The Complexity of Indigenous Epistemologies

Rundstrom (1995) GIS, Indigenous Peoples, and Epistemological Diversity

Despite Rundstrom’s argument that the “technoscience” of GIS is at odds with indigenous epistemologies, parallel concepts do emerge. Rundstrom’s account of the Tewa people’s “circles of interdependency” as a means of storing and preserving knowledge seems remarkably similar to the direction geographic information systems and data storage are heading. Spatial data infrastructures and cloud storage do not store all information in one machine, rather, information is distributed and called upon when needed. Additionally, Rundstrom conveniently fails to mention any ‘inscriptive’ indigenous mapping techniques that represent topographical and topological relationships like GIS. During the first GEOG 596 seminar this year we were introduced to several indigenous cartographic representations such as the Inuit bone carving representing the fjords of an arctic coastline and Polynesian stick charts that depict navigational routes. Rundstrom does however illustrate how maps have authoritative power and are therefore an exploitable resource.

To me the most intriguing aspect of this article is Rundstrom’s assertion that GIS does not capture relatedness but reconstructs it.  Further, he acknowledges that reassembly of phenomena from fragments is subject to current culture-specific understanding of the world. This is something to keep in mind as GIS users: the decisions we make are products of our time. Ironically, this notion may also provide some insight as to explain Rundstrom’s treatment of indigenous societies in this article. Throughout this article he refers to the indigenous conceptions of the world as if they are isolated and singular e.g. the “Tewa’s pueblo world” and “their world” in reference to the Inuit. Rundstrom simultaneously expresses the GIS serves a singular view of the world while reducing indigenous epistemologies into an ideal form. Treating entire cultures as if they are homogenous seems to discredit his own argument. This paradox reinforces the fact that cultural complexity is a difficult issue to discuss.


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