a man holds his young niece

5 Things to Know About Indigenous Knowledge When Working With Indigenous Children, Youth, and Families

Approximately 476.6 million Indigenous people live across the world. Of these, more than 11.3 million are Indigenous to the present-day United States—a portion of the larger Turtle Island, land which has been known since colonization in the late 1400s as North and Central America. These Indigenous people from the present-day United States include 9.7 million people who identify as American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) and 1.6 million who identify as Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI). Within the AIAN population, an estimated 92,000 people further identify as Taíno descendants from Puerto Rico. An additional 135,564 people identify as NHPI from the United States territories of  Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Indigenous Peoples in the United States existed prior to colonization and today are comprised of 574 federally recognized Tribal Nations, additional state-recognized Nations, and Nations who either lost federal recognition or have never been granted state or federal recognition and remain unrecognized. All of these Peoples carry Indigenous Knowledge (also referred to as Indigenous Science, Traditional Knowledge, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or—because each Indigenous Peoples has its own culture, history, and Knowledge—in the plural form as Knowledges).

Indigenous Knowledge is held in stories, songs, place names, values, and languages and is passed down intergenerationally from Elders to children and youth. Indigenous Knowledge cannot be separated from the Indigenous Peoples who have developed their Knowledge (each Peoples has its own Knowledge) over millennia. Indigenous Knowledge is 1) based on millennia of observations, 2) temporal and place-based, 3) living, 4) kinship-based, and 5) wholistic —with an added “w” to emphasize that it wholly encompasses all things, covering all areas of human life such as medicine, culture, and spirituality, as well as extensive Knowledge of ecology. Additionally, it is based on Indigenous epistemologies (ways of knowing), ontologies (understandings of nature, human existence, and being), and axiologies (values, value judgements, and ethics).

Indigenous Peoples

Populations that are inherently sovereign and existed prior to colonization and invasion. They underwent colonization and dispossession of their lands and are culturally, linguistically, and ethnically distinct from colonizing societies.

Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous Knowledge is living, holistic, relational, spiritual, temporal, and spatial; is drawn from evidence and observations; promotes sustainability; and has been passed down both orally and in written form.

Despite a history of research and land and water management that do not meaningfully engage with Indigenous Knowledge holders and their Knowledge, Indigenous Peoples have been advocating for decades for equitable inclusion. Through these efforts, the U.S. federal government Office of Science, Technology, and Policy started working with Indigenous Knowledge in 2021 and is moving toward including it in federal decisions (as explained in work from 2022). Indigenous efforts to inform researchers on how to equitably engage with Indigenous Knowledge have also led to a new National Academy of Sciences study on co-production of knowledge begun in 2023.

This resource describes five components of Indigenous Knowledge that are important to know for those engaging in practice, programming, research, evaluation, and training and technical assistance with Indigenous children, youth, and families.

1Indigenous Knowledge is based on millennia of observations.

Indigenous Knowledge is based on evidence derived from millennia of observations. These observations have been documented for generations in Indigenous Peoples’ stories, songs, place names, values, and languages and passed down intergenerationally to children and youth as they grow. This teaches children and connects them to their ancestors as well as future generations. Generation after generation of Indigenous Peoples have further accumulated and refined their Knowledges through life experience.

For centuries, most North American Indigenous languages were entirely oral (although Peoples of North America did have picture-writing and Mesoamerican Peoples had writing systems), passing Knowledge on through story, picture, and song. In the last few centuries, through colonial interaction, most languages also developed a writing system. Some languages developed their own syllabary to write, like Cherokee and Inuktitut. Others adopted the Latin script used in English (with a few additional letters) but have different pronunciation for some letters in the alphabet, including the Iñupiaq in Alaska and Kalaallit in Greenland. Research has also led to Indigenous Knowledge being recorded by communities or researchers to maintain both Indigenous languages and the Knowledge held in it, as Elder first language speakers are aging and walking on (meaning passing away). However, it’s vital that this be done carefully—by both Indigenous communities and those working with them—with appropriate protections, community and individual consent, and respect and honor toward Indigenous data sovereignty and governance.

