’re in, especially if you’re at home. Almost every home everywhere owns at least one handmade item. It could be products like baskets, bowls, kitchen utensils, floor mats, furniture or even entire doors or roofing! Also common are clothing items and accessories like earrings, necklaces and bracelets especially those made from native products like beads, shells, seeds, and others. This is great news because it shows that handcrafted items enjoy widespread patronage!

In Handmade - Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction, Gary Rogowski argues that: Handmade…is not a need, it is a desire. Those of us who try to make a living at it are stubborn and focused…We love tools…and we love to solve problems. We love wearing many hats, taking on all sorts of roles throughout a job…It is a delicate balance between determination and caution based on our past failures. It is also important for us to be… where the voices [are] quiet, where the healing begins.

Hand crafted and artisanal textiles, rugs, jewelry, ceramics, garments and more, are essential in telling a story. They all represent the identity of the person or people who made it, and are a doorway into their lives, stories and values. They are a great source of pride and a major representative of our culture and tradition, helping to preserve and to share with you, our rich traditions, art, heritage, culture, ancient skills, lifestyle and history. Through the use of indigenous raw materials and techniques, crafted items help to preserves traditional knowledge, history and skill from generation to generation.

Modern art and craft has its roots in a historical aesthetic and philosophical movement that prioritized handmade craft and a love of materials in architecture, furniture, textiles, pottery, metal and glasswork. Despite its noble intentions, there was a fundamental flaw embedded in its ideology: by looking to the past, it failed to keep up with the present. But the legacy of Arts and Crafts would carry on into other movements, most notably it would go on to inspire the Bauhaus school.

Opportunities for innovation in craft involves drawing from the past to adapt and connect it to the present and future, ensuring currency and relevance. This is achieved by the use of newer elements or by adding new to old in ways that evoke tradition, giving a sense of discovery while maintaining comprehensibility. Creating is designing with the heart— a craftsperson has to care about the material and functionality of what they are creating. A move that seeks to deliver an aesthetic experience for both the creator and the customer, will merge function, beauty and purpose.

Artisans have been identified as the second largest sector of rural employment after agriculture in Kenya. However, the younger generation are increasingly disinterested in taking up or progressing in craft traditions for a number of reasons. For starters, neither the community nor the school system integrates extensive and beneficial lessons in craft-skills. Additionally, having seen more established creators struggle to find markets and fair prices for their products, the young are inclined to pursue other trades. Design inputs is a major contributor to this problem. In most traditional societies, design evolved in the interaction between the artisan and the customer. This allowed the artisan to design products along sociocultural contexts, to suit the needs and tastes of the customer. Due to the breakdown of the historic artisan-consumer relationship, artisans are having difficulty understanding their customers in a competitive and fast moving world. Picture members of a weaving cooperative located deep in a village, who receive an order to make lampshades. Even though they are skilled weavers and they need the job so that they can sustain themselves, they have never used such a product and the concept of a lampshade is hard to put across.

Cultural diversity is observable in most human behaviors, including skill in craft. Studies in ethnology and anthropology have long since documented that traditional motor skills, such as the way people sit, walk, carry loads, and so on, are part of their cultural way of life. This is because traditional motor skills are inherited through cultural transmission—via the social guidance occurring through motor learning. Let’s use pottery to put this into context. If you grew up seeing handles on drinking vessels, your hand positions on the potter’s wheel will be entirely different from the hand positions of someone who grew up in a society that does not attach handles to drinking vessels. It gets interesting- your creativity will attempt to fight transcultural norms. Cultural constraints induced via cultural transmission will almost always get overpowered by the individual constraints inherent to each potter. This is commonly manifested as the “mark of the maker.”

We, as craftspeople, are connected to the objects that we create. Where we are today is a sum of the successes and mistakes of our past, and this is ever-present as we enter a new era of global connection. This has been emphasized by the current world events, as craftspeople far and wide have had to experiment with new forms of communication and new and varied methods of producing creative output.

The products we craft at The Arc Light were originally produced and consumed within our communities as a way of life. By sharing our cultural inheritance with you, we seek to broaden our global relations by transforming cultural narratives that are connected to collective past experiences and memories, into a meaningful, coherent and culturally appropriate story, while using craft to enable social change and transformation.

One of the great successes of the arts & crafts movement was its revival of guild-style collectives for artists and designers to come together as a society and share their skills and knowledge. Thanks to the internet and social media, collaboration remains an essential part of the current design and craft landscape. With numerous ways to instruct, store and transmit knowledge, there exists hope.

Our approach to this problem is still in concept mode. Cultural diversity makes us richer and more resilient in both our ability to express ourselves and collaborate meaningfully with others. The Arc Light Maker School will be a community of craft, connection and belonging. The aim of this School is to preserve art, culture and tradition and to offer sustainable artisan job creation in skilled areas such as basketry, carving, beadwork, forging, tailoring, pottery, silverwork, sculpting among others. A community that is able to generate a livelihood through its artisan traditions, ensures more cohesion, pride and meaning.

Craft is associated with a traditional way of making things. The industry would not be where it is today without the hard work of the pioneers who came before us. We stand on their shoulders and seek to safeguard, learn from, and continue forging a relationship with the past in order to keep passing on this knowledge and skills. We also realize and acknowledge that any attempt at preservation must involve reinterpretation. A lovely carved bowl, traditionally used to store the first fruits of a harvest, now rests in honor and is prominently displayed on your coffee table as a centerpiece and a conversation starter among your dinner guests.

“Given enough time, everything that is old will become new again.”

Two Maasai African women in traditional attire. thearclight.org
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