Who Owns Knowledge?

In Western culture, knowledge is seen as something that’s perceived or constructed by an individual’s brain. Knowledge therefore belongs to the person who “discovered” or “thought of” it first. As a result, people in Western culture feel the sharing and use of knowledge is rightly decided by the human who “owns” that knowledge.

In Indigenous cultures, Knowledge is seen as coming from a variety of different sources that people access through many different ways of knowing. As we begin to integrate all the different kinds of knowledge we’ve received in a variety of ways, we have a responsibility to engage with that knowledge as fully as possible. Relational accountability comes into play as we weave newly received knowledge into the rich web of relationships that already exist in our own lives (Wilson 2009:134). Such integration modifies our previous understanding of things.

To Indigenous people, Knowledge brings with it very serious responsibilities for use and sharing. So usually a whole community gets involved in the process of understanding exactly how and when the knowledge will be used. The community also figures out whether, how, and with whom the knowledge will be shared, knowing the knowledge will interact differently with different communities in ways that might violate the conditions or restrictions that were placed on the knowledge when it was initially given. Those conditions or restrictions on use and transmission form part of the knowledge’s context. One of the biggest problems that arises when Indigenous communities work with scientists who collect Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is that scientists frequently strip off the conditions and restrictions of use in a way that decontextualizes the knowledge Indigenous people shared with them. This is a serious violation of relational accountability on the scientists’ parts, and it places their Indigenous collaborators in the terrible position of having violated their own relational accountability to the Land by having shared Knowledge with people who broke trust.

The salient issue here, that may not be apparent to someone from Western culture, is that Indigenous Knowledge has agency, in the same way that a hawk, human, or thunderstorm has agency. Humans who receive Knowledge only hold it in trust. They do not own it.

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