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Weaving Indigenous and western knowledge

How Indigenous researchers and communities are working in partnership with universities and non-Indigenous researchers to shape the future of environmental sciences.


It’s the fourth and final day of the hide tanning camp in which six participants are learning to use rotten spruce wood to smoke deer hides that have been scraped and softened, under the guidance of Indigenous hide tanning experts, on the Ryerson University campus in downtown Toronto. The participants are taking the final step in the process, smoking the rotting wood, which releases resins from the hide and coats it, changing its texture while sealing it, leaving behind a rich smoky smell that stays with the hide.

The inaugural hide-tanning camp in 2019 coincided with Ryerson’s Science Literacy Week and the university’s pow wow in the fall. Organizers felt it was the perfect exhibition for combining Indigenous traditional knowledge and western science.

“It’s a beautiful way to showcase a lot of different scientific knowledges that go into hide tanning, like chemistry, for example. You need to soak it in a lye solution, and traditionally we used things like hardwood ash. The chemicals that are in the lye help to swell up the skin and expose the different layers … in preparation for the tanning process,” says Amber Sandy, who coordinated the event through Ryerson’s faculty of science outreach office, SciXChange.

Educational and research institutions across Canada are beginning to embrace this holistic approach to its scientific methods, partly due to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – which called for an integration of Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in classrooms – but also because of a growing movement to decolonize education.

Indigenous-led courses and programs teaching both Indigenous and western science are launching at universities across the country, at the same time as researchers are coming up with new models of collaborative and ethical research with Indigenous communities.

As SciXChange’s coordinator of Indigenous knowledge and science outreach, Ms. Sandy plans events under the banner of Stoodis Science (“stoodis” being the slang term some Indigenous people use in place of “let’s do this”) that focus on creating opportunities, free of charge, for elementary and high school students, and the general public, to learn from Indigenous knowledge holders.

She says that none of this work would be possible without the relationships she’s built with Indigenous communities over the years. “You really have to be there, be hands-on to build those relationships and that trust,” says the member of the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation who made sure that relationship building was included in her job description.

The thorny issue of creating these spaces for Indigenous knowledge in an institution named after Egerton Ryerson, who started the residential school system, does not go unnoticed. Sandy sees it as an opportunity to bring a different lens to the school. “Hosting our hide camp on campus is such a great way to disrupt that space and reclaim that colonial space for ourselves,” she says.

Welcoming Indigenous knowledge into labs

Similar efforts are taking place at the University of Alberta, which has a relatively large Indigenous student and faculty population, and the distinction of having the only faculty of native studies in North America. Kim Tallbear and Jessica Kolopenuk are the co-founders and co-leads of the Indigenous Science, Technology and Society (ISTS) research hub at the U of A, as well as the Summer Internship for Indigenous peoples in Genomics Canada (SING Canada).

Since 2018, the SING Canada workshop brings Indigenous undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral and community fellows to a western Canadian university for in-class, lab and field training in genomic sciences and Indigenous knowledge. The all-expenses week-long paid program, which was cancelled in 2020 because of COVID-19 but will be conducted virtually in 2021, values traditional knowledge and ceremony, and features discussions on how science has been used to serve colonization, and how colonial discourses continue to shape science.

Read also: Kim TallBear speaks truth to power

Dr. Tallbear, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment, and an associate professor at the U of A, has noticed that young Indigenous scientists are often conflicted. They know their Elders have truthful, important knowledge, as does the university and the laboratory, but they seem to contradict one another.

“We try to give them a way to understand how they can juggle all of these knowledges and work them together … [to ask] research questions that are of interest to Indigenous communities, using methods that are ethical to Indigenous communities [but] also scientifically robust,” she says.

Welcoming cultural knowledge into the laboratories and universities will make scientific professions more hospitable for Indigenous people, she believes, which can also lead to more productive conversations in provincial and federal regulatory agencies.

“A lot of Indigenous thinkers have a huge capacity to go between ceremony and the laboratory and don’t see a problem with that. It’s non-Indigenous thinkers who have an issue with that.”

She describes the dissertation of one of the ISTS hub students on the incorporation of traditional knowledge into the management of chronic wasting disease (CWD), an often fatal and very contagious neurological condition that affects deer and elk. If wildlife management agencies were amenable to cultural knowledge, then valuable conversations with hunters, butchers who carve the meat, and people on the land who understand the animal and the disease could help figure out how to manage the disease.

If Indigenous students don’t view the laboratory as hostile to cultural value and knowledge, Dr. Tallbear says, they’ll be able to engage with prion science and wildlife management to help resolve the CWD issue, and eventually bring their expertise back to their communities.

“A lot of Indigenous thinkers have a huge capacity to go between ceremony and the laboratory and don’t see a problem with that. It’s non-Indigenous thinkers who have an issue with that,” says Dr. Tallbear.

Shake up: Tri-Council’s strategic plan to support Indigenous research

Meanwhile, all Canadian universities are going to have to shake up how they do research with Indigenous communities on Indigenous land, says Manon Tremblay, Concordia University’s senior director of Indigenous Directions.

