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Gathering Explores the Intrinsic Value of Indigenous Knowledge

May 18, 2021
indigenous gathering

On April 9 and 10, the IJC hosted a two-day private virtual gathering that brought together Indigenous knowledge holders, academics, scientists, water resources practitioners, students, IJC staff and other experts passionate about protecting shared waters. The meeting was the result of months of planning and guidance from a group of external Indigenous and non-Indigenous advisers who generously helped to shape its content and flow.

Over the course of two days, presenters and participants shared their insights and advice on how the IJC and Indigenous peoples can collaborate more effectively in the custodianship of transboundary waters, and how the IJC can respectfully welcome and invite Indigenous knowledge into its work.

As IJC Commissioner Rob Sisson noted in his welcoming remarks: “Like the flow of water in a river, this gathering is part of … a process of greater outreach and collaboration between the Commission and Indigenous peoples all across the boundary waters region.” 

Through case studies, stories and reflections, participants learned of the benefits and challenges of working together, the fundamental importance of respectful partnerships, and how to share knowledge and ways of knowing in the protection of “One Water.”

With its ceremonial center in the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe Nations of the Three Fires Confederacy, the gathering was opened each day by Russell Nahdee of Bkejwanong, also coordinator of the Aboriginal Education Centre at the University of Windsor. Drawing from Anishinaabe teachings and stories, Russell spoke to the importance of community, of respect, of building relationships and the value of learning from one another and working together.

Waasekom Niin of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation set the course for the gathering by recounting insights from his extensive canoe journeys and Water Walks through the Great Lakes. Niin reflected on the need to translate individual awareness into collective action:

“We are all united by water … We all have a personal connection. And I think now more than ever we have to really nurture that within ourselves. Because it’s with that nurturing and relationship-building we can come to the answers that we need … We can undo some of these societal barriers and we can come to this point of understanding that we all have this responsibility: The Great Lakes is a sacred commons, and so we have to work together.”

An example of Indigenous advocacy for shared waters and the power of collective action was presented by Frank Ettawageshik of the United Tribes of Michigan, and Professor Jacqueline Hand of the University of Detroit Mercy Law School. They recounted the history leading up to the development of the Great Lakes Water Compact and the historic 2004 Tribal and First Nations Water Accord, which ensured Indigenous nations were invited to the negotiating table to advocate for a healthy future for the Great Lakes.

Despite best intentions, successfully inviting Indigenous knowledge and ways of working into areas traditionally dominated by Western science can be elusive without the right approach. The Michigan-based Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) has created tools that integrate Indigenous knowledge, culture, science and perspectives with Western science and approaches, bridging the gap between tribes and non-tribal partners in climate change assessment and adaptation.  Recounting the need that triggered the development of these tools, Ziigwanikwe Katy Bresette observed that, “It became very apparent that the Anishinaabek perspective, the Ojibwe ways of understanding were being neglected, ignored … left out of the storyline.”

Bresette noted the importance of Indigenous engagement and integration being foundational, with Indigenous peoples involved from the very beginning. 

cover art tribal adaptation menu
Illustrating a Tribal Climate Adaptation Menu. Credit: Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission

Language is also important in achieving meaningful collaboration, as GLIFWC’s Gidigaa-bizhoo Jerry Jondreau noted. “When we just use the English language to communicate these things, there is an inherent hierarchy that’s built in … Words matter, and languages matter; and how you speak about things matters … We really wanted to try to create this air of parity and equity between human beings and non-human beings that share the space with us: Relatives, not resources.”

Ogamauh annag qwe (Sue Chiblow) of Garden River First Nation, a member of the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Subcommittee to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, spoke about how Indigenous knowledge plays a vital role in understanding, monitoring and protecting species at risk from disappearing from our shared ecosystems. She too underlined the critical need to change the narrative to recognize the interconnectedness of all things, noting the role that key species like water birds play in alerting us to environmental change.

Ogamauh annag qwe observed that “we need long-term transformations. It can’t just be short term; we need to continue to think long term. A lot of the elders talk about that long-term thinking; how we are only borrowing from the children that are yet to come.” She noted that traditional ecological knowledge instills these important principles into the broader collaborative and cooperative processes needed “to protect what little we do have left.”

