Indigenous Knowledge: Foundations for First Nations1
Dr. Marie Battiste
University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK Canada
Indigenous knowledge is a growing field of inquiry, both nationally and internationally,
particularly for those interested in educational innovation. The question “What is Indigenous
knowledge?” is usually asked by Eurocentric scholars seeking to understand a cognitive
system that is alien to them. The greatest challenge in answering this question is to find a
respectful way to compare Eurocentric and Indigenous ways of knowing and include both into
contemporary modern education. Finding a satisfactory answer to this question is the
necessary first step in remedying the failure of the existing First Nations educational system
and in bringing about a blended educational context that respects and builds on both
Indigenous and Eurocentric knowledge systems.
Whether or not it has been acknowledged by the Eurocentric mainstream, Indigenous
knowledge has always existed. The recognition and intellectual activation of Indigenous
knowledge today is an act of empowerment by Indigenous people. The task for Indigenous
academics has been to affirm and activate the holistic paradigm of Indigenous knowledge to
reveal the wealth and richness of Indigenous languages, worldviews, teachings, and
experiences, all of which have been systematically excluded from contemporary educational
institutions and from Eurocentric knowledge systems.
Through this act of intellectual self-determination, Indigenous academics are developing new
analyses and methodologies to decolonize themselves, their communities, and their
institutions (see Martin Hill, 2000; Womack, 1999; Cajete, 2000a, 2000b; Kawagley, 1995).
This essay adds to the empowerment of Indigenous peoples by offering a review of literature
that addresses why Indigenous knowledge has been eluded in Western knowledge systems,
how Indigenous knowledge is understood, and what protections are available within Canadian
Strategies for Maintaining Eurocentric Thought
Eurocentric thought asserts that only Europeans can progress and that Indigenous peoples are
frozen in time, guided by knowledge systems that reinforce the past and do not look towards
the future (Blaut, 1993). Several strategies have been used to reinforce the myth that regions
outside Europe contribute nothing to the development of knowledge, humanities, arts,
science, and technology. These strategies include the blind reliance on and citation of Greco-
Roman references despite the fact that the Greek alphabet is largely of Syrian/Lebanese
origin; the manipulation of dates and demotion in importance of non-European knowledge
such as Mayan, Hindu, and Arabic numerals, the concept of zero and algebraic notations, the
use of decimals, and the solution of complex equations; the Europeanization of the names of
outstanding scientists and their devices, scientific documents, and processes to undermine
equal and fair assessment of the global history of knowledges (for instance, a comet identified
by the Chinese as early as 2,500 years ago is attributed to Haley); and the classification and
trivialization of non-European science and technological innovations and invention as “art”
These strategies have caused Indigenous peoples to be viewed as backward and as passive
recipients of European knowledge. Indigenous knowledge became invisible to Eurocentric
knowledge, to its development theories, and to its global science. Consequently, Indigenous
knowledge was not captured and stored in a systematic way by Eurocentric educational
systems. Indeed, in some cases there has been a concerted push to erase it. The persistent and
aggressive assimilation plan of the Canadian government and churches throughout the past
century, the marginalization of Indigenous knowledge in educational institutions committed
to Eurocentric knowledge, and the losses to Aboriginal languages and heritages through
modernization and urbanization of Aboriginal people have all contributed to the diminished
capacity of Indigenous knowledge, with the result that it is now in danger of becoming
Indigenous Renaissance and Transformations in Value of Knowledge
The reversal of this process by Indigenous scholars was and remains a direct consequence of
their extended experience of and learning in the condescending Eurocentric educational
system. For as long as Europeans have sought to colonize Indigenous peoples, Indigenous
knowledge has been understood as being in binary opposition to “scientific,” “western,”
“Eurocentric,” or “modern” knowledge.
Eurocentric thinkers dismissed Indigenous knowledge in the same way they dismissed any
socio-political cultural life they did not understand: they found it to be unsystematic and
incapable of meeting the productivity needs of the modern world. Yet, Indigenous scholars
discovered that when they tried to use European knowledge to unravel the challenges faced by
their people, they met with contradiction and failure, and they began to question the
supremacy of Eurocentric thought.