A strategic plan recently unveiled by Tri-councils – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – sets out how academic institutions can support Indigenous research and research training in Canada. It includes building relationships with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, supporting their research priorities, creating greater funding accessibility to granting agency programs and championing Indigenous leadership, self-determination and capacity.

“The universities are all going to have to do this because this strategy on Indigenous research that the Tri-councils just tabled will require universities to rethink how they do research with Indigenous communities or on their lands,” says Ms. Tremblay. “It’s something that we’re all going to have to reflect on.”

This, as well as the TRC’s recommendations, are great for encouraging collaboration, says Dr. Tallbear, but there is a downside on Indigenous academics’ time. She says she’s absolutely swamped with requests to join research projects, and to be on hiring committees to provide input on Indigenous hires. “Suddenly you have all of these non-Indigenous researchers who’ve never worked on Indigenous issues or with Indigenous communities, bugging you to be on their grant with them,” she says. “I could spend all my time going to other people’s meetings on their research projects meanwhile not getting our work done in [the faculty of ] native studies.”

Read also: How universities can support Indigenous online learners in the COVID-19 pandemic

This extra burden that Indigenous faculty carry is part of Ms. Tremblay’s work at Concordia. She co-facilitated a series of Indigenous learning workshops, including one titled A Day in the Life of Indigenous Faculty. It educated non-Indigenous university staff and faculty on how many hats Indigenous faculty have to wear, and the toll it takes on their health.

In Ms. Tremblay’s former role as director of Indigenous research for SSHRC, she went on an extensive 18-month engagement process with Indigenous peoples across Canada, from youth to graduate students, academics, Elders and community members, in order to advise the Tri-council presidents on the strategic plan.

In the engagement sessions, many community members gave testimonies about international and Canadian researchers entering Indigenous communities without consent and without the protocols and ethics that would facilitate a respectful research experience for all involved, says Ms. Tremblay, who is nêhiyaw (Plains Cree).

Out of that work came a lot of discussions on reversing the order of research. “As opposed to having a researcher or NGOs going into our communities in order to conduct research on our lands, with only their own personal interests motivating them, what we wanted to see was a situation where the Indigenous community decides what needs to be researched and we identify the scholars that would help us do that,” she says.

Ms. Tremblay adds that a good start to working together is to either implement or adapt the First Nations Principles of OCAP – ownership, control, access and possession – developed in 1998 by the National Steering Committee of the First Nations Regional Health Survey, that place Indigenous communities in control of the data collection processes on their territory.


These same principles are how the very first strategic advisor on reconciliation and Indigenous education at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT), Janet Mark, views research collaborations with Indigenous peoples.

Currently, UQAT has several research teams focused on Indigenous issues, working in collaboration with Indigenous communities. Therefore, is it a natural next step for the university to start integrating Indigenous knowledge into its courses and programs. While Ms. Mark – who will be performing her new duties along with her previous duties in continuing education for a number of months – sees this integration as “important,” she wants to do things in the right order.

“Up until now, not everyone has worked with Indigenous people. It’s important that everyone gets trained.”

First, she is going to evaluate what all faculty and staff at UQAT (nearly 700 people) know about Indigenous people. “Up until now, not everyone has worked with Indigenous people. It’s important that everyone gets trained.” While she is aware that needs will vary, Ms. Mark says she has already been approached by colleagues seeking support. “There is interest.”

A member of the Cree Nation, one of Ms. Mark’s main priorities as she starts her new position includes paying particular attention to calls to action that have been made in the last few years. Working as an Indigenous relations coordinator, she helped develop the priorities of the Commission d’enquête sur les relations entre les Autochtones et certains services publics au Québec. “Calls to action are very important to me,” she says. “Universities have a role to play.”

True partnerships

The Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., is attempting to apply the first principles of OCAP and is producing a business plan to create the Delta Institute, an Indigenous-led environmental monitoring hub revolving around research of the Peace-Athabasca Delta, one of the world’s largest freshwater inland river deltas.

The delta is the “heart of our territory,” says Melody Lepine, director of government and industry relations for the Mikisew Cree First Nation. She adds that it is a sacred place for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Fort Chipewyan Métis.

Because of the delta’s unique and complex ecological and hydrological make up, a lot of researchers come through the area. “They kind of take bits and pieces of Indigenous knowledge, apply it into their research, and then they’re gone,” says Ms. Lepine. “We don’t really see a lot of the results.”

The institute would change that, making the community an active part of all delta-based research projects. “This is our institute, this is how we do research in the delta, we’re a part of it, and our culture is a part of it,” says Ms. Lepine, adding conversations are taking place between the institute and universities in the province.

She points to whitefish camps held in 2019 as an example of good relationships between non-Indigenous researchers and the communities. The research, led by MCFN and affiliated with the University of Alberta’s Tracking Change research initiative, was driven by questions from the community about the health of the whitefish, and everyone camped together. Cultural protocols were followed, while the fish biologists shared their knowledge.

