Unsilencing the Histories of Ireland’s Indigenous Minority

Despite their wealth of cultural and environmental knowledge, indigenous epistemologies are largely excluded and silenced in mainstream environmental discourses. This article explores how storytelling, a pedagogical approach central to indigenous peoples around the globe, can function in classrooms as a culturally sustaining pedagogy which unsilences indigenous cultural and environmental perspectives and ways of knowing. Drawing on the traditional ways of knowing inherent to Mincéirs, an indigenous Irish ethnic group, we argue that the use of indigenous stories allows for the exploration of environmental issues in a holistic, informed and responsive way.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2022-19461
Languages: English

The unequal power relations established during colonialism, and exacerbated through capitalism, continue to have profound negative consequences for indigenous communities globally. One of the most enduring legacies of these processes has been the reframing, erosion, re-placing or erasure of indigenous knowledge systems and practices.[1] As argued by Bonnett, colonisation, in practice, has denied “the validity of widely experienced and valued phenomena by simply presuming the superiority of their perspective”.[2] As a result, indigenous voices and perspectives are largely absent from global school curricula. Inclusion can serve to validate indigenous knowledge systems and redress this curricular omission and systemic injustice.

The Human and the Natural World

In this article, we understand indigenous knowledge to be the “traditional norms and social values, as well as mental constructs that guide, organise, and regulate [indigenous] peoples’ way of living and making sense of their world”.[3] These sense-making forms are often in conflict with Eurowestern understandings of the world which position the human world in opposition to (and separate from) the natural world. This anthropocentric view bestows intrinsic value on human beings, positioning them as inherently superior to non-human entities.[4] The animal, plant and mineral entities of the natural world are othered and ascribed instrumental value; they are commodified as resources to be extracted solely for human benefit. This exploitative relationship, a key feature of colonial expansion, is a significant contributing factor to our current planetary predicament.[5] As will be explored below, it is antithetical to indigenous relational onto-epistemologies.

The Silencing of Indigenous Knowledge

The ontological refers to what we know of reality, while the epistemic refers to how that knowledge is validated. These are often viewed as separate in Eurowestern traditions. Onto-epistemology, according to Barad, is “the study of practices of knowing in being”[6] that accentuates the inter-relationship of the two in how we understand the world around us. For example, land and place are inextricably linked to indigenous identity; they are viewed by many indigenous peoples as extensions of themselves, as sources of spiritual strength and as fundamental components of how they understand the self and the wider world.[7] In many instances, planet earth is referred to as “Mother Earth”[8], and in such conceptualisations, land is ascribed intrinsic value rather than economic value. It is not viewed as owing anything or being in servitude to humanity.

As argued by Hernandez, the Eurowestern views of the natural world as a commodity and land as property is alien to indigenous cultures. Reciprocity rather than extraction and exploitation define indigenous peoples’ relationships with the natural world because historically, indigenous people “always knew to take only what they needed”[9] and replace what they could. A similar profound respect for nature and close relationship to the land is found in Mincéir culture in Ireland,[10] particularly in regard to the healing qualities of herbs and plants.[11] Providing students with learning experiences which facilitate reflective, critical and respectful engagement with indigenous onto-epistemologies, such as those of the Mincéirs, can offer rich opportunities for reimagining humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

Ireland’s Indigenous Ethnic Minority

Mincéirs are an indigenous Irish ethnic group comprising 0.7% of the general population of Ireland.[12] The Mincéir community share a common history, language (Cant/Gammon), cultural heritage and tradition of nomadism. Similar to other indigenous peoples, they also share a long history of oppression. Racial hierarchies within society have resulted in experiences of acute and pervasive structural and institutional racism.[13] These experiences have left their mark, particularly within education, where Mincéir children experience low teacher expectations and monocultural school policies, practices and curricula, all of which are implicated in high illiteracy levels, academic underachievement and significant damage to well-being and mental health.[14] Tellingly, the suicide rate for Mincéirs is almost seven times that of the settled population.[15]

