Indigenous knowledge system

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An indigenous knowledge system (IKS), in the context of traditional medicine, is the means by which culturally specific beliefs about health and healing are passed through the generations. Frequently, these are done in an oral tradition of storytelling, poetry and songs within cultures or localities. They may be generally known, or they may be shared only among initiates of the healing art.

The UNESCO Local and Indigenous Knowledge System (LINKS) project is dealing with the application of science and technology to the [1] LINKS observes that in many cultures, "the 'rational' or 'objective' cannot be separated from the 'sacred' or 'intuitive'. Nature and Culture are not opposed and circumscribed by sharp boundaries. Knowledge, practice and representations are intertwined and mutually dependent."


One noted example of cooperation between experts in indigenous health knowledge and scientific methods was the identification of the cause of a 1993 outbreak, in the southwestern United States, of a rapidly fatal respiratory disease. Eventually identified as a hantavirus pulmonary syndrome,[2] identifying it involved both Navajo elders and Centers for Disease Control epidemiologists. While hantavirus had been known to medicine, being named for the Han River in South Korea, the respiratory presentation had not been described — except by Navajo tradition. [3] Detailed discussion with Navajo elders revealed that the pinon nut harvest of 1993 was especially rich, which caused overgrowth of the deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus, for which the pinon nut was the prime diet.[4] Navajo traditions associated mice with a disease similar to that seen in the outbreak, which has now been identified in other areas throughout the Americas.

Traditional healing

Herbal medicines

Mind-body medicine

In particular, spiritual and cultural characteristics may make mainstream concepts of behavioral health inappropriate. In New Zealand, Maori perspectives were used to develop a method that rated the effect of a health intervention (e.g., inpatient treatment) on wairua (spirituality), hinengaro (mental/behavioural domain), tinana (physical health), and whanau (family/social health). [5]


  1. UNESCO, Local and Indigenous Knowledge System (LINKS)
  2. Special Pathogens Branch, Centers for Disease Control, Tracking a Mystery Disease: The Detailed Story of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome
  3. Special Pathogens Branch, Centers for Disease Control, Navajo Medical Traditions and HPS
  4. Laurie Garrett (1995), The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, Penguin, ISBN 0140250913, p. 536
  5. Durie M. (2004 Oct), "Understanding health and illness: research at the interface between science and indigenous knowledge.", Int J Epidemiol 33(5): 1138-43