Non-Activist Approach to Indigenous Knowledge Preservation

Written by Dyami Millarson

In the current article, I will clarify what I mean by activism and non-activism, why my work is non-activistic, and how this aligns with my educational, analytical, and research-oriented approach. As someone who focuses on indigenous communities which traditionally have their own languages, cultures, and philosophies, I often encounter the label of being an “activist.” However, I do not identify as one.

Let us now define activism. The fifth edition of American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language defines activism as the “use of direct, often confrontational action, such as a demonstration or strike, in opposition to or support of a cause.” The online Merriam Webster defines activism as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.”

When I say that I am not an activist, I mean that I do not practise or advocate activism as defined above. I do not imagine myself as a warrior fighting a heroic war nor as someone engaged in a struggle for political or social change. Instead, my focus is scholarly and educational, i.e. non-activistic. This means that for my work involving indigenous communities, I take up the role of a scholar and an educator. My educational work is focused on raising awareness for indigenous communities, which traditionally have their own language, culture, and folk religion. My educational purpose is based on the desire to share knowledge which I acquired through my scholarly approach. I believe in lifelong learning, and I believe people need free access to different teachers with specialised knowledge, such as in the field of indigenous communities.

My work can thus be characterised as an instance of non-activism. Non-activism is the approach of an individual or a group of individuals who are committed to working on issues through non-activistic means, such as education, research, and analytical efforts. Non-activism means refusing to perform actions that activists typically perform and refusing to follow the strategies used and routes taken by activists. The relationship between activists and non-activists is an important one, and it has been discussed in this relevant paper.

In general, it is responsible to consider whether activism is the wisest path to take when compared to a scholarly approach. Activism can have unintended and undesirable outcomes, potentially causing harm to already vulnerable indigenous communities. On the other hand, a non-activistic approach can compensate for the shortcomings of activism by offering a safe and reliable approach to preserving linguistic, cultural, and philosophical knowledge.

At the heart of the matter is the question of how actions can contribute to preserving knowledge while taking into account any unintended consequences or unfavourable outcomes that may arise from activism. Preserving indigenous languages, cultures, and philosophies ultimately revolves around acquiring and transmitting knowledge. Thus, it is essential to prioritise these actions as the core issues at hand, rather than other priorities that may arise with activism. For example, dwelling on external factors or unfortunate circumstances can divert attention from the critical point of what to do with indigenous knowledge. It is essential to avoid playing the blame game and instead focus on the productive steps we can take to preserve indigenous knowledge, such as making self-teaching materials for an indigenous language freely available online.

In my work, I use a knowledge-based approach to teaching about indigenous languages, cultures, and philosophies. My educational efforts are not geared towards collective action, but they are always geared towards knowledge. I do not have an activism-based approach to indigenous education, but I use a knowledge-based approach for my teaching of indigenous knowledge. It is important to stress this nuance. Given that my focus is educational, analytical, and research-oriented, my work is non-activistic and apolitical; I do not align with any activist group or political group. I am just doing my educational, analytical, and investigative work.

Now that we have talked about activism in more general terms, I want to address the fact specifically that there is discourse about me being a language activist. It should be completely unsurprising that I am no language activist of any kind, whilst I do not practise or advocate language activism. Language activism, as defined by Sinfree Makoni and Marika K. Criss in their 2017 paper “Introduction: Regional and international perspectives on language activism,” is “a form of linguistic, political, and social intervention whose major objectives are to revive, promote, and develop languages and, in some cases, reverse language loss.” While reviving, promoting, and developing languages is part of my work, there is neither a political angle nor an aspiration for bringing about political change. With this in mind, it is worth stressing that I am no politician, no policy-maker, and as already stated repeatedly, no activist of any kind. So if I talk with anyone who is affiliated with some activistic or political group, this should be understood in the light of my educational, analytical, and research work. I am free to share my knowledge and findings with people in the hopes that this will inform their thinking process and make them more aware of and sensitive to certain issues pertaining to indigenous communities.

4 comments

  1. Thank you for beautifully clarifying activism and non-activism, especially in the context of linguistic work,  along with explicitly declaring your personal non-activistic but scholarly and educational position in this array of stances. We certainly do live in a complex world. Clarity and nuanced definitions enable us to better understand each other! 

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    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and engage with my thoughts. Your kind words are greatly appreciated and it is reassuring to know that my message was clear and helpful. I completely agree that we live in a complex world and nuanced definitions are crucial for better understanding each other.

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