May 26, 2021
Prompt 14: Does some knowledge belong only to particular communities of knowers?
Object 1: Family mate set
The object shown is my family’s mate set, mate being a hot beverage indigenous to the River Plate region. The process of preparing and sharing mate is often referred to as a ritual, due to its specificity and set of rules, as well as social importance. The knowledge of preparation is known generally by Ríoplatenses (people from the River Plate region), and is not well known outside of the area.
This ritual originated with the Guaraní people in South America1 and remained in the region. Due to the ritual’s specificity, it is uncommon for a non-ríoplatense to know the terminology that comes along with it, especially without speaking Spanish or Portuguese, such as cebador or bombilla. Without belonging to the linguistic and cultural group, the knower cannot fully understand the tradition. Additionally, there is a traditional way of serving and sharing mate with a group, only understood by locals. Thus, this object contributes to the exhibition by showing that some knowledge is limited to particular communities, often constrained by linguistic and cultural barriers.
However, within ríoplatenses, most people are not familiar with mate’s Guaraní legendary origins, which say that the plant was a gift from the gods2. Even within a particular community of knowers (those who are familiar with the ritual), there are aspects of knowledge that belong to a smaller sub-group (Guaraní people). This object also brings up the question of who the tradition truly belongs to, as mate originated with the Guaraní but was assimilated into European communities and is practiced by both. This object contributes to the exhibition by showing that knowledge can be constrained by issues related to cultural and linguistic knowledge, but also by historical currents, such as through the colonial relationships between native Guaraní people and European colonisers.
Object 2: Inca khipu
This is an Inca khipu, found in Chulpaca, Peru. It is estimated to be from the years 1425-1532, during the years of the Inca Empire. Khipus were used by officials to record tax records, labour input, and other numerical information. It is possible that it also served for narrative writing, but very little is known about interpreting the information encoded in the knots.
Much knowledge about ancient cultures of the Americas such as the Inca Empire has been lost due to colonial destruction. Although khipus are still used in some Andean regions, it is largely for ceremonial use. Thus, the knowledge of khipu’s practical use has been lost. That knowledge not only belongs specifically to a community of ancient Inca people – officials who needed to record information – but has remained in the time period of the Empire as well. This object contributes to the exhibition as it shows that knowledge can belong not only to specific communities of knowers, but to specific time periods as well.
Despite the loss of knowledge about the khipu, it has become a subject of great interest for Western scholars. Anthropologists and archeologists have studied the khipu in Andean areas to great lengths, information which is then published in western journals and institutions. The khipu shown is exhibited at The National Museum of the American Indian in New York, and the information about it is accessible only to those in New York. Thus, knowledge about the khipu shifts from the original owners of the knowledge – the Inca and their modern descendants – to a specific community of Western knowers. The khipu contributes to the exhibition by demonstrating part of a larger trend of knowledge of ancient practices and culture shifting away from the original community of knowers to the community of Western academics.
Object 3: Kultrung (mapuche drum)
The object shown is a kultrung, a drum from the Mapuche group from what is now Chile and Argentina. It is the most important instrument in Mapuche culture, and is used only by machi (shaman) in religious, cultural and healing rituals. The drawings on the drum symbolise the Mapuche view of the cosmos and the land, and each machi designs the drum according to the knowledge given to them by Ngünechen, the most important deity in present-day Mapuche religion and culture.
The knowledge of how to design and use of the kultrung is not common outside of the Mapuche group, but even within it, it is also restricted. Its design and use is exclusive to the machi, as it is believed to be imbued with their specific spirit and knowledge. Unlike the mate set, which is a very commonly used cultural object within the community of ríoplatenses, the knowledge of how to use and create a kultrung is exclusive to a sub-section of the Mapuche group. Thus, this object contributes to the exhibition by demonstrating that some knowledge is closed off to very specific communities of knowers, because of its active limitation to those groups.
An interesting aspect of the kultrung is that its decoration and use is intrinsically linked with the knowledge system of the Mapuche. The land (mapu) is central to Mapuche life and beliefs, which is represented through the design of the kultrung; for example, the circular shape represents the world, while the cross on its surface shows the four spaces into which the Mapuche believe the world to be divided, with the machi at the center communicating with spirits in all four spaces. This is not the case for many cultures, and thus those who are brought up outside of the Mapuche culture, while possibly understanding the use of the kultrung on the surface, will not have the deeper knowledge of the worldview that it stems from. This object shows, then, that knowledge of worldviews specifically is often much more difficult to communicate, and therefore is relegated to particular communities of knowers.