Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to contribute to debates on the value of indigenous knowledge for disaster risk reduction. Recent international policy papers advocate the importance of indigenous knowledge and calls for its recognition. The paper aims to explore these issues in the everyday practices of disaster response by indigenous peoples and surrounding actors. Design/methodology/approach – The paper is based on a total of seven months ethnographic research in indigenous communities in Thailand and the Philippines. The Thai communities had experienced minor disasters, whereas the Philippine communities were recently hit by a major killer typhoon. Findings – In both countries the authors found that indigenous knowledge is neither completely local, nor homogenous, nor shared. The findings caution against a view that indigenous knowledge is grounded in a long tradition of coping with disasters. Coping is embedded in social practice and responsive to change. Positive labelling of indigenous practices can help to render communities more resilient. Research limitations/implications – The research was exploratory in nature and could be replicated and expanded in other indigenous peoples’ communities. Practical implications – Rather than understanding indigenous peoples as simultaneously vulnerable and resilient, it calls for a more comprehensive approach to indigenous knowledge and practices around disaster. Social implications – The limitations are shown of uncritically ascribing indigenous communities a close relation to nature. It may be unfounded and de-politicises indigenous struggles. Originality/value – This paper approaches indigenous knowledge issues from the point of view of indigenous communities themselves.