In their quest to help their people, Indigenous scholars and professionals turned to ancient
knowledge and teachings to restore control over Indigenous development and capacity
building. They sought answers within the rich treasure that has played such an important role
in building their unity and dignity: the neglected knowledge and teachings of the elders.
Indigenous scholars discovered that Indigenous knowledge is far more than the binary
opposite of western knowledge. As a concept, Indigenous knowledge benchmarks the
limitations of Eurocentric theory -- its methodology, evidence, and conclusions --
reconceptualizes the resilience and self-reliance of Indigenous peoples, and underscores the
importance of their own philosophies, heritages, and educational processes. Indigenous
knowledge fills the ethical and knowledge gaps in Eurocentric education, research, and
scholarship. By animating the voices and experiences of the cognitive “other” and integrating
them into the educational process, it creates a new, balanced centre and a fresh vantage point
from which to analyze Eurocentric education and its pedagogies.
A generation of Indigenous graduate students has successfully exposed the Eurocentric
prejudices against Indigenous ways of knowing and the Eurocentric biases that associated
Indigenous thought with the barbaric, the primitive, and the inferior. Along with Indigenous
undergraduates, these graduate students have activated a renewed interest in Indigenous
knowledge in every Eurocentric discipline and profession. For example, in Canadian law the
courts’ acceptance of concepts of Aboriginal rights and title are directly related to Indigenous
students’ and peoples’ respect for Indigenous law. In the arts, sciences, and education, these
same concepts are categorized into Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy.
Since the 1970s, international and national fields of enquiry and innovation have validated the
usefulness and significance of Indigenous knowledge. In Canada, the Royal Commission on
Aboriginal Peoples, building on many studies that preceded it (see Assembly of First Nations
1988, 1992), has unequivocally stated the importance of Indigenous knowledge. Since the
Royal Commission released its reports in the early 1990s, more and more literature has
challenged the suppression of Indigenous knowledge and has underscored the importance of
bringing it into the mainstream to establish a body of knowledge that can be drawn on for the
In the last decade of twentieth century, the acceptance of Indigenous knowledge by scholars
and policy makers generated an explosive growth in the number of publications on the
relevance of Indigenous knowledge in a variety of policy sectors and academic disciplines.
International policy makers developed principles and guidelines for protecting Indigenous
knowledge from predators and biopiracy (see Shiva, 1997 and Gollin, 1999), and Indigenous
knowledge and its pedagogies have generated a decolonizing and rethinking of education for
Indigenous peoples (McConaghy, 2000). The new theoretical and methodological paradigms
that have been created to understand Indigenous knowledge have illustrated its role in creating
shared capacities that can alleviate poverty and create sustainable development (Clarkson et
al., 1992; Canadian International Development Agency, 2002).
Today, the literature animates the fundamental theory and methods of Indigenous knowledge
as a means to accord its protection and to raise its social value and its status as a system of
knowledge, while Indigenous scholars generate the necessary intellectual space to create a
conceptual and analytical framework for its development (see Battiste & Henderson, 2000;
Cajete, 2000, 1995; Kawagley, 1995; Alaskan Native Knowledge Network, 1998).
All this activity has made Indigenous education a highly contested terrain. The traditional
Eurocentric view of Indigenous peoples and their heritage as exotic objects that have nothing
to do with science and progress now competes with a developing intellectual nexus of
postcolonial and poststructural theories that underscore the importance of Indigenous
knowledge and languages.
The renewed interest in Indigenous knowledge has sparked a reconsideration of the universal
value of Eurocentric knowledge, which requires a reformulation of the legitimate conditions
for Indigenous education (McConaghy, 2000). Such rethinking of education from the
perspective of Indigenous knowledge and learning styles is of crucial value to both
Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators who seek to understand the failures, dilemmas, and
contradictions inherent in past and current educational policy and practice for First Nations
students. The immediate challenge is how to balance colonial legitimacy, authority, and
disciplinary capacity with Indigenous knowledge and pedagogies.
Indigenous Knowledge: Roots and Routes
Indigenous knowledge has been exposed as an extensive and valuable knowledge system.