2Indigenous Knowledge is temporal and place-based.

Because Indigenous Knowledge is amassed over generations, it contains temporal and spatial elements which hold an understanding of what has changed over time. This Knowledge is necessary for survival through adaptation. For example, in the Arctic, the sea ice has changed over time and is not as safe to go out on for travel and subsistence practices. Indigenous Knowledge not only helps Indigenous people adapt but, as a documentation of changes over millennia, provides a timeline of change in the Arctic regarding climate change. Indigenous Knowledge is also spatial, as Indigenous people are land-based and their Knowledge is grounded in what they see around them. Indigenous Knowledge is also place-based, as Indigenous Peoples live off the land and have extensive understanding of local ecology. Indigenous children grow up learning connections to land and place through subsistence practices, which serve as a cultural protective factor that brings them well-being.

3Indigenous Knowledge is living.

Indigenous Knowledge is intergenerational and grounded in evidence through observation; as a result, it is living and not static. As people observe and learn, their Peoples’ body of Knowledge grows and they change their behavior based on the new knowledge. This Knowledge may include technological advances, plant and animal harvesting periods, the number of eggs to take from a bird nest, and so much more. However, while this growth in Knowledge occurs, it is not necessarily in a linear fashion. Indigenous Peoples see all parts of life as connected: Action x does not only lead to y, but instead has extensive impact on many outcomes (for example, on z—but also on a, b, and c). This concept is passed to children and youth so they can learn to survive and thrive in their environments. For example, this dynamic approach to relationships is seen in Indigenous approaches to salmon stewardship across the United States grounded in reciprocity, nurturance, and kinship.

4Indigenous Knowledge is kinship-based.

The Indigenous concept of relationality means that nothing is objective or alone. All things are in interaction with one another, including humans and the natural world. This contrasts to human exceptionalism, as practiced in many Western and/or capitalist societies, which separates humans from the natural world. Instead of being separate, Indigenous Peoples understand relationality through kinship and an understanding that plants, waters, trees, lands, and animals are relatives and ancestors. This perspective extends beyond relationships to also encompass stewardship and is central to an Indigenous nurturance approach to land and water management: It does not compromise any life and promotes a sustainable existence for all life. This approach for some Indigenous communities (like the Haudenosaunee Confederacy) is grounded in the perspective that people living now must leave the earth healthy and well so that it can sustain the next seven generations of children to come. Human exceptionalism has led to an earth stripped of resources for economic gain, with daily stories of massive fires, floods, and other disasters; in this context, it is vital to listen to Indigenous Peoples and their Knowledge regarding land and water stewardship—and climate change adaptation and resilience—so that future children have a place to live.

5Indigenous Knowledge is wholistic.

Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledges each have their own cultures, languages, practices, and beliefs. These are based on each Peoples’ ways of knowing; their understandings of nature and human existence; and the values, value judgements, and ethics they have accumulated over years of survival and relational existence. Indigenous Knowledge is wholistic; it is innately spiritual, organizing the world by explaining relationships between people and their kin in the natural, metaphysical, mystical, and divine worlds. In their daily life, Indigenous people engage in spirituality through their kinship relationships to all things, which brings them a sense of well-being and spiritual fulfillment. The practice of ceremony through various means (i.e., sweat lodges, prayer, dances, song, stories, potluck/potlatch) is another way to engage in spirituality and to connect with the natural world, the spiritual world, many gods and deities, and the Creator—and with one another. In many Indigenous cultures, children—alongside their families—experience one of their first ceremonies when they are named. These names tie children to their ancestors, the land, and their identity through Indigenous Knowledges passed down in story.

Indigenous Knowledge Holders acknowledgement

Funding acknowledgement

Reviewer acknowledgement

Suggested citation

Gordon, H.S.J. (2023). 5 things to know about Indigenous Knowledge when working with Indigenous children, youth, and families. Child Trends. https://doi.org/10.56417/3504n5609v