Indonesian Indigenous Studies

Metaphysical Criticism Response: A Study Analysis through Indigenous Women and Water

Candra Dvi Jayanti

Complex human knowledge about spirituality and worldview has been reduced to material things that can be accepted rationally. With the development of science, the principle of scientific evidence leads to a knowledge expansion but by narrowing narratives that are not based on logic, such as spirituality. Hegemonic knowledge in the academic sphere, including religious studies, is primarily characterized by the binary system, categorization, and identification. Indigenous knowledge, in this case, cannot be easily accommodated, accepted, or even scientifically justified within such frameworks. For instance, a criticism of indigenous research according to Andersen & O’Brien is that it is a metaphysical study rather than a rational one.

Indigenous studies focus on the cosmology of indigenous people’s ideas when interpreting subjects in relation to nature. Its criticism is inseparable from modern assumptions about indigenous people, who are stigmatized as living in underdeveloped communities. Nevertheless, Levy-Bruhl argues that modern Westerners and indigenous people share a similar mentality, yet with distinct ways of thinking where modern people rely more on the left brain for rational and pragmatic thoughts, indigenous people have the right brain worldview that identifies the relationship between everything through the concept of “participation,” where every living thing and inanimate entity have their own life and participates in the same mode of existence. Modern knowledge tends to view nature as an inanimate object, which results in profit-driven exploitation that disregards the awareness to take care of it. 

As we often find the use of the term “Mother Earth,” in this case, women have a more specific relationship with nature. It is necessary to rethink modern knowledge that ignores the relationship of women-nature using indigenous knowledge as a counterbalance. This paper aims to respond to criticism of the logicality of indigenous studies by providing knowledge perceptions from a more complex perspective based on the intersubjectivity and interconnectedness of indigenous women’s views of water. Furthermore, I use the paper entitled Aboriginal Women, Water and Health: Reflections from Eleven First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Grandmothers by Kim Anderson as a reference for analysis of the water-human relation, especially women.

Between Indigenous Women and Water

Human perception of water can vary; it can be viewed as a sign of serenity, but it can also be frightening; sometimes it is regarded as sacred, but some people feel nothing about it. Nowadays, human seems to have largely lost emotional connection with nature, viewing water as a mere inanimate object that we must own to meet our daily needs. Despite being highly dependent on water, modern society tends to see it as a commodity that must be fulfilled quickly and at any cost, without considering its existence as a part of nature that must be protected. This tendency promotes commodification by utilizing water as one of the simplest means to generate profits. The perception of water as a commodity that is based solely on human interests can result in drought disasters due to overexploitation that is not properly mitigated.

In contrast, indigenous perception of water has become inherited knowledge, just as First Nations, Inuit, and Metis grandmothers–community leaders—develop deep meanings for water during their lifetime. Anderson elaborated on the Grandmothers’ reflections in a very descriptive way about three primary topics: the significance of water, water and women’s roles, and water quality issues. The research objects’ perspectives reveal knowledge from the other side, regarding human attachment to water and a responsibility that should be held without undermining water’s complex role in human existence.

Beginning with a representation of the relationship between water and humans, they stated that all human life is fundamentally and directly dependent on water. This demonstrates the spiritual quality of water and the significance of this spirit in the creation and sustaining of life:

“… water is life because water is spirit, and without spirit, we have no life”.

The relationship between water and these women is presented with nearly the same meaning while the baby is still in the womb, through the birthing process, and up until death, which is not completely separate from ritualistic or the role of water.  Hence, women are regarded as special beings due to their ability to host and maintain life in the presence of water.

