indigenous knowledge, indigenous woman

Anthropology: Loss of Indigeneity through Coloniality of Power and Knowledge in South America

In the modern era, science was used to oppress indigenous people’s rights. Moreover, coloniality of knowledge and epistemicide erased all other forms of knowledge different to the European ones. What was believed to be true was ‘’discovered’’ by science and applied by the nation-state, which undertook racist policies against the various castes that existed in the Americas. In that sense, racism is a by-product of the racist science of the time, that claimed that the European white man was at the top of the hierarchy, and therefore should dominate and ‘teach’ those less developed lands to develop.

Europe was living in a time of progress (the Enlightenment). However, a history that claims universality while only speaking about the West is lacking. What was progress, reason, fraternity and human rights in Europe, was used as justification to control, dominate and exploit entire populations in the colonies. Eurocentrism is that point of view of history, a history that claims universality but that is rather partial in uncovering how life was in the colonies.

But, luckily, there are other voices. They constitute critical voices against a discourse that has been all-encompassing, claiming the validity of science. These critical voices from the global south have elaborated a critique of science and have shown the ‘dark side of modernity’, which was told as a tale of progress, hiding centuries of domination and exploitation. Specifically, in Latin America emerged a group of thinkers known as the coloniality/modernity group, participants in the ‘Decoloniality‘ turn.

Scientific knowledge was used in an oppressive way in the Americas. The Americas endured years of domination by external powers that claimed to be ‘at the correct stage of development’ and they claimed to be helping the native people to arrive. In the process, they not only created unequal relations and hierarchies, otherizing the indigenous people, but also claimed the power of their knowledge to be truthful, making all other types of knowledge subaltern. In the process, traditional practices and generational knowledge was slaughtered in favour of science. The problem lies in that what was the ‘Enlightenment’ in Europe, created unequal relations and oppression in the rest of the world. The history of modernity is eurocentric, and overlooks the narratives of the colonies. What was progress, enlightenment and human rights in the North, served to justify the oppression of peoples and cultures in the global South.  By means of making science prevail, and using it to extend their power, a lot of indigenous knowledge disappeared. Latin American thought makes sense of that history and tries to participate with other voices in a world dominated by a history that attempted to be universal.

Critique of enlightenment thought


‘’Modernity is most often characterized as a paradigm shift in human thinking, ushered in by advances in science, technology, industry, and the economy. Modernity is also associated with the shift from religion to reason, science, and empirical forms of knowledge advanced by Enlightenment philosophers. The rhetoric of modernity, as it is well recorded in the history of the world, serves to create systems of power/knowledge, management, and control to justify racism and the inferiority of human lives that were naturally considered dispensable’’ (Mignolo, 2011)

A critical modernity can be defined in a matrix of opposing realities. On the one hand, progress and reason in Europe. On the other hand, slaughter and oppression in the colonies: European discovery (genocide), Western expansion (massacre and displacement), and economic progress (enslavement) in the colonies.

The rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality, therefore, constitute two sides of the same coin. One side is “constantly named and celebrated” (i.e., discovery, expansion, and economic development) “and the other silenced” (i.e., genocide, massacre, and enslavement) “or named as problems to be solved by the former” (such as inequality, injustice, poverty, and corruption) (Mignolo, 2011)

Domination of modernity ideas in the colonies
Domination of modernity ideas in the colonies


The classic epistemes of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries made possible to put sicience in a unobservable point, a point from which it represents the world but which lets science be unobserved itself. (Castro- Gómez, The zero point Hybris). The Enlightenment episteme opens the door to an ‘objective’ discourse about human reality centred in the idea of progress. That ordering axis makes possible situating cercatin societies as advanced and certain others as ‘behind’ in the progress line. But that is a subjective idea that negates the possibility of simultaneity, of multiple different worlds coexisting. For Europe, the rest of the world was behind in terms of progress, and it was its duty to bring ‘progress’. to the colonies. But that progress was often overlooked in terms of using the colonies as a place of economic exploitation, where the indigenous people were being slaughtered and exploited.

Finding radical solutions based on mathematics and science of Newton was at the centre of European thought at that time.  Philosophers like Descartes or Hume worked on finding neutrality and objectivity. A point of view of absolute objectivity from which philosophers distance themselves from the problems of society and from subjective considerations, the thought derived from god from previous philosophers is substituted by the reign of reason. But what was believed at the time to be science was rather fallible, and was used as justification for the domination of entire continents.

