Oral Traditions or Situated Practices? Understanding How Indigenous Communities Respond to Environmental Disasters

By Lauer, Matthew | Human Organization, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Oral Traditions or Situated Practices? Understanding How Indigenous Communities Respond to Environmental Disasters


Lauer, Matthew, Human Organization


This article examines how indigenous fisherfolk of the western Solomon Islands survived a magnitude 8.1 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck the region in 2007. I reconstruct this cataclysmic event through local narratives, surveys, and ethnographic interviews collected in villages on Simbo Island and in Roviana and Vonavona Lagoons. I then compare the responses of the Solomon Islanders to reports and analyses of similar survivor stories among indigenous groups affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Results show that disaster analyses tend to relate effective indigenous responses with intergenerationally transmitted oral histories or culturally embedded stories and myths. These codified bodies of traditional knowledge or mental models about previous events are thought to be put into action when a disaster strikes. However, ethnographic interviews and surveys conducted with Solomon Islanders suggest that oral history was just one dimension of a response that involved an assemblage of local and global knowledges coalescing with performative and experiential practices. To more thoroughly conceptualize indigenous responses, I encourage a practice-based approach. I argue that this framework provides a more productive and inclusive analysis of the relationship between indigenous knowledge and responses to environmental hazards, while also facilitating more effective collaborations between indigenous people and disaster experts who seek participatory strategies of disaster risk reduction.

Key words: natural disasters, indigenous knowledge, situated practices, tsunami, Solomon Islands

Introduction

The magnitude of suffering caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was truly horrific. According to the final estimates, nearly 2.4 million people around the Indian Ocean basin were affected, and over 200,000 victims died (Telford, Cosgrave, and Houghton 2006). There were, however, a few miraculous survivors. The media and scientists studying the disaster reported how a handful of indigenous groups - the Moken in the Surin Islands, Thailand; the Ong, Jarawa, and Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands, India; and the Simeulue Island peoples, Indonesia - escaped unscathed because they reportedly had indigenous knowledge or "ancient wisdom" about previous tsunamis and, hence, were able to act in a coordinated manner and reach high ground before the tsunami struck (Adger et al. 2005; Arunotai 2008; Elias, Rungmanee, and Cruz 2005; Leung 2005; McAdoo et al. 2006; National Geographic News 2005; Taipei Times 2005; Tima 2005).

Interest in indigenous responses to the Indian Ocean tsunami is part of a growing realization by the international community that indigenous ecological knowledge and practices are important for understanding ecological hazards, reducing disaster risk, and mitigating vulnerability (Becker et al. 2008; Ellen 2007; Mercer et al. 2010). This shift has occurred in the context of broader changes and advancements in disaster research. Many disaster researchers no longer focus narrowly on the biophysical aspects of natural hazards and how they trigger events. Rather, they emphasize how social conditions generate disasters by creating different axes of vulnerability (Hoffman and Oliver-Smith 2002; Oliver-Smith 1996; Wisner 2004). From this approach, disasters and the associated human suffering result from a complex mix of geophysical and biological processes and social, ideological, and economic systems. The amount of suffering endured by a particular group or individual is a function of their vulnerability, where vulnerability is defined as the characteristics of an individual or group that shape "their capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a natural disaster" ( Wisner 2004: 1 1 ).

Prior to the emergence of the idea of vulnerability to explain disasters, the conventional view was that indigenous communities lacked "modernization" and economic development and had inferior coping mechanisms.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Oral Traditions or Situated Practices? Understanding How Indigenous Communities Respond to Environmental Disasters
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.