“Through the whitefish camp, we were able to determine that the whitefish are healthy from the Indigenous knowledge and the fish biology side of thing,” she says. “We understand now the process of testing whitefish by going to the lab in Winnipeg and knowing when they collect that tissue sample, where it goes, and what do they do with it, so seeing the full circle of the sampling is very empowering.”

The University of Guelph is also looking ahead by launching a new four-year bachelor of Indigenous environmental science and practice program in the fall of 2021. The focus will be on braiding together Indigenous and non-Indigenous practice in environmental science.

Read also: Yellowhead Institute puts Indigenous policy expertise first

“Indigenous peoples have maintained a strong relationship with the land and all our relations, human and non-human, and with diverse worldviews Indigenous nations across the continent, and would bring critical insights and knowledge to environmental science, which I don’t think has been embraced,” says Jesse Popp, chair in Indigenous environmental science and an assistant professor at the U of Guelph.

Dr. Popp, a member of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island, says the approach to combine Indigenous and non-Indigenous practice supports inclusion and diversity, which makes science much better as a whole.

She brings this approach to her wildlife, Indigenous science, ecology lab at the U of Guelph, where researchers are looking at the decline of moose across many regions of North America. Western science can’t answer why moose are declining, but Dr. Popp spoke with many Anishnaabek nations to bring together knowledge systems.

“A lot of times when researchers think about the decline of a species, they think about the impacts to the environment, and how we should manipulate that, but often don’t consider the interlinkages to culture, way of life and well-being,” says Dr. Popp. “Moose aren’t just important for ecological integrity, but for cultural integrity as well.”

Having Indigenous academics and researchers like Drs. Popp, Tallbear and others, is integral to shaping the future of Indigenous sciences. When future Indigenous scientists see themselves in these spaces it will be easier for them to follow in the footsteps of contemporary Indigenous researchers, especially when discovering the value of their cultural knowledge.

“How beneficial it would be for Indigenous students to learn that the knowledge that they’re learning from their home communities, whether it’s environmental sustainability knowledge, which is so valuable moving forward to all of the climate change research and environmental work that we’re doing,” says Ms. Sandy. “If students can feel like the knowledge that they have, and the stories that they’re hearing from their aunties and grandparents are valuable and can be used in their future education, that is so important as well.”

With files from Pascale Castonguay.

Kelly Boutsalis
Kelly Boutsalis is a writer and journalist based in Toronto, previously from the Six Nations reserve.
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  1. Mary Lee / April 30, 2021 at 12:07

    Tanning a hide is not a “holistic approach to its scientific methods”. It is an old method used by hunter gatherers that is harmful to the environment and more wasteful than modern alternatives.A chemical process is not a scientific method. Using traditionals methods because they are tradtional is unscientific.

    Science is a method, It has no inherent bias. First Nations used their knowledge of the environment to kill people, fight wars, and colonize their enemies, just like the rest of the world. This does not taint the method, just the use by people.

    “Suddenly you have all of these non-Indigenous researchers who’ve never worked on Indigenous issues or with Indigenous communities, bugging you to be on their grant with them,” she says.” This is because its easy money. Its ideological claptrap that requires no rigour, only the repitition of revisionist TRC narratives and claims.

    “Through the whitefish camp, we were able to determine that the whitefish are healthy from the Indigenous knowledge and the fish biology side of thing,” This makes no sense and their was no science behind it.

    “Indigenous peoples have maintained a strong relationship with the land” This is false. There is clear evidence to the contrary. Ive seen many reservations and they are environmental catastrophes. The abuse of land and animals is pervasive and extreme.

    Indigenous have learned from their environment what foods to eat and some treatments for common ailments but relative to western knowledge, they are primiitive and shamanic. The west has very little to gain from following these primitive practices. Persia, China, and most other populous areas 5000 years ago were far more advances in almost every respect than the indigenous in north america were 200 years ago. This was a function of population size. However, the fact that the north american indigenous settlers were far more primitive does not in any way devalue the humanity of modern indigenous people.

    • Gwyneth / May 3, 2021 at 17:18

      Speaking from my perspective as a university-based researcher trained for 10+ years in science, I think this comment illustrates an extreme misunderstanding of and disrespect for what science is & how the scientific method actually works, as well as the history of Indigenous Peoples and colonization in Canada, and the richness and rigour of traditional knowledge.

  2. John Minnis / May 15, 2021 at 01:55

    Good luck to those working toward integrating indigenous knowledge with western science; however indigenous knowledge of the natural world is based mainly on observations highly dependent on oral accounts handed down through the generations.This is not to suggest that such insights and opinions are invalid in and of themselves, but they are just that — opinions, which are then defined as “knowledge” – not to mention the fact that oral accounts are susceptible to modification and error over time. I would suggest that , in the case of Dr. Pop’s discussion of the disappearance of moose, why not carry out a comparative study — one investigating indigenous – derived hypotheses — the other investigating the problem from a western-scientific perspective. Comparative studies may yield interesting results that do not compete with one another, but rather, demonstrate strengths, weaknesses, etc. In either one leading hopefully to an explanation of the above-stated problem.

    • Carol MC / January 26, 2022 at 11:57

      “not to mention the fact that oral accounts are susceptible to modification and error over time.” – just like science