Enlightenment in the colonies: coloniality of knowledge then

Universal History is european
Enlightenment in Europe had its darker side in the colonies

In the colonies there was a similar process. A group based on racial distinction situated themselves at the top and dominated the other, ‘less white races’ based on the same European thought. While they could use the Enlightenment ideas in order to bring more freedom and rights in the colonies, they used to oppress other humans as well. The creoles, i.e., those descendants of European colonizers had more rights over, the others, and could go to university, socially etc. European thought of the time became a rationalization for their superiority, and scholarly discussions often became a matter of arguing against the arguments of other scholars based on matters of their lineage and ancestry, and of defending their own arguments based on matters of whiteness and of being ‘’well connected’’ to the socially desirable classes.

What produced inequalities in knowledge was the instrumentalization of enlightenment reason by the colonisers, breaking the liberation promises of modernity (Aníbal Quijano).

What was in one place, progress and enlightenment, had on the other side of the world, its counterpart. Often called the dark side of modernity, any attempt to cite European history as universal overlooks the domination and exploitation that was taking place in the colonies, or, the dark side of modernity.

The creoles used Enlightenment, modern ideals to elevate themselves to the category of Europeans. After independence, social inequality became the axis of all social relations. Colonialism was over, but as we shall see, coloniality continued.

Are developing nations ‘ underveloped’?

When speaking about inequality and about world differences, there are historical differences in the explanations that the world has found. In the old days of colonialism, in the XVIth to XIXth century, it was believed that Europe was the only developed country, and as such, had the moral duty to govern and control those that were ‘behind’ in development, in order to ‘help’ them.

It was believed that development was something Europe had achieved, and other places were simply behind. Development was seen as the motto of countries, based on ideas of evolution by Darwin. Those other countries were simply considered to be behind, at a previous stage of development, and should be helped.

Development as such, is a way of looking at the world, i.e., it isn’t set in stone, having some nations developed and, consequently, other countries underveloped. Development was a notion in which the Europeans placed themselves at the top, considering indigenous peoples ahistoric and with no valid systems of thought and epistemologies.

Development today

‘Development’ is one of the concepts that has had a bigger impact on the expansion of capitalism and its consequences, globalization. The reconfiguration of the world after the formation of the new states in the decolonization process needed a way of classifying and measuring the societies that were part of it. That role was given to development as a means of measuring the role of countries according to the set of values of a development that was exclusively economical in nature. (Arturo Escobar, The invention of the Third World)

These ideas of development, according to Escobar, colonized reality, drawing the correct forms of being in the world. They had to strive for economic development to stop being ‘behind’ or ‘ underdeveloped’. Europe created an administrative system similar to the European one, designing the rest of the world according to the West.

The assumed process of helping the underdeveloped countries was hiding the fact that the West had other plans in mind, i.e. the control and domination of the rest of the world. The Third World is painted as a little kid that needs the West for guidance. The West, in turn, creates a set of guidelines, concepts, theories, to define the world in its terms and lead the process of helping poorer countries achieve a desirable stage of ‘development’. But with this practices often result in the control and economic and social exploitation of those countries.

Coloniality of Knowledge

Constructing the south as the ’periphery’ didn’t only happen in the economy. It also happened in the cultural and epistemological sense. In order to rule over its colonies, the metropolis dominated politically and economically, but had to also make their knowledge outstand any other form of knowledge. The imperial power was based on and legitimized by ideas of evolution and hierarchy, superior versus inferior nations and peoples, racism, etc. The culture, traditions and diverse knowledges of whole continents were erased or oppressed for the advancement of  ‘development’ and ‘science.’indigenous knowledge, indigenous woman

The society they created in the colonies was hierarchical and discriminative. The term Indian was used in a peyorative sense, and there were definitions of many castes, divided by their semblance: white or black. This created specific inequalities in the way that, people who were closer to being white (i.e. criollos) took a similar role as the metropoles in being the dominant, educated class, creating specific knowledge based on racist assumptions to justify their domination. They carried out policies of blood cleansing and created a superior hegemony, like the europeans did. The progress of science, of reason, derived from the enlightenment, was used to justify the control and slaughter of native peoples.

The caste system

How could be that the ideas of progress of the Enlightenment could serve to justify domination to the rest of the world? All ideas about equality, fraternity, the universal declaration of human rights that were defended in one place, had, at the other side of the world, the way of justifying domination. In the colonies, a class ruled the other, and similar systems were developed based on science and on racial belonging. The amount of castes and subcastes is impressive. They were defined in terms of mixed races and in terms of whiteness. For example, the 5th generation of marriages beween mixed races often gave birth to ‘white’ offspring. Whiteness was a performative set of behaviours and social associations. The less white people were, the more difficult it was to ascend socially.