According to the categories used by Eurocentric knowledge, it is a transcultural (or
intercultural) and interdisciplinary source of knowledge that embraces the contexts of about
20 percent of the world’s population. Indigenous knowledge is systemic, covering both what
can be observed and what can be thought. It compromises the rural and the urban, the settled
and the nomadic, original inhabitants and migrants. Other names for Indigenous knowledge
(or closely related concepts) are “folk knowledge,” “local knowledge or wisdom,” “non-
formal knowledge,” “culture,” “indigenous technical knowledge,” “traditional ecological
knowledge,” and “traditional knowledge.”
The standards for respecting Indigenous knowledge are better developed internationally than
they are in Canada. The international standards include the United Nations’ Principles and
Guidelines for the Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous Peoples, Convention on
Biological Diversity (and the continuing efforts of its secretariat), and Science for the Twenty-
First Century: A New Commitment. All of these instruments are central to helping to
formulate Canada’s agenda in First Nations education.
Indigenous scholars and human rights experts in the United Nations Sub-Commission on the
Elimination of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities have elaborated and ratified the
Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous People. These
principles provide a holistic context and related research agenda for Indigenous knowledge.
They acknowledge that the heritage of an Indigenous people is a complete knowledge system
with its own concepts of epistemology, and its own scientific and logical validity. They also
acknowledge that diverse elements of an Indigenous people's heritage can be fully learned or
understood only by means of the
pedagogy traditionally employed by these peoples themselves (Daes, 1993).
Indigenous knowledge comprises all knowledge pertaining to a particular people and its
territory, the nature or use of which has been transmitted from generation to generation (Daes,
1993). This knowledge includes “all kinds of scientific, agricultural, technical and ecological
knowledge, including cultigens, medicines and the rational use of flora and fauna” (Daes,
The principles elaborated by the UN sub-commission have been incorporated in the
International Labor Organization Convention 169, by the educational sector of UNESCO, in
the Indigenous Treaty on the Declaration of Indigenous Rights, in the proposed American
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Populations, and in the Quebec City Summit of
Americas Action Plan (2001).
In the scientific arena, Indigenous scholars and advocates have stimulated an interest in the
contribution of Indigenous knowledge to a better understanding of sustainable development.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the Canadian
International Institute for Sustainable Development (CIISD) and the Canadian International
Development Agency (CIDA) have all entered this dialogue (Clarkson et al., 1992).
Knowledge of the environment is being lost in communities around the world, and there is an
urgent need to conserve this knowledge to help develop mechanisms to protect the earth’s
biological diversity. The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recognizes the
importance of Indigenous knowledge to the conservation and sustainable use of biological
diversity, acknowledges the contributions of Indigenous knowledge as innovative approaches
to environmental studies, and recognizes the validity of Indigenous science. It also recognizes
the value of Indigenous knowledge, innovations, and practices to scientific knowledge,
conservation studies, and sustainable development (Clarkson et al., 1992).
In 1999 the World Conference on Science, assembled under the aegis of the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council
for Science (ICSU), urged governments to promote understanding of Indigenous knowledge
systems. Conference participants requested the sciences to respect, sustain, and enhance
traditional knowledge systems and recommended that scientific and traditional knowledge
should be integrated into interdisciplinary projects dealing with links between culture,
environment, and development (UNESCO, 1999).
Challenges for Indigenous Knowledge in the Academy
Canada has participated in, ratified, and affirmed most of the international obligations.
However, Canada’s educational institutions have largely ignored, and continue to ignore,
Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy. In the educational crisis that has been articulated over
the past thirty years, First Nations peoples have drawn attention to the value and importance
of Indigenous knowledge in their Aboriginal and treaty right to education.
The failures of the past have exposed the shortcomings of the Eurocentric monologue that has
structured modern educational theory and practice. In forcing assimilation and acculturation
to Eurocentric knowledge, modern governments and educational systems have displaced
Indigenous knowledge. It is clear, however, that the exclusive use of Eurocentric knowledge
in education has failed First Nations children (Schissel and Wotherspoon, 2003). Indigenous
knowledge is now seen as an educational remedy that will empower Aboriginal students if
applications of their Indigenous knowledge, heritage, and languages are integrated into the
Canadian educational system.