In amplifying Mincéir onto-epistemologies and histories that relate to human non-human relationships, we recognise that this could be interpreted as a form of Critical Race Theory’s interest convergence[16] – that we are centering Mincéir narratives because they may prove useful to us members of the settled “white” community. Rather, in sharing these stories and highlighting their pedagogical value, we, in our positions as teacher educators (positions we recognise our settled privilege played an important role in securing), are seeking to include Mincéir knowledge systems within classroom contexts, and more broadly, to redress the non- and mis-representation of Mincéir experiences in Irish curricula. However, we equally recognise that as non-Mincéirs, we cannot fully understand the full meaning and significance of the stories shared.[17]

There are few tangible traces of Mincéir histories in Irish official records despite the fact that Mincéirs are a historically and culturally rich ethnic group. This invisibility is also reflected in school curricula. Folklore is embedded in the culture of the Mincéirs and Oein DeBhairduin’s anthology “Why the Moon Travels”, a collection of beautifully curated stories that have been passed orally ó ghlúin go glúin (from knee to knee in the Irish language) by members of the Mincéir community, gives voice to the silenced ways of knowing of Mincéirs. They provide an entry point to both validate and include Mincéir perspectives in the mainstream curriculum and give rich insights into the connectedness of both the human and natural world as well as uncovering alternative ways for students to understand and appreciate the spaces around them.

Storytelling & Oral Histories

As forms of culturally sustaining pedagogy, indigenous storytelling and oral histories offer rich opportunities for indigenous students to draw on their identities, experiential knowledge and the knowledge of their elders and ancestors.[18] By ascribing value to these as a pedagogical approach, indigenous voices can be unsilenced, their communitarian values shared, epistemologies brought in from the margins and deficit understandings of indigenous pedagogies, knowledge systems and ways of being can be challenged.[19]

The stories found in “Why the Moon Travels”’ provide rich insights into Mincéir views of both the human and natural world. Stories like “Airmid’s voice” (Airmid’s gresko) and “Bees and Giants” (Beach an tom gloke), offer valuable springboards for encouraging students to think about humanity’s relationship with nature and to imagine how it could be otherwise. For example, “Airmid’s voice” is a retelling of the legend of the healing goddess Airmid, who taught the Mincéirs about the bio-medicinal value of native herbs in healing. This story offers rich opportunities for reflection on the unique and rich diversity of the natural world but also of the intergenerational connectedness to nature the Mincéirs still draw on today. As DeBhairduin explains, “Travellers have always had a close relationship with the land and all its bounties”.[20]

This deep appreciation of nature’s bounties is also seen in the story “Bees and Giants” which provides a provocative stimulus for discussions centred on humanity’s extractive and exploitative relationship with nature and also of bees’ fundamental intrinsic as well as instrumental value. This connection to the natural world is woven throughout the stories, and through the personal vignettes prefacing each one, DeBhairdúin provides an insight into the onto-epistemologies that shape Minceir worldviews.

Embedding Indigenous Voices

Critical engagement with current human-nonhuman relationships is a fundamental aspect of reimagining more just and equitable futures and indigenous stories can provide rich stimuli for beginning such reimaginings. Additionally, embedding minoritised voices, knowledge and experiences in school curricula, provide opportunities to begin the wider process of redressing generations of institutional racism and cultural repression. This, however, must be preceded by critical reflection on the tacit assumptions which underpin teachers’ own views of indigenous peoples and their knowledge systems. There is much to be learned from indigenous ways of understanding and relating to the natural world found in folklore and stories and it is time for educators to recognise their value and include them in their curricula.


Further Reading

  • DeBharduin, Oein. Why the Moon Travels. Dublin: Skein Press, 2020.
  • Hernandez, Jessica. Fresh Banana Leaves. Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science. California: North Atlantic Books, 2022
  • Haynes, Amanda, Joyce, Sindy, and Schweppe, Jennifer. The Significance of the Declaration of Ethnic Minority Status for Irish Travellers. Nationalities Papers 49 (2): 270–288. doi:10.1017/nps.2020.28.