The caste system in Latin America
The caste system in Latin America

This resulted from a need to put order in what appeared random, and was used by the creoles (criollos) in order to dominate other races.


Decoloniality transcends the idea of certain discourses that, with the end of colonial administration, we live in a decolonized and postcolonial world. Decoloniality makes reference to the idea that the hierarchical division of race and the international division of labour between centres and peripheries that took form during several centuries of colonial domination didn’t transform significantly with the end of colonialism..

There is a transition from modern colonialism to a global coloniality that has certainly transformed the forms of domination, but that still depends upon relationships of the centre-periphery.

From the point of view of decoloniality, global capitalism changes the meaning of colonialism and makes new forms of exclusion similar to those of modern colonialism, based on spiritual, racial/ethnical and gender/sexual differentiation. In that way, the structures developed during the XVIth and XVIIth centuries continue to play an important role in the present, i.e. the world still has forms of coloniality.

With the development of the coloniality matrix in the 80s by Aníbal Quijano, came new groups of thinking: coloniality, power, epistemology, etc. The decolonial turn was the opening to those other forms of knowledge and the realization and consequent cleansing of coloniality that was still alive in psychological fashion, in the form of coloniality of being and knowing. In order to give rise to that new form of knowing, it was necessary to dismantle the rhetoric of modernity and its imperial imagery. For there is nothing less rational, these authors would argue, than assuming that the system of knowledge of a ethnic group (the European) could be, in any way, universal.

Then and now: control in the colonies continue in different ways
The domination and control that continue to this day.

Mignolo (2011) maintains that decoloniality is a “third option”, another way through which to confront the colonial matrix of power, via “processes of knowing and understanding that allow for a radical (e.g., decolonizing) reframing of the original apparatus of enunciation of which zero point epistemology has been built”

Coloniality of knowledge

Coloniality of knowledge is another sphere of the. colonial aspects (knowledge, being, nature and power). It makes reference to the tendency in the disciplines to be Eurocentric in nature, considering all other sources of knowledge (indigenous, afro, feminine, chicano) subaltern. Subaltern knowledge is being overlooked or even negated based on the premise that scientific knowledge is objective, neutral and independent of place. Matters of the problems of science and these power relations will be discussed later in the article.

‘’ Coloniality of knowledge consists in the domination of thought of the controlled population. The repression took part primarily in the ways of obtaining and producing knowledge, perspectives, images, systems and symbols, in the resources, patterns and instruments (…) The colonizers  imposed a mystified image of their own patterns of production of knowledge’’ (Aníbal Quijano)

The encomienda and epistemicide

One example is the creation of institutions that allowed to maintain control over knowledge and that created legitimation. It wasn’t coercitive in nature. Rather, the thing was that the oppressed took that imaginary as their own, changing their cognitive models. The European way was presented as the only one able with which to relate to the social, the natural and the subjective. Other forms of knowledge suffered epistemicide.

To achieve this objective, the Spanish state created the encomienda, which had as a mission integrate the Indian to the patterns of behaviour of the dominating ethnic group. They had to forget everything that made them indigenous to become similar to the European white man. The idea behind it was that the Indians would come out of their state of ‘minors’ in order to enter ‘civilized’ life.indigenous knowledge, indigenous trad

The race system was a tool in Latin America and created groups of oppressed people as opposed to a dominating class based on race. Being ‘white’ had not as much to do with the color of the skin as with the performance of a cultural behaviour made out of religious beliefs, dressing and ways of creating and producing knowledge. Presenting those elements or cultural elements signaling ‘whiteness’ was a sign of social status and a means of acquisition, accumulation and transmission of symbolic capital.

Coloniality of power

The coloniality of power is, in essence, the erasure of the many ways of knowing that existed in that land in exchange for the European way of being and thought. The European way was encouraged and was, in a sense, a means of achieving power within the system. The epistemic violence signals and makes reference to the erasure of the many ways of knowledge, imagining, and making sense of the world around the natives had, and changing them for an ideal of European civilization confirmed by a science that claimed that there were superior and inferior races.

In this light, coloniality of knowledge means preventing any consideration of non‐Western knowledge and classifying non‐European knowledge as deficient. Such domination refers to the hybris of creating knowledge from a monologic, single‐voice, or unilateral perspective (i.e., zero point epistemology). However, as Derrida  argues and as Mignolo affirms, the point is not to pit Eurocentric against non‐Eurocentric knowledge or to reject Western philosophical thought. Instead, the point is to appropriate the contributions of Western philosophy in order to disentangle it from coloniality.