Despite this realization, few universities across Canada have made Aboriginal education a
mission or a priority. Few teacher training institutions have developed any insight into the
diversity of the legal, political, and cultural foundations of Aboriginal peoples, often treating
Indigenous knowledge as though it were a matter of multicultural and cross-cultural
education. Consequently, when educators encounter cultural difference, they have very little
theory, scholarship, research, or tested practice to draw on to engage Aboriginal education in
a way that is not assimilative or racially defined, as opposed to being legally and politically
shaped by constitutional principles of respect for Aboriginal and treaty rights.
Canadian courts have responded to the issue of Aboriginal rights by drawing on constitutional
principles to reaffirm the right of Aboriginal people to have their rights respected and
protected. It is time that educators did the same. The task, then, is to sensitize the western
consciousness of Canadians in general and educators in particular to the colonial and neo-
colonial practices that continue to marginalize and racialize Aboriginal students and to the
unique rights and relationships Aboriginal people have in their homeland. If Indigenous
knowledge and pedagogy are to be integrated effectively into the national and provincial
curricula, educators must be made aware of the existing interpretative monopoly of
Eurocentric education and learn how the fundamental political processes of Canada have been
laced with racism.
Recognizing the interpretative monopoly that Eurocentric thought reserves for itself is the key
to understanding the new transdisciplinary quest to balance European and Indigenous ways of
knowing. This academic effort seeks to identify relations between the two generalized
perspectives of Eurocentric modernism (and postmodernism), and Indigenous knowledge (and
postcolonialism). The contradictions, gaps, and inconsistencies between the two knowledge
systems suggest that the next step needed in the quest is a deeper understanding of Indigenous
To date, Eurocentric scholars have taken three main approaches to Indigenous knowledge.
First, they have tried to reduce it to taxonomic categories that are static over time. Second,
they have tried to reduce it to its quantifiably observable empirical elements. And third, they
have assumed that Indigenous knowledge has no validity except in the spiritual realm. None
of these approaches, however, adequately explains the holistic nature of Indigenous
knowledge or its fundamental importance to Aboriginal people.
The Quandary of Defining Indigenous Knowledge
In Eurocentric thought, Indigenous knowledge has often been represented by the familiar term
“traditional knowledge,” which suggests a body of relatively old data that has been handed
down from generation to generation essentially unchanged. Taking the immutability of
Indigenous knowledge as a given, much Eurocentric research has focused on identifying
knowledge, practices, and techniques used by Indigenous peoples, recording their local
names, and cataloguing their reported uses (Barsh, 1997).
In this taxonomic approach, it is the categorizer who decides whether a teaching, technology,
or practice is Indigenous and unique to a given heritage or society, adopted from Eurocentric
knowledge, or a blend of local and introduced components. Using these taxonomic studies,
Eurocentric scholars provided definitions of Indigenous knowledge based on their partial
framework, methodologies, and perspectives. Much effort was expended highlighting the
differences between Eurocentric and Indigenous knowledge in terms of their respective
ideological underpinnings, substance, methods, and so forth. In the literature, these
differences were highlighted by underscoring the superiority of Eurocentric knowledge and its
classifications and the inferiority of Indigenous knowledge.
The taxonomic studies, however, did not generate any generally accepted definition of
Indigenous knowledge. Many attempts were made, but most were confusing (or at least led to
confusing applications) since not only did they tend to cast too wide a net, incorporating into
the definition concepts that would not be considered part of Eurocentric knowledge, such as
beliefs and value systems, but they also failed to recognize the holistic nature of Indigenous
knowledge, which defies categorization.
Indigenous knowledge is an adaptable, dynamic system based on skills, abilities, and
problem-solving techniques that change over time depending on environmental conditions,
making the taxonomic approach difficult to justify or verify. Most Indigenous scholars and
educators have noted the practical and conceptual limitations of taxonomic categories posing
as Indigenous knowledge. The subject is controversial, however, and cannot be resolved in
this paper. What can be said is that focusing on the similarities between the two systems of
knowledge rather than on their differences may be a more useful place to start when
considering how best to introduce educational reform.
