Indigenous Knowledges and Technologies

— Tiago Ribeiro Duarte and Claudia Magallanes-Blanco —

The idea behind convening an open panel on Indigenous Knowledges and Technologies at the Boston 4S annual meeting was to foreground a topic that has so far received very little attention in the STS literature: Little has been written on the similarities/differences between indigenous, scientific and local Western knowledges and technologies, on the particular challenges that indigenous people face to be included in participatory processes, on uses and developments of information and communication technologies (ICT) by indigenous peoples, and on decolonial indigenous STS.

The panel began with Kathleen Barnhill-Dilling, who presented a case study on current attempts to restore the extinct American Chestnut through genetically modified technology. As this technology will affect indigenous communities, she is part of a team working to design innovative governance processes to engage indigenous communities that will be affected by this project by making them initiate deliberative workshops.

Tiago Ribeiro Duarte presented a case study on the marginal and downstream participation of Brazilian indigenous people in the preparation of the Brazilian National Plan of Adaptation to Climate Change. The presentation sought to bring to light the particular barriers and challenges that indigenous people face to participate in climate policy-making, which are related to their ontologies, the way they frame of climate adaptation, and their lack of understanding of scientific theories on climate change.

The panel continued with Claudia Magallanes-Blanco, who presented two cases of indigenous peoples in Mexico using technology for self-determination and autonomy., The fist case was about the legal and technical programs of an indigenous community mobile network in the state of Oaxaca. The second case was of an indigenous intranet linked with an education program that uses mesh networks to connect people in a remote community with no telephone, broadcasting or internet services.

César Enrique Giraldo Herrera challenged the widely held notion that scientific and shamanic knowledge are ontically and epistemically incommensurable. He pointed out that there are analogies between paintings of shamanic visions of diseases and retinal structures and objects flowing within them, including cells and microbial agents during systemic infection. By doing so, Giraldo Herrera argued that shamanic visions are a form of microscopy that is commensurable with current microbiology.

Julio Sebastián Zárate described complex Andean irrigation systems and related them to the socio-cultural characteristics and worldviews of the societies that developed them. He compared ancient and current irrigation systems to build a case for indigenous technologies as still valid and usefull.

The topic that stirred most debate in the panel was raised by Giraldo Herrera´s provocative presentation: whether indigenous knowledges and science are commensurable/compatible. During the Q&A, other presenters and members of the audience challenged his arguments, which gave rise to a lively debate. The excitement and wide engagement of the audience with topics discussed in the different presentations seem to reflect the importance of STS deepening its interest in indigenous knowledges and technologies. Further study in this area is of great importance for decolonising the field and for “parochialising” mainstream STS scholarship.