Indigenous Knowledge, Western Science, and their interaction: Rich opportunity but caution to avoid harm is required

Despite these historical and ongoing problems, there is a growing awareness within scientific communities of the validity and power of Indigenous knowledge.

By Tyler Jessen, PhD Student

Also featured by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

“‘Research’ is probably one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous world’s vocabulary”, writes Linda Tuhiwai Smith in the introduction of her book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Such a statement reflects the fraught relationship between science and Indigenous Peoples, who have been the often-unwilling subjects of a variety of research. Western scientists have for centuries studied and classified the ‘other’ through academic lenses. In this process, unique cultures and knowledges are flattened to the width of a page.

The field of Ecology is no different. It has a history (and often present day) record of subsuming varied Indigenous experiences into the academic scaffolding of peer-reviewed journals, rigid fields of study, and quantitative metrics. Such harm can still occur, even in the face of historical and ongoing discounting of Indigenous Knowledge (IK).

Despite these historical and ongoing problems, there is a growing awareness within scientific communities of the validity and power of IK. It is an undoubtedly tiresome lesson for Indigenous Peoples to teach (and re-teach), but one that seems to be slowly getting through. As Ecologists, we are interested in learning about organisms and their interactions, and who is better to learn from than those who so often have historical and contemporary connections to the lands and their living organisms for millennia? In fact, IK can be considered scientific in its own right and shares many of the conceptual underpinnings of Western science. Curiosity, experimentation, and data collection are not scientific inventions, they are human characteristics. Indeed, there are many scholars and practitioners who identify as Indigenous scientists.

Though IK is gaining popularity in Western ecological research, the rich opportunity comes with a problem: should – and if so, how can – the myriad of forms with which knowledge is generated and transmitted be available to scientists? Should it be ‘translated’ at all? IK is frequently oral and based on understandings of the world that cannot be easily interpreted in the terse world of academic journals. In our attempt to meet the requirements of Editors and institutions, Ecologists can more or less reduce a complex understanding of animal distribution and abundance to ‘more or less’ in one place compared to another. These practices can distort the accuracy of IK, or worse, force Indigenous Peoples to express themselves in ways that are contradictory to their protocols and comforts.

If Indigenous Peoples often have unique knowledge of Ecology, but the processes of science can be harmful, how do we proceed? Recent work, including by Indigenous scientists themselves, have begun to offer solutions.

Our recent paper is an attempt to showcase the value of such research, highlight new and diverse methods, and urge caution in approach.

Such research goes beyond the dichotomies of the scientific and the ‘traditional’, or the quantitative and the qualitative. For example, the ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’ approach aims at “an ethic of knowledge coexistence and complementarity in knowledge generation” between IK and science. Recent calls in scientific literature also advocate for new modes of thinking about diverse knowledge systems. It turns out knowledge is knowledge, and the different ways in which it is created and transmitted does not preclude its validity or veracity.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to the question of if IK should be ‘translated’ into a scientific article. It clearly already occurs, and will only become more common in the future. Frameworks and guidance for collaborative, rather than assimilative, research exist. But all such directions carry the caveat that the preferences of those with whom you collaborate should supersede any written guidelines. Therein lies a challenge for new and future researchers who endeavour to work with Indigenous Peoples.

In my view, a healthy start begins with listening. Ecologists, especially graduate students that lead field research, are typically excited about the beginnings of a new project. We have new hypotheses to test and new methods to try out. This enthusiasm is a good thing, but it should not displace our patience. A bit of listening in the beginning can not only lead to new ideas, but also towards more just and equitable research partnerships.