Web Resources


[1] M. Satish Kumar, and Lauren A. Scanlon, “Ireland and Irishness. The Contextuality of Postcolonial Identity,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 109, no. 1 (2019): 202–22.
[2] Michael Bonnett, “Sustainable Development, Environmental Education, and the Significance of Being in Place,” The Curriculum Journal 24, no. 2 (2013): 250–71, here: 265.
[3] George  J. Sefa Dei, Budd L. Hall, and Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg, Indigenous Knowledge in Global Contexts. Multiple Readings of Our World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 6.
[4] Hakim Mohandas Amani Williams, and Maria Jose Bermeo, “A Decolonial Imperative. Pluriversal Rights Education,” International Journal of Human Rights Education 4, no. 1 (2020), https://repository.usfca.edu/ijhre/?utm_source=repository.usfca.edu%2Fijhre%2Fvol4%2Fiss1%2F1&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages (last accessed 6 March 2022).
[5] Farhana Sultana, “Climate Change, Covid-19, and the Co-Production of Injustices. A Feminist Reading of Overlapping Crises,” Social & Cultural Geography 22, no. 4 (2021): 447–60; Williams, and Bermeo, “Decolonial Imperative”.
[6] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 187, https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822388128.
[7] Hernandez, Fresh Banana Leaves; Vanessa Watts, “Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go on a European World Tour!),” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2, no. 1 (2013): 20–34.
[8] Hernandez, Fresh Banana Leaves.
[9] Ibid., 73.
[10] Oein DeBharduin, Why the Moon Travels (Dublin: Skein Press, 2020).
[11] Ibid.
[12] Central Statistics Office, “Census of the Population 2016 – Profile 8: Irish Travellers, Ethnicity and Religion” (Dublin: Stationary Office, 2018), https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-cp8iter/p8iter/p8itd/ (last accessed 6 March 2022).
[13] Anne Marie Kavanagh, and Maeve Dupont, “Making the Invisible Visible. Managing Tensions around Including Traveller Culture and History in the Curriculum at Primary and Post-Primary Levels,” Irish Educational Studies 40, no. 3 (2021): 553–569.
[14] Ibid.
[15] All Ireland Traveller Health Study Team, “All Ireland Traveller Health Study: Our Geels,” 2010, https://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/AITHS_SUMMARY.pdf (last accessed 6 March 2022).
[16] Derrick A. Bell, “Brown vs Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma,” Harvard Law Review 93, no. 3 (1980), https://www.hartfordschools.org/files/Equity%20Page/Interest_Convergence_by_Bell.pdf (last accessed 6 March 2022).
[17] Recognising our positionality as non-indigenous academics and in an effort to avoid inadvertent generalisations, reductiveness and oversimplification of the complexity and diversity within and between indigenous culture and knowledge system, we rely on the writings of indigenous authors in this section.
[18] Muhammad A. Khalifa, Deena Khalil, Tyson E.J. Marsh, and Clare Halloran, “Toward an Indigenous, Decolonizing School Leadership. A Literature Review,” Educational Administration Quarterly 55, no. 4 (2019): 571-614.
[19] Alec Couros, Katia Hildebrandt, Claire Kreuger, Patrick Lewis, Ken Montgomery, Joseph Naytowhow, and Jennifer A. Tupper, “Storying Treaties and the Treaty Relationship. Enhancing Treaty Education through Digital Storytelling,” International Review of Qualitative Research 6, no. 4 (2013): 544–558.
[20] DeBharduin, Why the Moon Travels, 21.


Image Credits

Thank you to the Wexford Local Development (Traveller Community Health Programme) for permission to use this image of The Wheel of Culture created by Irish Traveller women.

Recommended Citation

Kavanagh, Anne Marie, Caitríona Ní Cassaithe: Unsilencing the Histories of Ireland’s Indigenous Minority. In: Public History Weekly 10 (2022) 2, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2022-19461.

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Categories: 10 (2022) 2
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2022-19461

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  1. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.