The second approach to Indigenous knowledge is illustrated by the Eurocentric definition of
Indigenous knowledge as “the unique, traditional, local knowledge existing within and
developed around the specific conditions of women and men Indigenous to a particular
geographic area.” (Grenier, 1998). There is no doubt that the commercial value of Indigenous
knowledge to modern scientists is its empirical content, but to treat local knowledge as merely
empirical trivializes its significance to Indigenous peoples. It is an increasingly common
Some relatively recent work by scientists and conservation biologists has employed
Indigenous people as a source of quantitative wildlife population data (Ferguson & Messier,
1997). This approach assumes that Indigenous or First Nations people are good field
observers of biophysical phenomena—that is, that they can be reliable data collectors for
modern scientists. Indigenous knowledge is presumed to have been assembled a long time ago
by a process of trial and error, and is now reduced to an unwritten canon that can be elicited
from any capable local informant.
Another modern example of this second approach to Indigenous knowledge can be found in
the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education for
Indigenous Peoples, which has created a “dossier” on Indigenous knowledge to provide news
and information about the contribution of science and technology to the needs of developing
countries. This dossier is part of a series of in-depth guides that focus on key topical issues at
the science-development interface with Indigenous knowledge and present the experiences
and perspectives of those working in the field through analytical policy briefs and topical
opinion articles. The organization also monitors the collection, application, and dissemination
of Indigenous knowledge, ensuring the full participation of the local people involved.
Although the aims of the organization are commendable, they are not evaluative.
A third approach to Indigenous knowledge has gone in the opposite direction, abandoning any
concern for the empirical validity of Indigenous knowledge systems and treating them as
purely normative or spiritual (Nazarea et al., 1998). This approach, like the second approach
discussed above, ignores the fact that within any Indigenous nation or community people vary
greatly in what they know (Biggelaar & Gold, 1995). There are not only differences between
ordinary folks and experts, such as experienced knowledge keepers, healers, hunters, or
ceremonialists, there are also major differences of experience and professional opinion among
the knowledge holders and workers, as we should expect of any living, dynamic knowledge
system that is continually responding to new phenomena and fresh insights.
Unfortunately, this third approach to Indigenous knowledge includes many Indigenous
scholars, who seem afraid that critical empiricism will somehow disprove or de-sanctify
Indigenous knowledge and its pedagogy. Often, the argument is cloaked in the concept that
Indigenous knowledge is “sacred,” thus in some sense immutable and inviolable. This
approach can be self-defeating. Donning the protective cloak of sanctity and religious
freedom is an admission that Indigenous people are the hapless victims of biophysical forces
that they can endure only as awesome mysteries. In other words, they are as ignorant and
superstitious as Eurocentric observers have long maintained.
These three approaches illustrate the challenges of placing Indigenous knowledge within
Eurocentric frameworks and disciplines. None of these Eurocentric perspectives
acknowledges the extent to which Indigenous communities have their own knowledge holders
Indigenous peoples have their own methods for classifying and transmitting knowledge, just
as they have Indigenous ways of deriving a livelihood from their environment. Information,
insight, and techniques are passed down and improved from one generation to another.
Knowledge workers observe ecosystems and gather eyewitness reports from others so that
they can continually test and improve their own systematic, predictive models of ecological
dynamics. In the real world of changing ecosystems and changing diseases, knowledge
holders and workers must adapt rapidly or lose credibility and status. To presume otherwise is
to imply that the clients of such knowledge systems are either ignorant or very submissive:
they are either incapable of recognizing an erroneous wildlife forecast or unsuccessful
medical treatment, or they are unable to criticize their knowledge keepers.
Indigenous knowledge is also inherently tied to land, not to land in general but to particular
landscapes, landforms, and biomes where ceremonies are properly held, stories properly
recited, medicines properly gathered, and transfers of knowledge properly authenticated (see
Morphy, 1995; Basso, 1996). Ensuring the complete and accurate transmission of knowledge
and authority from generation to generation depends not only on maintaining ceremonies,
which Canadian law treats as art rather than science, but also on maintaining the integrity of
the land itself.
