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The Way We Remember the Indigenous

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Memory acts as a binding factor of our past and present narratives, where concrete sites and actions in the process become what we call as our cultural heritage. Cultural heritage and memory share a common denominator in their attempt to represent our relationship with the past. Cultural heritage is sensed in two forms the tangible and the intangible. But other than this, our discussions rarely move to contemplate another subset of culture heritage “indigenous knowledge systems. Indigenous knowledge systems often lie in the spectrum of the inconspicuous. Unless tied to tangible culture objects, people struggle to gauge their value.

Each of these concepts memory, cultural heritage and indigenous cultural systems are wired together in a mesh – each knot leading to another. Unless one dissects an understanding of each concept within the other, it is difficult to comprehend their values. The following article will attempt to lay out these concepts within each other, using brief examples. The context for discussion will largely be based on contemporary Indian sites and ideologies, although these also do point towards more universal issues.

Two examples and their indigenous forms of knowledge firstly, the Raslila festival and its associated traditional ideas in the river island of Majuli, Assam will be addressed to understand regional memory. Further, the harvest festival of Thai Pongal in urban cities will be studied in order to portray the ramifications of urban memory. Different forms of knowledge dissemination here are integral to understanding the overlaps of cultural heritage and the indigenous communities.

Through this understanding, the aim is to lay forth the discussion on how indigenous knowledge systems can be tools for sustainable development for the future. For this, our conscious memory what we choose to remember and how we remember of indigenous systems is needed to be highlighted.


˜Memory acts as a vehicle which enables the narratives of cultural forms to be carried forward. Memory and heritage are ways in which the self makes sense of the past, their identity and simultaneously their relation to society. The actions that are governed by memory, in turn make our heritage. A person (or society) tends to remember only those links in his or her pedigree which are socially important.

A brief look at the canvas of memory in cultural heritage enables one to make sense of the knotted ties that bind them together.

Spatial Memory: Landmarks

Landmarks act as anchors of historical narratives. Spatial memory of the past is concretized into a tangible form that can be seen, touched, and sometimes inhabited in. They tie identity to places, places to people.

Object Memory: Museums and Memorials

Museum and memorial construction are socially and politically driven choices of what a society wishes to remember. A consciousness in the objects chosen, to convey a specific curated account governs the workings of a museum. Objects are also physical evidences of the smaller narratives that have sometimes lost their physical or social context.

Memorials signify a collective remembrance of shared events. The more incorporeal stories are frozen to signify a single form of memory.

Transitory memory: Festivals, commemorative events

Festivals are the most ephemeral agents of preserving cultural heritage. Here the action, process, traditional ideas, are more important that the objects that they produce. They combine the intangible forms of heritage within the actions of the society, producing an almost annual consciousness of their own.

Personal memory: objects and tradition of inheritance

Objects, spaces and ideas which are transmitted within familial generations develop more intimate memories. These are not replicable; although they do modify with personal behaviors, or change in different physical contexts.

The first three fall in the realm of collective memory “ a shared scale which modifies with the context. The fourth has an intimate scale which establishes its own relation with the culture of the present. Each of these forms of memory, even though they have tangible forms with strong representations are extremely malleable. The winds of political consciousness, erosion of natural processes, the pace of cultural change and social behavior in contemporary society can touch upon each of these forms.

As we move towards a universal homogeneous era of dry sameness and adopt more and more standardized systems which are easier crowd-controlling mechanisms, we begin to lose individualized memory. The specificity of indigenous knowledge to a culture which has been cultivated over long processes of humankind slowly erodes when this happens. But then how can such specific knowledge, accessible to only a smaller group, be considered within the heritage for whole of humanity?


The term indigenous emerges historically from a colonial gaze of the European conquerors. One can hardly ignore the difficulty in our understanding of what or who are indigenous in the contemporary society. Although there have been various definitions to frame what is meant by ‘indigenous knowledge, it can be referred to as the unique, traditional local language existing within and developed around specific conditions of communities indigenous to a particular geographic idea (working with). These knowledge systems are embedded in the frequent actions and thoughts of the communities, who form intimate memories with them. Indigenous Knowledge is stored in their folk stories, dance forms, oral stories, religious rituals, professional activities, local traditions and languages. There is a sense of proud possession in the knowledge that they contain, and hence in the way that memory governs and directs this possession.

Indigenous people consciously choose their relationships with their environment, through a deeper engagement that they have with their contexts over a period of many years, they know which aspects are valuable, they choose their resources and they also adopt their own measures of transmitting this knowledge to the future generations. They consciously choose the way they want to be represented, and hence, the way they want to be remembered. Consequently, they also choose what should be forgotten. They are in more control of their cultures and more in control of the memories of their culture. The issue lies in the forms of dissemination.

Mundy and Compton (year) state that there are indigenous and exogenous channels of communicating these knowledge systems. While exogenous channels involve large public platforms of newspapers and TV channels, they list 6 types of indigenous communication channels folk media, indigenous organizations, deliberate instruction, records, unorganized channels and direct observations (cite) which are local forms of dissemination. These local forms are more credible since they are more familiar, and are controlled locally. However, the knowledge that emerges from these is often looked at with a certain negative bias since they are not through the popular forms of representations.

History is objective and often disinterested, while memory on the other hand is essentially motivated, it meets the needs of the people to make sense of the past in their own ways which they deem fit (cite). So how does one frame memory without being objective? This objective framework adopted for the more subjective forms of cultural heritage produces the uncomfortable questions of ownership of knowledge. Is this what makes indigenous systems a more malleable form of cultural heritage?

Another delicate relationship between forms of memory and the indigenous is cultural or social amnesia. This is seen in societies with dominant populations over a minority, where there is a drive towards slow erosion of the lesser known. On a broader scale, the forms of cultural heritage are also instruments of political direction. In the waltz between heritage as an instrument of nationalism, the indigenous is ignored, and often objectified as the other. The highest threat to the indigenous is in the idea of a singular-nation state that produce their own memory-machines, feeding in the popular, the majority and conveniently ignoring the minority.

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