Number 153  ▪  May 2010


Intersections of Indigenous Knowledge, Language and Sustainable Development

Margaret Roland (Dakota State University)
and Ladi Semali (Penn State University)


            The knowledge, practices, values, and languages of indigenous peoples are intimately linked to sustainable living. For most indigenous peoples, the nexus between ways of knowing, the language they speak and the environment they live in, collectively frame their existence within the culture in which they operate. Such knowledge commonly referred to as “traditional” or “Indigenous,” is the collective information that people in a given community, based on experience and adaptation to a local culture and environment, have developed over time, and continue to develop. This knowledge is used to sustain the community and its culture and to maintain the genetic resources necessary for the continued survival of the community. The inter-relationships between these spheres of knowledge (ecological, pharmacological, environmental, cultural, spiritual, etc.) have often been fragmented by the social sciences and with few exceptions, studied sufficiently holistically by education comparative educators.
This short article examines a few of the intersections between indigenous knowledge and practice, language, indigenous education, and education for sustainable development in an effort to stimulate ongoing discussion in a recently established forum on the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) website.  In addition, it proposes a more active research role into these concepts and their intersections for comparative educators, and ponders the value of the Special Interest Group (SIG) format for these topics within CIES.

"A quick survey at the recent CIES conference in Chicago reveals over 20 papers with references to indigenous people’s knowledge, languages and environments were featured..."
global search

A quick survey of the sessions at the recent CIES conference in Chicago reveals over 20 papers with references to indigenous people’s knowledge, languages and environments were featured. Perhaps this is indicative of a tacit consensus and awareness that pervades these topics that indigenous people everywhere bring much understanding when they engage in indigenous science that is involved with the annual cycle of subsistence activities. They know a great deal about flora and fauna, and they have their own classifications systems and versions of meteorology, physics, chemistry, earth science, astronomy, botany, pharmacology, psychology, and the sacred. Sustainability concepts of preserving the environment and saving it for future generations are included and celebrated in their rituals and spirituality.

Conversely, for minority students imbued with Indigenous, experientially grounded, holistic world view, typically approaches to schooling can present an impediment to learning, to the extent that they focus on compartmentalized knowledge with little regard for how academic subjects relate to one another or to the surrounding universe. As noted by the most respected scholars in this field, “nature’s indicators and voices give much knowledge for making a living, but the intuitive and spiritual knowledge gives wisdom to make a life.”

The language and language forms that students use to describe their environment or how things are collectively known to work in the community can introduce a confusion or interference of one worldview over another in the learning of science concepts and such interference has been described to be perhaps similar to the interference of a first language in the learning of a second language. However, a research study to investigate such interference in the cultural learning environments of diverse populations including Indigenous children is not gaining much attention among comparative educators, though slowly changing as we can see in the past few CIES conference papers. Further, a project aspiring to integrate Indigenous methods of teaching in the school curriculum is not popular among curriculum planners. How can teachers meet students’ needs in diverse cultural settings?

Indigenous knowledge and practice, mother tongue communicative skills, indigenous education, and education for sustainable development have all been contested by today’s pre-eminent theories. Development groups like the World Bank state there is no unanimous perception of the concept of indigenous knowledge despite solid attempts to differentiate these different ways of knowing from modern knowledge systems on substantive, contextual, and methodological and epistemological grounds.   Many governments argue that teaching mother tongue language in schools prior to the lingua franca of the area is expensive and wasteful. And, publishing companies attest to this with the argument that such minority language groups do not offer a market large enough to make publishing of textbooks in multiple minority languages an attractive proposition.

Ever since 1987 when the term sustainability was featured by the Bruntland Commission Report as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, it has been co-opted by market forces. When concepts and terms are contested and co-opted, their meanings are likely to be obfuscated. As a result of this continuing neocolonialist obfuscation, homogeneity is increased, the status quo is ensured, other ways of knowing and being are de-legitimized, and emerging paradigms which counter mainstream beliefs are squelched or compromised.  

Indigenous systems of knowledge and practice are inextricably linked to Indigenous languages. Mental frameworks that define how peoples understand their relationships with the social and natural environment are embedded within language and institutionalized by language. These knowledge systems, like languages, are holistic and in a constant state of flux as cultural groups adapt to their changing environments. What is known, how knowledge is gained, and even how knowledge is defined is deeply rooted in place and expressed differently by various groups.

Western knowledge systems fragment knowledge into disciplinary specializations, standardize knowledge and practice, and promote a mindset which places humans in a controlling and competitive relationship with nature. These scientific, modern ways of knowing selectively commoditize what is seen as valuable in indigenous knowledge systems, typically ecological knowledge, and delegitimize knowledge and practice lacks congruency in an unrelentless effort to maintain standards and hegemony.

