Monday, April 02, 2007

Sacred Knowledge: The Zuni and Globalization

An interesting piece from the Smithsonian Magazine on the Zuni people of Western New Mexico ties into our interview with Allison Davis-White Eyes on Native Americans and the National Geographic Society's DNA project. The Zuni are a small, but cohesive society that can boast of having many of their tribal members choose to stay or return to the pueblo.

What I found most interesting in the article is the view by one Zuni that their sacred wisdom is not something they think is important to share with people. Instead, it is the responsibility of elders to protect the sacred knowledge and guard it against being shared widely with people who might exploit it or misunderstand it.

This kind of attitude, if held by different Native American peoples, would explain the hesitancy to participate in the DNA mapping project. Yet, it also seems to point to a deep difference between Native and Western European ideas of knowledge.

At least since the Enlightenment, Western societies have held onto the idea of knowledge as a kind of power that sweeps away myth, religious dogmatism, and other forms of superstition, literally "illuminating" the world and dispelling darkness. Knowledge is something to be shared as part of humanity's journey toward progress and ever increasing amounts of social freedom (or so says Hegel) Under this kind of interpretive lens, it is easy to see why some people would categorize Native American sacred knowledge as folklore, myth, and superstition.

So is knowledge of the world something that ought to be shared with all of humanity? Is there something wrong with the Zuni way? For instance, what if Zuni sacred knowledge included knowledge of medicinal plants that could be used for treatment or cure of serious diseases? Would they have an obligation, in a globalized world, to share that?

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4 Comments:

At 5:50 AM , Anonymous parisa said...

It seems to me that the protectiveness of sacred wisdom, whether it has to do with healing or anything else, in First Nations' custom is about a different understanding of knowledge altogether. Whereas the Western view says that one can have discrete 'facts' which can be shared independently of one another, and then mixed and matched by trial and error (for "scientific" results), there is a holistic approach among native americans that says that the knowledge is only as effective as its application *in context.* Especially when it comes to healing, it's not simply a particular combination of herbs, but also the state of readiness of the one in need of healing, and the spiritual preparation of the one administering or preparing the herbs. The integration of all of those things is what brings about the healing, and it cannot be effective if it is sold piecemeal.

(so-called) Western science is learning that this integration is important, but approaching it in a much more mechanical way. And always subjecting what is learned to a sort of scrutiny that does trample on any sense of its sacredness.

If there ought to be a moral obligation to share wisdom of healing with those who need it, there ought to be an equal if not greater obligation by those seeking the wisdom to honor it in its wholeness, and not go about it with the lust for power that has driven the acquisitive sense of knowledge in the Euro-West. Until that time, I would say that preserving the integrity of the traditions and culture in which the knowledge is not just appropriate but essential.

 
At 8:20 AM , Blogger Michael Faris said...

Hmmm... do the Zuni view themselves as citizens in a globalized world? Or as an entrenched culture within an imperial context that must protect its values and traditions from being co-opted by a wider culture? If, instead of knowledge is power, we view power as knowledge (a la Foucault), then perhaps part of the Zuni culture keeping power (power over themselves?) is to keep their knowledge to themselves...

It certainly would be nice to live in a world with a free locution of knowledge, but isn't there something to be said of subaltern groups that refuse to share their knowledge with a wider (dominant) culture that might then use that knowledge to further erase difference?

 
At 7:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll jump on Michael's bandwagon here, bu I have to wonder if the reasons for protecting the knowledge has changed since contact with Europeans. The article doesn't really make it clear.

Dennis

 
At 10:49 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Parisa: I think you're right that there is much more of a wholistic understanding of healing that is involved in Native people's world views. But I don't know why that has to be OUR understanding of healing in order to be able to benefit from their sacred knowledge. Presumably, a Zuni doesn't have cognitive/cultural dissonance when she take an aspirin for a headache--she doesn't have to adopt the Western mode for the relief of her pain. Why can't we benefit from Native knowledge if it can be used to make a pill for our pain?

The worry is, indeed, as you both point out, Michael and Dennis, of exploitatiion. We should guard against using Native people's bodies and ideas as means to our benefit. Western societies have certainly had a bad history of cultural imperialism in this regard.

Certainly, we should not engage in bio-piracy which robs Native peoples of their intellectual heritage. But, morally speaking, do Native people have an obligation to share their knowledge of the world? Do we have a moral right to expect that knowledge be made available for all of humanity?

 

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