Kipuism, Epistemics, and Language: Recording, Interpreting and Preserving Indigenous Knowledge (2014)

Sunday, May 19, 4-5:30

Moderator: Philip S. MacLeod, Emory University

Rapporteur: Jill Baron, Dartmouth College


  • Endangered Languages: The Importance of Preserving Immaterial Knowledge, What We Lose When a Language Dies? — Enrique Catalán Salgado, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Unidad Xochimilco, México
  • Inca Writing: Quipus, Yupanas and Tocapus — Ruben Urbizagastegui, University of California – Riverside
  • Epistemic Communities: Trends in Building Knowledge on Indigenous Issues in Mexico and Its Impact on the Social Environment, Government and Academia — Tomás Bocanegra-Esqueda, El Colegio de México, A.C.
  • Khipuism, Cybernetics and Indigenous Epistemic Communities in the Andes: A Critical Investigation — Manomano M. M. Mukungurutse, Nomadic-Independent Researcher and Writer

Moderator Phil MacLeod welcomed everyone to the session and introduced the three panelists.  First to speak was Enrique Catalán Salgado explored the dire situation facing indigenous languages worldwide.  He described the world as becoming aphonic, a term that typically refers to the loss of voice in a human being.  He argued that language is a unique tool for analyzing the world, and that the destruction of languages is a real global problem produced by social forces such as violence, war, genocide, racism, discrimination, and cultural factors such as “mestizofilia” or the pressure to adhere to a single official language.  According to Catalán Salgado, the most populous countries, such as the US, Brazil, and India are at the greatest risk of disappearing languages.  In Mexico, for example, he stated that 27% of languages – those that have 1000 or fewer speakers - are endangered.  In the US, of 155 spoken languages, 135 are in danger.  Bolivia, on the other hand, which has a large indigenous population (more than 60% of the general population), is not as at great a risk as Mexico and the US because the general population is smaller.  Various international organizations, like UNESCO and the UN, have made efforts to encourage countries to respect indigenous rights and mitigate this problem.

Tomás Bocanegra-Esqueda followed by presenting several academic and scholarly communities that are investigating indigenous issues in Mexico. These include the Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas (CDI), a national institute that produces an important group of publications on themes such as sustainable regional development, social and human development, indigenous rights, migration, heritage and cultural development, gender equity.   Whereas there are no researchers employed by the CDI, the Institute supports research undertaken by affiliated researchers.  The Conaculta Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes is another institute that goes by a decentralized model of providing financial and editorial support for various projects related to indigenous cultural heritage and folkways (art, handcrafts, folklore).  The Centro de Investigación de Cultura Purépecha, within the University of Michoacan, produces a good catalog of publications on gender equity, traditions and oral culture, self-governance, regional customs and religion.  Intercultural universities represent a new model for higher education, with areas of study such as linguistics, environmental studies, philosophy and indigenous cultures, and community issues.  They can be found all over Mexico (Chiapas, Tabasco, Guerrero, Estado de México, Puebla, Veracruz and Quintana Roo).  UNAM has an anthropological research institute and a multidisciplinary research center on Central America with a special focus on public health.  Other institutes with a focus on indigenous studies include the CIESAS and the Red de Colegios y Centros CONACYT. Bocanegra-Esqueda argued that in spite of this seeming abundance of scholarly attention to indigenous issues, there has been little impact on actual public policy.  In all cases but the Zapatista movement, scholarship has done little to steer the government toward enacting more inclusive social policies.  The discourse of interculturalism is problematic in Mexico, where the government either treats indigenous peoples as a minority group, or uses them for a certain public image.

Finally, because one of the presenters was absent, Manomano M. M. Mukungurutse closed the session with his reflections on the Khipu, which he presented as an entire knowledge system comprising Andean political, cultural, mathematical and environmental phenomena.  This, like other indigenous knowledge systems, was and continues to function as a system of “data storage.”  Through the khipu knot, the central unit of information, knowledge was disseminated throughout the Incan empire. According to Inca de la Garcilaso, who wrote about the khipu, the knot recorded information, including mathematical calculations. Those who could communicate through khipu were the bards and sophists of culture; it was they who taught and produced knowledge in what Mukungurutse called “the invisible college.”

There was only one question from the audience, from José Ortado (Fundación de Kuyayky Peru).  He asked the panelists to reconsider the word “indigenous,” which he considers inherently discriminatory, as no one has purity of race.  He asked why do researchers continue to use this word?  Mukungurutse agreed that we are all mixed, but that we need to have is a category for the indigenous.  Indigenous is a broader concept; it does not deny the point that we are mixed.  Catalán Salgado argued that even if this word stems from a Eurocentric point of view, we scholars and students need a common scientific language in which to communicate.