Protecting Indigenous Knowledge
Indigenous knowledge is constitutionally protected in Canada law as Aboriginal and treaty
rights (Battiste & Henderson, 2000). Indigenous knowledge is inexorable linked to Aboriginal
and treaty rights under s. 35(1). As such, to ensure the continuity of Aboriginal customs and
traditions, the Supreme Court of Canada has determined that a substantive Aboriginal right
will normally include the incidental right to teach such a practice, custom and tradition to a
younger generation. Similar reasonable incident rights exist in treaty interpretation that would
apply to education provisions. Federal and provincial educational law, regulation, and
practices have yet to implement or reconcile with the constitutional rights to teach Indigenous
Indigenous knowledge is best protected under sections 35 and 52 of the Constitution Act,
1982. It cannot be adequately protected under Canadian copyrights and patents for intellectual
or cultural property laws, which distinguish sharply between artistic works (with copyright
and “neighboring rights” to artistic performances), commercially valuable symbols (with
trademarks), and useful scientific knowledge (with patents). For example, a patent, a
trademark, or a copyright cannot adequately protect a ceremony that uses striking sacred-
society symbolism to communicate empirical knowledge of medicinal plants. The medical
knowledge may be patented, but the patent will expire in a matter of years. The text and music
for the ceremony can be recorded (or “fixed”) and copyrighted, but only the recorded version
will be protected and only for the lifetimes of the performers plus fifty years. The symbols
can be protected as trademarks forever, but their significance will be diminished when they
are taken out of context.
Indigenous knowledge thus embodies a web of relationships within a specific ecological
context; contains linguistic categories, rules, and relationships unique to each knowledge
system; has localized content and meaning; has established customs with respect to acquiring
and sharing of knowledge (not all Indigenous peoples equally recognize their
responsibilities); and implies responsibilities for possessing various kinds of knowledge.
In the context of the Education Renewal Initiative, the dissemination of Indigenous
knowledge should be targeted towards current First Nations students and to the next
generation, ensuring that the study and development of Indigenous knowledge and the skills
of their ancestors are valued and available in both the sciences and the humanities. Young
students must feel that it is rewarding to pursue careers based on the traditional knowledge of
their forebears and on the ancient and dynamic ancestral languages.
Most Canadians, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, have long accepted some of the
fundamental assumptions underlying modern public school education. We have assumed that
knowledge is a kind and necessary form of mind liberation that opens to the individual
options and possibilities that ultimately have value for society as a whole.
At one level, knowledge and education appear beneficial to all people and intrinsic to the
progress and development of modern technological society. But public schooling has not been
benign. It has been used as a means to perpetuate damaging myths about Aboriginal cultures,
languages, beliefs, and ways of life. It has also established western knowledge and science as
dominant modes of thought that distrusts diversity and jeopardizes us all as we move into the
After nearly a century of public schooling for tribal peoples in Canada, the most serious
problem with the current system of education does not lie not in its failure to liberate the
human potential among Aboriginal peoples, but rather in its quest to limit thought to cognitive
imperialistic policies and practices. This quest denies Aboriginal people access to and
participation in the formulation of government policy, constrains the use and development of
Aboriginal cultures in schools, and confines education to a narrow view of the world and its
knowledge foundations that threaten the global future.
Cognitive imperialism is a form of cognitive manipulation used to disclaim other knowledge
bases and values. Validated through one's knowledge base and empowered through public
education, it has been the means by which whole groups of people have been denied existence
and have had their wealth confiscated. Cognitive imperialism denies people their language
and cultural integrity by maintaining the legitimacy of only one language, one culture, and
one frame of reference.
As a result of cognitive imperialism, cultural minorities have been led to believe that their
poverty and impotence is a result of their race. The modern solution to their despair has been
to describe this causal connection in numerous reports. The gift of modern knowledge has
been the ideology of oppression, which negates the process of knowledge as a process of
inquiry to explore new solutions. This ideology seeks to change the consciousness of the
oppressed, not change the situation that oppressed them.
What is apparent to Indigenous peoples is the need for a serious and far-reaching examination
of the assumptions inherent in western knowledge, science and modern educational theory.
How these assumptions create the moral and intellectual foundations of modern society and
culture have to be studied and written about by Aboriginal people to allow space for
Aboriginal consciousness, language, and identity to flourish without ethnocentric or racist
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