Written in the Sand South African San Institute
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Needs | Action Plan | Products & Processes | Principles | Mobilising Identity | Using CRA


Principles for Partnership

The most important lesson learned from the Nunavik [Quebec] experience is that the indigenous peoples must first and foremost control their own information. It has also become clear over the years that the knowledge base of indigenous peoples is vital, dynamic and evolving. Merely “collecting” and “documenting” indigenous environmental knowledge is in fact counter productive. These knowledge systems have been under serious attack for centuries and the social systems that support them have been seriously undermined. … It is not a question of recovery and recording indigenous knowledge, it is one of respect and revitalisation.(Kemp and Brooke, 1995: 27)

We started out with a set of principles that grew and matured as we progressed. The important principles that informed our work and the lessons that we learned along the way are included here.
We noted that there is a difference between recording isolated information (units of knowledge) and systems of traditional knowledge that are complex, interlocking, and non-linear. Collecting lists of animals, plants or place names is a way of capturing knowledge but it does not reveal the system of knowledge that is the more important aspect of the intangible heritage.
We need to look at how elders in different cultures see associations between animals, plants, food, lifestyle, spirituality, conservation, community values, etc. It is sometimes difficult for one culture to recognise and work with a cultural knowledge system that is quite different from its own. This is why it is essential that those within the culture, not just outside experts, interpret the Cultural Resources Auditing data. This process may require external mediators to help create equivalencies and facilitate explanations between the interfacing cultures. For example, San elders found it difficult to express their expert knowledge of the biodiversity and cultural landscape of the KTP area. The discourse of the SANP and its conservationist priorities did not open up a forum whereby a constructive exchange could take place. It was the CRA team that introduced a new technology into the space between the two cultures, i.e. the GIS maps, which allowed both sides to find a point of commonality to initiate their dialogue. SASI’s intervention did not add anything to the knowledge of the San; it merely provided a new surface on which to express this knowledge. Though this dialogue has been beneficial to the SANP, the final aim of the methodology is to empower marginalised communities to hold up their own cultures, knowledge systems, and intangible heritage as equal partners with the dominant system of knowledge and interpretation.

These and other principles are summarised below:

