Scholarly Publishing and Injustice: Centering Indigenous Knowledge for the Sake of Humanity

ACP's Greg Call intern Angel Musyimi ('23) explores epistemic justice and openness as a practice to support, preserve, and sustain Indigenous knowledge for us all

One of the most important things that we do at Amherst College Press is understand how to publish equitably. As an open access scholarly publication, one of the ways we accomplish this is zero charge for writers to publish with us. This means that our books are freely accessible to writers, readers, and institutions like libraries, with no fees for authors wishing to publish with us. However, openness is not made equal. Though OA implies full accessibility, OA can also undermine the sanctity of knowledge, especially knowledge that is ancestral or has historic ties to communities. Western scholarly practices also have a deep history of stealing the knowledge of Indigenous peoples from the Global South and using it for personal gain, either to profit from or to twist that knowledge to package their own needs.

During my internship at ACP, we read the article “Can Open Scholarly Practices Redress Epistemic Injustice?” by Denisse Albornoz, Angela Okune, and Leslie Chan. This reading defines epistemic injustice as “the devaluing of someone’s knowledge or capacity as a knower—particularly with regard to knowers and knowledge stemming from the Global South,” especially as traditional methods of sharing knowledge are dismissed in favor of Western languages and scholarly practices (65). This devaluing and exploitation of Indigenous knowledge relates to the ways in which Indigenous people are ignored at governmental levels, and how their desires for self-determination are continuously undermined. Specifically, treaties protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples continue to be violated, their lands are encroached upon, and their water contaminated. Because their knowledge and ways of life are reduced to folklore and seen as inferior to Western science, Indigenous people’s sovereignty is also contested.

In this short post I hope to explore how epistemic justice is essential for the sake of preserving Indigenous knowledge, and how this preservation is pivotal for us all.

Long before colonial settlers arrived in the Americas, Indigenous peoples were here and the Earth thrived. Even now, those locations maintained by Indigenous peoples have the most biodiversity on Earth. In order to preserve the Earth for centuries to come, and to protect the lives of Indigenous peoples, we must begin with knowledge. Under capitalism, value equates to money and the ability to sell. Because Indigenous knowledge is not a good that can be sold or generate profit, it is often considered "worthless." Moreover, systems that codify and circulate Western knowledge—academic science and scholarly publishing—do not accommodate Indigenous ways of knowing. While plenty of scholars draw on ecosystemic thinking grounded in Indigenous practices, it’s precisely in the distinction between academia and spiritual practice where we find tension within scholarly publishing.

In “Can Open Scholarly Practices Redress Epistemic Injustice?” the authors acknowledge that “the promotion of criteria and ‘academic literacies’ to determine quality and intellectual authority and the ongoing dominance of the English language as part of a ‘rhetoric of excellence’ in academia, among others” leads to the devaluing of other forms of knowledge that do not adhere to these standards (Albornoz, Okune, Chan 67). As oral tradition is a primary way of passing down knowledge over generations for Indigenous peoples, it is not recognized as "real" scholarship or science. Indigenous knowers possess practices used by generations of peoples to maintain the Earth. This knowledge is essential to the wellbeing of humanity, when Western practices are responsible for its deterioration. In times of climate change they are, quite literally, the guardians of the future.

Yet despite being Earth’s greatest protectors, they remain the most affected by its destruction. When nature is not viewed as sacred, or even finite, there is no reason to protect it. Indigenous people recognize the Earth as the source of life and the reason for their livelihood. Essential to ecosystems are their cyclical nature, and through giving back to the Earth, Indigenous people complete the cycle in which humanity takes part.

This view, though academicized by various intellectuals, is rooted in Indigenous knowledge. However, this does not imply that Indigeneity should be adopted into scholarship. Alternatively, what would happen if we undid scholarship in the vein of openness as a practice? As publishers we must recognize our place as gatekeepers of the knowledge that is permitted to enter the public sphere. Rather than maintaining this role, we might consider decentering the concept of scholarship as the sole valid knowledge. As Albornoz, Okune, and Chan note,

the knowledge of those who exist at the intersections of multiple layers of privilege—for example, an Anglo-American man from a prestigious American university—is often afforded higher epistemic value and thus considered to be more legitimate, valid, truthful, and universal. Meanwhile, the knowledge of those who sit at multiple layers of oppression—for example, women of color, indigenous people, rural, and blue-collar workers with no access to formal education—is often considered to be false, less credible, folk knowledge, opinionated, or unworthy of consideration, creating strong divides between those who are considered "experts" and those who are considered "ignorant." (67)

Instead of integrating Indigenous knowledge into the hegemonic entity of scholarly practice, we might distance ourselves from the notion of “accredited knowledge.” Following the guidance of Albornoz, Okune, and Chan, we must understand our own privilege and positionality to reflect on how we may perpetuate harm. We must disrupt norms of scholarship and scholarly publishing that reproduce injustice. These norms are often invisible but include everything from peer review practices to copyright law and permissions requests. This also includes challenging who gets to set agendas, make decisions, and as a whole build the infrastructures of publishing. Finally, the authors recommend imagining openness as a radical practice and using it to dream of paths toward liberation. To truly imagine radically, we must imagine beyond scholarship as we know it today.

Work is underway in scholarly publishing to develop radical practices that center Indigenous ways of knowing and further epistemic justice. Initiatives such as TK Labels, Mukurtu, and even Amherst College's Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection are some examples. The digital publishing platform RavenSpace also manifests this imagination. Founded to expand collaboration between scholars and Indigenous scholars, writers, and communities, RavenSpace commits to representing its authors,and the communities they write about and come from, fairly. For example, RavenSpace uses different sources of peer review, such as approval from community leaders, to ensure that community protocols are being followed. Editors and production designers carefully align the work’s online form with the author’s intended message and with the community’s wishes on how they choose to be represented. RavenSpace also aids authors in understanding the publishing process through a toolkit detailing guidelines regarding preparing a proposal, tips for writing a digital multi-path book, and information about permissions. RavenSpace exemplifies a model that respects Indigenous knowledge and honors community standards by making these pivotal aspects to the publishing process accessible. It ensures agency for authors, in the vein of self-determination for all marginalized peoples. It demystifies the publishing process, making the sharing of knowledge an option for all. And, above all, openness is integrated into the core values of the Press and implemented into each step of their process.

This is what is required of us as publishers. We owe Indigenous, Black, and all marginalized communities the ability to control how their sacred knowledge is shared. Changing established tenets of scholarly publishing, such as peer review, is a radical concept. Yet it is necessary in the way that change always is.

Angel Musyimi ('23) is a rising junior at Amherst College majoring in Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought doubled with Black Studies. Angel has a background in writing, and as an intern at ACP she has learned ways to implement her passion for literature into learning about the various aspects of scholarly publishing as well as the ways discrimination affects topics such as open access and peer review. In her free time she enjoys reading, watching films, and playing with her puppy, Sofia!