This is a potent question at a time when Indigenous nations struggle to assert rights to intellectual property. But before we look at the economics and politics of knowledge in the post-colonial context, how about we examine basic assumptions.
Western students very often comment: Why do Aboriginal societies restrict knowledge?
My comment: What do you mean?
Western student: Elders or shamans keep their knowledge hidden, they do not share that knowledge, unless you are initiated.
My comment: And how do you compare this idea to western practices?
Western student: Knowledge if open to everyone. If you seek it, you will find it.
My comment: OK well, first of all, we need to understand there are two incorrect assumptions here. First, Indigenous knowledge is not hidden. Knowledge is shared openly but comes with a cost. And second, western knowledge is not open to everyone. Knowledge tends to be hidden and comes with a cost.
Allow me to explain. Indigenous knowledge or epistemology is relational. If you show respect and honour relationships, you gain “access” to the teachings of elders and community. Your showing commitment over time opens new doors. You are in turn respected with knowledge that is shared openly with you.
In western societies, knowledge has become largely disconnected from relationships and is now a commodity that is bought and sold. Knowledge is costly and difficult to find – just look at your student loans for a serious and long moment – and if you can tell me know that knowledge is shared openly I will eat my left ear. The epistemology of knowledge in the west is often reduced to economic rationalism, where respect for relations and contexts and identity are skipped over in preference for personal gain, power over, and dominance mechanisms within the society.
Students when confronted with these insights usually drop their mouths to the floor. It can take a long time to realise what we have lost, and what we wish to value in future.