I attended a guest lecture today on traditional uses of fungi by northern (arctic and sub-arctic) native people from North America and Siberia. The speaker had been doing field work with northern native people for over 20 years, and had incredible, beautiful images of traditional caribou skin buildings, bone tools, fur clothing, and fungi being used as medicine, smudge, psychotropics, fire carriers, and more. It was super cool to learn about traditional uses of a huge variety of fungi, a topic that often gets overlooked in the usual focus on plants.
And while I watched I got really, really angry. Because when the speaker (a white male scientist) referred to the spiritual practices of the people whose traditions he was speaking about, he spoke with what sounded to me like barely disguised contempt. He emphasized the (out-of-context) aspects of those traditions that would sound the most ridiculous or superstitious/archaic to modern listeners at a university, and de-emphasized or omitted the traditional knowledge and long place-based history that’s behind those cultural elements. To me, much of the talk came across as “look at these ridiculous beliefs these primitive people still have. As a respected scientist, I’ll you what’s really going on.” Ugh!
I haven’t gotten publicly upset here before, and don’t plan on making a habit of it. And I know this is my interpretation, and may not have been what the speaker intended at all. But it’s very, very common for members of an oppressor group to focus only on our intent, and to ignore the impact of our words and actions on members of targeted groups – and their impact on our perceptions and frameworks about those targeted groups. In this case, I judge this type of presentation of traditional knowledge to be misleading and very problematic. To review some basic things:
- The western, reductionist, scientific worldview is not the only internally consistent worldview. Nor is it the only internally consistent worldview that’s based on long observation and interaction with the natural world.
- The worldviews and cosmologies of land-based people are not primarily a quaint set of folk beliefs. Instead, they’re almost always an integral part of how those people have survived and prospered living in their landscapes for thousands of years. They are also a living, changing body of knowledge and participation in history and place, rather than a static set of anachronisms.
- It’s very, very easy for western speakers (including scientists) to simplify and/or inaccurately portray non-western worldviews when representing them to a primarily western audience.
- A white, male, western scientist speaking to a mostly white group of western university students and faculty is in a very powerful, privileged position, and has a responsibility to represent non-white, non-western cultures and people accurately and respectfully.
That’s all I want to say about this for now.
In house news, a somewhat rewritten version of my post from earlier this year on land tenure and perennial agriculture is up on the Field Naturalist Program’s blog. Check it out if you missed it the first time around!