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Indigenous Cosmologies vs. Technical Rationality

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 Matata1    Matata3

The Floods at Matata, New Zealand, 2005

There has always existed an uneasy tension between Western academic rationality and indigenous knowledge systems. The latter has invariably been subjugated by the former, but have somehow survived, albeit in colonised forms, through to the present. The Grand Narratives of Progress and Individual Emancipation and Anthropomorphism, worked through the matrix of scientific technical rationality have displaced and colonised indigenous cosmologies associated with cyclic temporalities, relatedness and species interdependency. Critics of the Western systems of knowledge – critical pedagogues with their roots in Marxist analysis have tended until recently to focus on the social, political and economic shortcomings of western knowledge systems and education – ignoring, for the most part ecological and environmental concerns, save as a peripheral outcome of capitalist excess.

More recently, critical pedagogues have begun to recognize and to insist on the need to include subjugated epistemologies of those previously excluded, oppressed and silenced communities – particularly indigenous communities - as an important requirement for building a broad consensus of popular resistance through education, to the overarching free-market-driven imperative of Late Capitalism. For the most part, these critical pedagogues have tended to imagine a kind of melding of western and indigenous rationalities and epistemologies in pursuit of political, cultural and economic transformation. They link their project to the search for new forms of understanding of key concepts such as Education, Democracy, Multiculturalism, Identity etc. – concepts that are still grounded in a western rationality. In this attempt to embrace epistemological difference, the one key concept that is rarely, if ever, discussed - and the one that ultimately distinguished the indigenous (pre-colonial) cosmology - is The Spiritual.

Western attempts to include indigenous knowledge systems are willing to grant them a greater degree of sensitivity to environmental systems, a more refined understanding of ecological interrelatedness drawn from local experience, a deeper awareness of cultural and social relations and a more comprehensive conception of both self-sufficiency and sustainability. But when it comes to the spiritual framework upon which all such knowledge systems rest, western  (and westernised) scholars seem at a loss. Talk of spirit-beings, katchinas, guardians, spirit-helpers, fairies, and ancestor-helpers seem perhaps too freaky, too alien to take on board. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how they might be taken on board without the complete fragmentation and disintegration of a western perspective. The epic recounting of Carlos Castaneda’s experiences with the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan Matus offer ample evidence of this dichotomy. Don Juan told Carlos that in order to become a "man of knowledge" he must practice "stopping the world" through a process of 'stopping the internal dialogue". He placed great emphasis upon the fact that being a "man of knowledge" involves a cessation of the normative meanings which language carries, and that it is the role of the teacher to facilitate this process

Language, which forms the basis of our internal conversations about the world is therefore fundamental not just to the process of describing reality, but in constructing and maintaining it. And since language is a social phenomenon, it follows that our conception of reality is mediated by the social forms which structure everyday life.  Social groups who use the same language (be it everyday language or specialised technical language) implicitly reproduce and convey through their conversations a model of the world imbued with particular meanings and associations of which they themselves may not be fully aware, but which bind together the concrete reality, the world in question. In addition, we should keep in mind that, as Wittgenstein reminds us, the meanings inherent in language itself do not come ready-made

What all of this boils down to is the suggestion that western academics have tended to interpret indigenous realities and meanings through their own western lens provided by their  own culturally/linguistically-determined understanding. The Spiritual in this sense, has defied easy interpretation and stands still, in stark aloofness from our ability to incorporate, assimilate or otherwise digest it. What follows is one simple, local example of this problematic.

In early 2005, a group of New Zealand Maori from the Ngati Hinerangi hapu or sub-tribe of the Arawa Tribe decided that they wanted to sell their land for housing development . The site was on the beach dunes in the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand at a place called Matata. Beachfront properties had tripled in value over the preceding two years and many were trying to cash in. My family looked at buying a house at the Matata Beach three years earlier but decided it was too far away from my work in Whakatane. What follows is (to me) the extraordinary story that followed their decision to sell.

To download the PDF click here.

For an additional (and autobiographical) journey into issues of spirituality see: Spirituality: Mato Paha - A Fork in the Road. Click here .

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