    Unsilencing Indigenous stories and onto-epistemologies

    In recent years, decolonisation and indigenous practices have become important areas of reflection, discussion and shifts in academia and education. These discussions are often related to the environment and nature. It is within this context that the article ‘Unsilencing the Histories of Ireland’s Indigenous Minority’ is written. The article explores how storytelling, which is central to indigenous peoples around the world, can have a place in schools and, by doing so, unsilence indigenous cultural and environmental perspectives.

    The article starts by looking into how indigenous onto-epistemologies can offer alternative ways of seeing and being with the natural world. As the authors point out, according to indigenous ontologies, humans are neither separate from nor superior to nature. This worldview sees nature as not as commodity but rather as an ecosystem that constitutes our home – an approach that, in the last few years, has become to be known as ‘more than human’. Drawing attention to the disconnection between the human and natural world is not new, of course.[1] For instance, thinking about belonging and life entanglements, in 1928 Henry Beston wrote that “we need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals”.[2]

    Next, the authors of the article move on to discuss indigenous epistemologies; explicitly, how, despite their wealth of cultural and environmental knowledge, indigenous epistemologies are largely excluded and silenced in mainstream environmental discourses, as Hernandez highlights.[3] A key component of indigenous epistemologies is storytelling and, as such, it is being silenced.[4] Yet while research has pushed for decolonisation on different indigenous epistemologies, work towards decolonising storytelling in schools continues to be restricted. By drawing on the example of Mincéirs’ (an indigenous Irish ethnic group also known as Irish Travellers or the Traveller community) stories, the authors put forward that these stories could offer valuable springboards for encouraging students to think about humanity’s relationship with nature and to imagine how it could be otherwise.

    Summarising, the authors of the article argue that storytelling allows for the exploration of environmental issues in a holistic, informed and responsive way and that, furthermore, storytelling experiences enable build relationships with communities. In essence, the authors signify how the hierarchies created by colonisation and modernity – prioritising, on the one hand, humans over nature and, on the other, western epistemologies over indigenous ones[5] – have been damaging both  the indigenous communities and the western world. When it comes specifically to the Mincéirs community, the created hierarchies have not only ‘killed’ the community’s onto-epistemologies, they have also resulted in killing the community itself.[6]

    To push the discussion forward, there are two points I would like to flag-up. The first point is that unsilencing indigenous stories about nature is not just beneficial for the indigenous communities themselves – it is, in fact, a collective human right, and not just one that concerns ‘others.’[7] The second point is that indigenous knowledge should not be simply ‘brought in from the margins’ and represented in curricula – something that the authors connote; it should be practiced as shared authority. The third point is that, as capitalism, globalization, and cultural imperialism, have led to a system that favours economy over ecology – thus endangering natural resources, discussions over nature and the environment are not separate from those over capitalism and neoliberalism.[8]

    Finally, there is a series of follow-up questions that need to be addressed in relation to bringing to the fore and adopting indigenous onto-epistemologies; here, I will limit myself to two. One, there is the issue of positionality: as non-Mincéirs/non-indigenous people, we cannot fully understand the meaning and significance of the stories shared. How do we address this issue, besides referring to indigenous authors as the authors of the article did? Two, given that our habitual ways of perception are intrinsically linked to and defined by language, how do we come to a shared understanding of the world with indigenous communities whose languages have been silenced – or any other community for that matter?[9] Maybe, for now, it is just enough that our acknowledgement and making these limitations explicit can enrich the way we see environment and nature.


    [1] What is relatively new is the hierarchical dichotomy which separates and privileges the mind over the spirit and the spirit world. As Abram (1996) highlights, for generations, humans viewed themselves as part of the wider community of nature, and carried on active relationships with other animals, plants, and natural objects (including mountains, rivers, winds, and weather patterns) that we have only lately come to think of as “inanimate.” For instance, Thales of Miletus, who lived around 624/623 – 548/545 BC, held that water is the fundamental substance.

    [2] Beston, H. (2003 reprint). The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. New York: Macmillan.

    [3] Hernandez, J. (2022). Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing indigenous landscapes through indigenous science. California: North Atlantic Books

    [4] Iseke, J., & Brennus, B. (2011). Learning life lessons from Indigenous storytelling with Tom McCallum. In G. J. S. Dei (ed.), Indigenous philosophies and critical education. New York: Peter Lang.