Considering the relationship between Aboriginal women and water, it appears that this also represents how indigenous women in Indonesia regard and maintain nature, particularly water. Grandmother Afra Baru, the customary leader of the village of Tabamsere in West Papua, is dedicated to preserving customs for the preservation of nature. She led a succession of traditional ceremonies to launch the government’s Community-Based Water Supply and Sanitation (Pamsimas) program in her village. The intersection of modern things (Pamsimas) and local beliefs may seem paradoxical, but the program is intended to support locals in gaining access to clean water for daily use. As an elder figure in this village, Grandmother Afra Baru continues to perform some traditional ceremonies despite dealing with modern programs, showing her inseparable attachment to tradition or nature.

In addition, as an effort to raise water responsibility awareness, the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection (KemenPPPA) and Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) establishes Srikandi Sungai Indonesia in several areas, such as Sorong Selatan, Yogyakarta, Jombang, Klaten, etc., with the participation of indigenous women as the primary actors. These examples indicate that indigenous women in many places have a special relationship with water.

Grandmothers understand water very deeply because they consider all water sources such as lakes and rivers to be the veins of Mother Earth. Water and all its sources are the flow of blood in Mother Earth’s body; therefore, as human beings, we must take care of water to ensure the harmony of life. If the water is damaged, it is equivalent to harming the entire nature, and life will be jeopardized. It is how indigenous women utilize their spirituality to protect water. According to their cosmology, water can heal human pain, and similarly, people may heal water from all of its damage, which is a reciprocal action and responsibility relationship. This suggests that their interpretation of water is not solely motivated by profit; such emotionally intimate knowledge influences their water-wise practices. Their reciprocal attitude and sense of responsibility for water encourage restrictions on its use.

Human-Beyond Human in the Relational-Metaphysical Approach

Academically, the book may be classified as fiction and rejected on scientific grounds due to its personification of inanimate objects and association with a metaphysical spiritual order. As Nasr argues, modern knowledge has reduced metaphysics to a rationalistic philosophy, which has steadily become a proponent of the natural sciences and mathematics to the extent that it is believed that philosophy’s role is to clarify the logical consistency of matters. Modern science frequently assumes that this logical discovery is undeniable main information, although it represents a revolution from preconceptions of knowledge.

So far, Anderson can be considered an expert researcher in Indigenous Studies who can demonstrate reflections while also accommodating the complex perspectives of the cultures under study. His paper represents other knowledge and is based on and refutes strictly binary scientific principles. The findings of this study could provide a new perspective on the meaning of water—the entire nature—as a result of a reciprocal and responsible knowledge of nature. Anderson provides details based on aboriginal women’s understanding and experience to provide a concrete illustration of the emotional connection between indigenous people–women–nature–water.

Other books on women and nature tend to focus on ecofeminism, such as The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution by Merchant, or the role of women in indigenous groups such as Women and Indigenous Religions by Marcos. Differently, this study provides a more realistic depiction of indigenous people’s understanding of interconnectivity and intersubjectivity, which is often regarded as irrational. Thus, the hegemony of the modern perspective rooted in rationality is not the only valid source of knowledge, as indigenous people’s perspective also plays a role and is beneficial for environmental protection. Modern science becomes insufficient because such knowledge consists of several complicated truths that must be accommodated. Hence, indigenous study becomes a paradigm that deconstructs binary hegemony by incorporating numerous knowledge truths and contextualized realities.

Indigenous research emphasizes relationality rather than mere rationality. Humans cannot exist without relationships and interactions with others, including their thoughts. Prioritizing and following the logic of our cultural knowledge, according to Andersen and O’Brien, will reveal who we are and how we relate to our land. This interaction can affect how we perceive the environment. As said by White, what people think about themselves influences how they view nature and their surroundings.

As a result, indigenous women’s knowledge of water is not merely fiction or metaphysics, it is a mutually beneficial and respectful connection. As a form of spiritual responsibility for what water or nature has provided them throughout their lives, they are able and willing to protect water and environmental preservation. Hence, valuable knowledge, in my opinion, refers to knowledge that is useful not only for humans but also for all non-human entities.

Candra Dvi Jayanti is a graduate student in the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), Graduate School, Universitas Gadjah Mada

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