  1. Look for systems over content. Particularly in cultures that are not dependant on writing, it is important to understand the systems within which learning and teaching occur. The recollection of vast amounts of detailed information requires a system that is built on a grid of knowledge with mental triggers for bringing certain information to the surface. Stories and songs may play an important role in encoding knowledge.
  2. See how associations are made between units of knowledge. Do not assume that your own set off associations apply to other cultures (e.g. a snake has different symbolism in different cultures). See how there may be hidden associations, for example between a gravesite and events that took place at that site related to child rearing.
  3. Work within indigenous discourses. Early in the research we stopped asking pointed questions about history and identity, as these were often stressful for the elders. We found it was more productive to let the elders tell us the story that was important to them and to glean from this key information that helped to put back together the puzzle of an earlier identity. Where we had to explore a particular theme, we would help the elders find a context (a physical location, a particular time reference, a reference to a known event) to help trigger their recollections of certain information.
  4. Empower the owners. The research needs to be empowering and significant for the elders and not necessarily for the researchers’ benefit or full understanding. The deeper we got into the work, the more we were made aware that the research team was biased towards linear narratives and time frames in reconstructing events. In contrast, indigenous elders had complex associations; single events were tied to a host of other issues.
  5. Protect intellectual property rights. The outputs of the CRA were returned to the hands of the owners of the knowledge, and intellectual property rights were protected during the auditing process. SASI works within the framework of the WIMSA guidelines on research and intellectual property (e-mail: wimsareg@iafrica.com.na). Consultants working with sensitive material were required to sign an agreement that they could not copy, publish or release the information without the consent of the owners. This area of the work was complex and is still under scrutiny and development by SASI.
  6. Ensure prior informed consent. We sensitised the elders to the principle of prior informed consent. All recording, photographing and note taking took place only after the elders were fully informed of the project aims, ownership issues, remuneration, and research aims.
  7. Know the limits/respect boundaries. Matters that appeared sensitive or even sacred were not recorded unless the elders wanted them to be recorded.
  8. Do not unduly influence dialogue on self-identification. We did not promote a particular identity within the community; this should be a result of internal community processes and does not necessarily have to be a conclusive process. We consistently avoided revealing our assumptions about people’s identities and left it to them to identify ethnonyms (ethnic names) and glossonyms (names of languages) when and if they were able to do this. This approach meant that each of the elders’ opinions were treated with equal respect and we as outsiders did not skew power relations by favouring one option over another. When working with the youth, we would summarise all we had learned, emphasise that it is a process, and encourage them to dialogue with elders and draw their own conclusions.
  9. Work with community terms. We used the ethnic terminology that community people use. If they talked about ‘Boesman’ or ‘Hottentot’ we used those words even though they are considered pejorative in urban areas. Apart from the leadership, the word San is virtually unknown within the community. Politically correct agendas on terminology are useful in some contexts but can be oppressive to community people.
  10. Loyalty to elders. Our loyalty was primarily to the elders rather than to other community structures. We recognise that a community has many different interests and interest groups. The mobilisation of traditional knowledge impacts on power relations in the community, and it is evident that the old people can become caught up in conflict and ‘turf’ tussling within the community’s politics. We ensured that all political structures understood our work, our budgets, consented and gave us a mandate to proceed. We then worked in the interest of the old people once we had the political mandate; otherwise we risked creating an ethical vacuum in the work.
    On a purely practical point, we were faced with the question of remuneration. Most of the community lives in poverty. In certain cases the pension paid out by the government to some of the old people is the only source of monthly income for an entire extended family. SASI did not want to pay people as informants as this would put too much emphasis on our interests and would detract from the elders being in control of the project. In the end we reached a compromise. We paid each elder a daily stipend based on local rates for skilled labour. Young people were not paid for their work for the first part of the project, though later several young people were engaged formally in the work.

Involving the youth
Our contact with other indigenous groups in Canada, Australia and other parts of Africa told us that the future of Cultural Resources Management must always eventually come to rest in the hands of the younger generation14. It is not sufficient to involve only elders and the mature leadership of a community. Understanding the circumstances, feelings and needs of the youth is centrally important.
Some of the community leaders were keen to push young people into the cultural research work from the start. We deliberately took a more cautious approach. Our caution stemmed from our perception that the young people were mostly oriented toward an assimilationist path, away from traditional knowledge and stigmatised identities. Pressuring them to appreciate old people’s knowledge could have the reverse effect of making the topic tedious or intensifying the stigma. It was not unusual at the start of the work for young people to erupt into embarrassed laughter when their elders started speaking the N|u language in front of them for the first time. Many of the youth felt an intense sense of shame and shyness. They needed time to think about the identity issues raised by the project’s work.
We left it up to young people to choose if they wanted to come along with us. The elders usually chose a few young people just to help them get around physically. Some of the youth came out of curiosity; for others it was an escape from the boredom of another jobless day. Soon, however, a number of young people surfaced who were taking an active interest in the work. They began to initiate their own projects that SASI supported with training or resources. Over thirty youth were involved in the most recent language project, showing enthusiasm, curiosity and aptitude. The youth leaders are beginning to form a movement around their cultural heritage with the language being one of the “insider” badges of membership.
At this stage, one full time San field worker has been hired and several other young people are involved in detailed research and training. All of these participants in CRA projects have been self-selecting based on interest.
The youth have shown an interesting response so far. They are mostly very excited about discovering a hidden heritage and connecting to a process that bolsters self-esteem. On the other hand, the majority of the youth are cautious not to leap into embracing what appear to be out of date cultural practices, such as wearing loincloths or living in grass houses.

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