    [5] It could be argued that indigenous knowledge and epistemologies have not only been silenced because of colonial hierarchies, they have been silenced to hide how people and cultures have endured genocide, hardship, and trauma.

    [6] As the authors highlight, the suicide rate for Mincéirs is almost seven times that of the settled population.

    [7] Castellanos-Jankiewicz, L. & Hommes, W. Decolonization and Human Rights: The Dutch Case: An Introduction, VerfBlog, 24th Jan. 2022. Retrieved from https://verfassungsblog.de/decolonization-and-human-rights-the-dutch-case.

    [8] Foster, J. B. (2002). Ecology Against Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

    [9] Abram, B. (1997). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books.

  2. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.

    To avoid both the Western-centric ignorance and this homogenifying juxtaposition

    I am very sympathetic to the initiatives of including “indigenous epistemologies” (the reason for my marking the term will become clear below) into our conceptualization of (not only, but here) what we consider “history” and “historical thinking”. Even, nay, especially if we have a notion (or conviction) that there is some specificity in Western Historical Thinking, in the Western concept of “history”, we should not limit our usage of the concepts of Historical Thinking / Historical Consciousness / History (with or without capitals) to that form, especially because these terms fundamentally have a positive connotation.

    I also very much appreciate the efforts to recognize these different forms of conceptualizing and explaining the world and orientate living and acting also in societies where these have not been silenced by “settler colonialism” from an outside, but also in social and cultural groups which have been living within European/Western societies, which have been marginalised in them, etc. There will be many more examples to be explored.

    The following questions, therefore, are not meant as a challenge to these efforts and initiatives and the way they are approached, but rather as questions to our (my) own (Western) conceptions and perspectives which (if there is some sense in what I write) only become visible within these valuable efforts. So my comment here is much less an answer to your article, but pointing to some reflections stemming from them.

    What I very much appreciate is the plural in “indigenous epistemologies”. I cannot but ask myself (and our communities) whether we have already found a language and conceptions for maybe an internal diversity within and possibly even stark differences between them. Could it be that up to a certain point we (still) construct these epistemologies as the opposite (not to say: the other) of our European thinking – portraing it, e.g., by pointing to the lack of a fundamental opposition of “nature” and “humanity” that characterizes our own European/Western culture and science – and that communally characterizes these indigenous cultures and epistemologies.
    Apart from the empirical question whether there really are no categorial differences BETWEEN what we refer to as indigenous epistemologies, it may also cloud our perception of a) different strands WITHIN individual “indigenous” epistemologies, constructing them as socially and culturally homogenous in themselves as well as (possibly) historically stable, but also that of b) our perception of internal and historical differences within “Western” epistemologies.

    What I try to say is that while the intentions and efforts to perceive and recognize these epistemologies and to not conceptualize them as principally inferior to a “scientific” supposedly superior Western one, could impair the ability to perceive internal differentiations and developments, which in turn would be helpful also for our own discussions.

    So my point is precisely not a criticism of a supposed idealization of indigenous cultures in the sense that we should now find in other cultures those errors that we have identified in the course of reflecting on our own epistemological (history of ideas and culture) development, but about the development of a differentiating view on manifold worldviews and worldprocessings both within different cultures and on (partial) commonalities, on points of contact and also dependencies, which can form “new culturalities” in the sense (Stefanie Rathjes) based on the cultural-theoretical conception of “transculturality” in the sense of Wolfgang Welsch.

    As one consequence, then, we should use the term “indigenous” only with a notion that it does unify different “cultures” and “their” (historical) thinking only (but necessarily so, I think) by homogenizing them both individually and by juxtaposing them jointly to an equally homogenized “Western” model.

    The task, then, is to not forget and deny the asymmetry of (historical) power relations, and still avoid both the Western-centric ignorance and this homogenifying juxtaposition, and to develop a layer of multi-dimensional/multi-lateral (instead of “mutual”) percepction and communication.

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