Relational Knowing

Note: This page is probably NOT for beginners just starting to explore this topic. Ideally, it would be best not to try to work through this page until you’ve completed many of the pages in the section “Weaving the Basket,” the core material for this entire learning exercise. You may certainly read this page earlier than that,  of course. But I suspect you’ll find you need to come back to answer the question at the bottom of the page later, after you’ve had more time to engage with the ideas — and they have had more time to engage with you.

Relational knowing, often coupled with participant observation, is often cited as the most important epistemic principle in Indigenous worldview (Wilson 2009). Reciprocity, which is specifically relational, is so important that it’s been called a moral imperative in Indigenous cultures. The honoring of reciprocity through ceremony is seen as essential to maintaining the fabric of living ecosystems and healing those that have been damaged. The entire complex of relationship, reciprocity, and ceremony is seen as the foundation of Indigenous peoples’ ability to “accept things as they are” rather than trying to control everything from some theoretical point of outside leverage to suit their own purposes and values (Adams, Barlo, and Belasco 2021). The whole complex, rooted in relational knowing, is seen as the source of Indigenous resilience.

Western culture’s separation from the natural world is largely epistemic rather than physical. It is easy to see this in the reactions of a non-Indigenous colleague to a suggestion to go to a park or other outdoor place to seek answers to a research problem, as opposed to a suggestion to use story or dream to seek answers to a research problem. But if an Indigenous and non-Indigenous person go out into the natural world together to get information for a research problem, it becomes immediately apparent that the epistemic barrier has come with them, and that it prevents relationship between the non-Indigenous person and the natural world. Once in a field situation, for example, a Western colleague might have no problem working very hard to engage in work that identifies and removes invasive herbaceous plants that have grown in a forest where a storm has disturbed and uprooted a number of trees. But even in that very same outdoor setting, this same colleague tends to get very uncomfortable if the suggestion is made that ceremony should be done before these plants are removed, to find out what the forest itself needs and wants to have done.

My own experience of being in situations like this with non-Indigenous colleagues is that even if they are open to the idea of ceremony to develop a research or environmental protocol, they are still very uneasy. They express feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment, worrying about the outcome if their other Western colleagues find out what they’ve done. They often express an apparently not-casual fear that they will be judged as “crazy” for thinking or doing the things I’ve suggested. Beneath it all, there seems to be a deep uncertainty about “how could the forest have an opinion on the matter” — or, if it did, “how could the forest communicate this to a human being.” Interestingly, if it’s possible to allay these concerns, fear seems to arise as the next and final, most-deeply rooted portion of this paradigm. People express a real fear that “if” the forest is alive and sentient in this way, it must be very angry with people at this point in history — and that it’s terrifying to imagine what fate this means awaits “everyone.” Truly excrutiating levels of guilt and shame are also often expressed in a very fleeting way, the person being too uncomfortable to experience these emotions more than a matter of moments.

Perhaps you can see why all this discussion is listed under “relational knowing.” The obstacle keeping people in Western culture from the healed world they dream of is their lack of relationship with the living natural world — and their deep fear that it will harm them if by some miracle it turns out it’s really alive. This is, of course, the source of the fears of nature that so many anthropologists and others in Western culture project (erroneously) onto Indigenous ceremony.

Relational knowing is indeed the foundation and root of the Indigenous epistemic system. It is therefore the foundation and root of the wisdom from which a value system of sustainability emerges. So Western culture’s fear of the natural world, which prevents this relationship, is a very serious problem. It is one that’s possible to overcome with hard work and diligence, but it’s been my experience that this can only happen if the fear is acknowledged and accepted as the cultural legacy it is, and then dealt with as a paradigm rather than as something that’s ontologically true. It’s also been my experience that it absolutely requires mentored experience on living Land that’s willing to be a teacher and healer. As Vine Deloria cautioned us all more than twenty years ago: “While this information can be transmitted or communicated in many ways, the specificity of it and the requirement of personal involvement eliminate the chance of duplication by anyone through the simple memorization of the mechanics of the phenomenon” (1999:71, italics in the original).

Lucky for you, the Land is actively helping to design such learning opportunities. As I pointed out on the very first page of this exercise, what you are trying to do is apparently extremely important, because the Land involved itself in the process. I want you to understand the significance of this fact: the Land didn’t get engaged because this work was my idea. I wrote this exercise because it was the Land’s idea. So even though at some point we have to find a way to get you that mentored experience to complete the process, my hope is that the Land’s involvement in developing this exercise means that can happen if it’s as necessary as I think it is. At least some of us will probably, eventually, find out.

Question to facilitate your conceptual weaving process:

What is the relationship between the deep paradigm you named in the “adapt or die” exercise, that drives the building of seawalls and levees, and relational knowing? It may help to choose information from just one of the “mitigation” pages (Bangladesh floodplain, Mississippi River, forest wildfire, or tsunami seawalls) to use here, because you are weaving so many powerful things together in one response. Just remember to also pick up that deep paradigm you identified in the “Adapt or Die” exercise and bring that to bear too. And then pull in relational knowing. It’s a lot to balance but I have faith in your ability to do it. I would not have written this exercise if I didn’t.

Click here to return to the list of pages at Weaving the Basket.
Click here for list of References.