Today, coloniality of power makes reference to university institutions as well as guardians of Eurocentric knowledge, preventing that different visions of the world from reaching the same legitimacy. Today, coloniality of knowledge is identified by three characteristics: the modernity myth, abysmal thought and the zero point hybris.

According to these authors, the West had created a way of knowing that separated all forms of knowing from the European, Eurocentric ones. As we have seen, coloniality of knowledge is only one of the ways in which this power was exercised, and it has been put into use in a threefold manner.

Other forms of domination

The modernity myth

‘Modernity’, writes Walter Mignolo (2011) ‘is a complex narrative whose point of origination was Europe, a narrative that builds Western civilization by its achievements while hiding at the same time its darker side, modernity’.

The modernity myth is the discursive construction that allowed Europe to administrate the rest of the world from the XVIth century onwards. According to this myth, the world is divided into civilized and uncivilized regions. Europe represents the civilized area, whereas other regions represent the barbaric side. Because of its superior position, Europe is given the duty of carrying civilization to the rest of the world, in whichever way. Educating the ‘uncivilized’ was thus a moral obligation for Europe. Since the indigenous people were seen as ultimately avoiding to this change, the use of force was legitimate. These ‘costs’ are seen as unavoidable, i.e., necessary evils. This justification constitutes the modernity myth that allows for the existence of the coloniality of knowledge, expressed as the radical rejection of any other form of civilization pathways different to the modern one.

Abysmal thought

Abysmal thinking presupposes a line that differentiates forms of knowledge. One knowledge, scientific and certain, from the north as opposed to other knowledge, from the south. Both knowledge cannot coexist. Rather, abysmal thought is any radical system of thought that eliminates other forms of knowing. The scientific method is understood as the only way of knowing. Indigenous people, farmers and popular knowledge are erased and are used only as subjects of study for science. Other forms of knowledge are seen as magical, wishful thinking.

Abysmal thought is thus materialized as negating the existence or validity of any form of knowledge at the other side of that line. But abysmal thought can also be any cosmology that negates the validity of other forms of knowledge.

The ‘zero point’ hybris

In order to understand the following point is important to take into account the term discourse as used by Foucault and Lyotard. Scientific knowledge in a given society is legitimazed by language, the discourses constructed around it, etc.

The zero point hybris makes reference to the situation of science in a point of view from where it studies the world from a position of objectivity and neutrality, of truth, but which doesn’t study itself. Science has the position and knowledge to judge other disciplines and construct what we consider scientific truth, but is situated in a position that doesn’t allow questioning.

Science is ideological and situated

The zero point hybris dismantles local knowledge and subjectivity. The disciplines fought themselves, but science is above the other disciplines in the sense that it holds the objective, independent truth. But science is also a discourse, and it is historical, i.e., it is influenced by historical events and thought. As we have seen, the science of the colonial period created hierarchies of superior and inferior races in order to justify its discrimination and exploitative policies, so one has to look to science as also a social construct, hugely impacted by ideology.

But the power relations that exist within the disciplines continue today. Science has more validity for the use of positive empirical demonstrations, but overlooks subjectivity from its own point of hybris, i.e. the sin of arrogance of the observer but of not being observed and analyzed itself. This is being taken into account in the production of knowledge that takes the local, the wisdom of situated knowledge. An example of this is Traditional Ecological Indigenous Knowledge.

In the same manner, the West situated itself on a point of hybris. It wants to have a point of view over the rest of the points of view, but without allowing that point of view to be analyzed as well.

The Coloniality of power exercises a cartesian point of view, untouched by the epistemologic limitations for knowing about the senses or practical life, and is the result of the zero point hybris.

indigenous knowledge, indigenous woman

Room for other forms of knowledge and coloniality of knowledge today

The objectivity of science has been used as justification for and legitimization of ideas as truth that in practice caused criminal states. What was progress and reason in one side of the globe, in the other part of it was domination and slaughter. Science and modernity are discourses and are therefor historical, ideological and situated.

‘Epistemologies of the south’ are critical with this history of development and progress and include critical ideas about todays’ coloniality practices in knowledge, power and being. moreover, they propose decolonizing practices in order to include other forms of knowledge.

Being critical with history carries with it including subaltern forms of knowledge and not incurring in abysmal or zero point hybris thought. History shows that a lot of the biggest disasters of the world were based on ideas that were considered scientific and absolute.

Coloniality has different effects in different parts of the world. . However, in the Latin American case we can find similarities of what could happen and still happens today in matters of knowledge, development and power. A dialogue could be established among epistemologies to uncover other ways of knowing and making sense of modernity and of being critical with coloniality of knowledge in order to dismantle it.

the answer to colonialism of knowledge: indigenous knowledge

Leave a Reply