As a result of ceaseless development and assimilation efforts, the silent partners of globalization, thousands of languages and accompanying knowledge systems have been lost. Surviving Indigenous speakers typically find themselves adopting the more global or prestigious language of the colonizer. As Indigenous languages disappear, so do the worldviews and knowledge systems they once embraced. Remnants remain, but the whole cloth that supported a way of thinking, knowing, and being is shredded.

Fostering mother tongue communicative skills by teaching first language to Indigenous children can prevent such cultural discontinuity and is said to support second language learning and greater critical thinking skills. But it is contested: it threatens nation building, fractures the national curriculum; it is expensive and ineffective; and so on.

In many cases, fostering mother tongue communicative skills is promoted as part of a larger, growing effort to promote Indigenous education, either by integrating Indigenous knowledge into existing K-16 models or (in very few cases) supplanting these models. Supporters argue that these ways of knowing are more culturally and environmentally relevant. Critics state that they are not economically viable and that there are more pressing issues to confront.

"Education for environmental sustainability is seen as vital to human survival in light of increasing population, climate change, and incidents like Chernobyl and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill..."

Environmental sustainability, in the age of increasing environmental degradation, ironically fostered in large part by Western ways of knowing and doing, is one of these pressing issues. Education for environmental sustainability is seen as vital to human survival in light of increasing population, climate change, and incidents like Chernobyl and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Viewed through the dominant lens of positivism, education for environmental sustainability appears to be a contradiction, yet many supporters, maintaining it is a positive expansion of the science and natural resource curricula, neatly integrate mechanistic ways of knowing into their packaged educational units, writing standards to effectively allow for high stakes testing.

Stephen Sterling, an advocate of education for environmental sustainability, argues that there is a poor fit between the “dominant paradigm and our experience of increasing complexity, interdependence and systems breakdown…” He and others contrast the framework of the positivist, mechanistic education paradigm with what he calls an ecological model of education. This model appears to mirror many of the value systems embraced by many Indigenous peoples that ecological understanding is clearly not simply another subject to be learnt but a fundamental change in the way we view the world.  It is in this last approach that we see the convergence of the discussed concepts.

In a world with finite resources, comparative educators cannot ignore and allow the dominant positivistic argument to prevail that covertly argues for one value system, one paradigm that privileges one knowledge system and one set of practices. We must clarify the contested, and wade past the murky waters that have been thrown on one culture after another all over the world in the name of progress. In a world of finite resources, comparative educators need to question whether one way of knowing and being, that privileges one group of people over another and promotes consumerism, can suffice.



Stephen Hansen and Justin VanFleet, Traditional knowledge and Intellectual Property (Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2003).

Ray Barnhardt and A. Oscar Kawagley, “Education Indigenous to a Place: Western Science meets Indigenous Reality,” in Ecological Education in Action, ed. Gregory smith and Dilafruz Williams (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 117-140.

A. Oscar Kawagley, “Alaska Native Education: History and Adaptation in the New Millennium,” Journal of American Indian Education 39(1), 1999: 35-51.

O. Jegede, “Science education in non-Western cultures: Towards a theory of collateral learning, in What is Indigenous Knowledge? Voices from the Academy, eds., L. Semali and J. Kincheloe, New York: Garland, 1999.

World Bank, Indigenous Knowledge Local Pathways to Global Development: Marking Five Years of the World Bank Indigenous Knowledge for Development Program. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2006.

Stephen Sterling, “Sustainable Education: Re-Visioning learning and change.” London: Schumacher Briefings, Green Books Ltd., 2001: 10.




What's Missing, What's Needed in Indigenous Education and Practice Research

Margaret Ronald


At the Intersection of Indigenous Knowledge and Underrepresentation:
Spotlight on the work of Lesley Graybeal

Donna C. Tonini


Indigenous ways of knowing and the Australian Curriculum: Science

Michael Michie


Intersections of Indigenous Knowledge, Language and Sustainable Development

Margaret Ronald &
Ladi Semali


CCE/CIEGSA-led School Tours - CIES 2010

Nicole Ortegón


UREAG: Reimagining CIES Participation for Underrepresented Groups

Leslie Graybeal


MESCE IVth Meeting - Presidential Address and Conference Report

Peter Mayo


CIES 2010 Pictures


SIGs News


Editor's Corner
Space designed for your suggestions, comments, or questions regarding the CIES Newsletter

CIES Bulletin
Information about conferences and events, awards, recently-published books, and vacancies