Transforming conventional approaches to science and institutional structures to more meaningfully embrace Indigenous knowledge and ways of working is central to the work of the University of Windsor’s Healthy Headwaters Lab.

Building community between the university and local Indigenous nations is a hallmark of these efforts, which has included creating adjunct faculty positions for Indigenous scholars, funding collaborative community-led research and building reciprocal learning opportunities developed in partnership with Indigenous communities.  Leading by values and investing in trust-based relationships is key. 

“It really is about trying to take those institutional structures, question them and flip them if we can,” explained Dr. Catherine Febria. “Invest in relationship-building first; then move to the grant.”

Bridging the gap between Indigenous and Western science and ways of working was also the focus of a panel featuring David Arquette of the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force and Abraham Francis of the Environment Program, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, and moderated by IJC Commissioner Henry Lickers. 

Located on the St. Lawrence River in a jurisdictionally-complex area, Arquette related how the Akwesasne Good Research Model was developed to guide the review of the many environmental and scientific research proposals that were coming to the community. Modelled on The Great Law of Peace, the protocol ensures that any research proposed for Akwesasne benefits the community, the people and the environment. 

“We don’t want to go down the path of the past, where researchers used to come in and extract the knowledge, extract the data from the community, and then leave and we never see them again,” he explained.

Reflecting on reciprocity and partnerships, Francis noted the importance of not expecting “free labor” or approaching Indigenous partners as research subjects without a sense of equity. “I’m not interested in transactional engagements; I’m interested in participatory engagement. I want them to care about me; I want them to care about Akwesasne, in the long-term sense.” 

Preparation is also critical, Francis added. Doing one’s homework on the history of a nation, as well the initiatives and research it has already completed, is both a sign of respect and fundamental to building a successful relationship.

The importance of informed and respectful partnerships to the protection and conservation of One Water also was brought to life in presentations from the Columbia River basin. 

Say’ ay’ John Sirois of the Upper Columbia United Tribes and Swa?qn Darnell Sam spoke to the rich history of land and water conservation practiced by the Indigenous peoples in the basin, and how they have worked together to repair the profound environmental and cultural impacts of massive infrastructure projects and dams built along the river during the 20th century.  Despite challenges gaining a seat at the negotiation table for the Columbia River Treaty, Indigenous nations have continued to change ideas and attitudes around the region, including through “One River, Ethics Matter” workshops that have brought together diverse interests.

As Say’ ay’ explained: “We’ve relied on our cultural teachings to give us inspiration to bring us back to the water.” But the mission is not only to incorporate traditional knowledge, but to change the way people are looking at the Columbia River system in terms of its natural capital. Focusing on its ecosystem-based function “would give policymakers and decision makers different tools to make more sound decisions.” He noted that “it’s really important that we continue not just to understand knowledge, but to act upon that knowledge, and to have the conviction to take action.”

joint paper cover
Cover of the 2015 joint paper by the Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations: Fish Passage & Reintroduction to the U.S. and Canadian Upper Columbia Basin.

Swa?qn Darnell Sam’s parting word to the gathering was balance.

“We need balance through the whole system. For all facets of government, for all facets of people, for all facets of all the spirits that depend upon this river. What it does? It gives life. The cliché that ‘Water is life’ isn’t just a cliché, it has tremendous meaning that goes beyond anybody else’s being or meaning.”

Dr. Jeannette Armstrong and fisheries biologist Ryan Benson of the Okanagan Nation Alliance  recounted the work being done by the Syilx Okanagan people to guide the restoration of the Chinook Salmon in the river. Ceremony, traditional stories and knowledge, and ongoing observations from the people are playing an essential part in guiding decisions and the Western scientific methods involved in this effort.  

As Benson remarked, “One of my ongoing passions is combining Western science and traditional knowledge. They come to the same conclusions a lot of times, and when you see two different corroborating conclusions from different directions, it makes me know that I am on the right path.”

armstrong benson presentation
An excerpt from Dr. Armstrong and Ryan Benson’s presentation on “Indigenous Knowledge meets Western Science – ATK Case Study – Okanagan Chinook & Framework”

Armstrong concluded by emphasizing the unifying reason for these efforts: “What I think is important about traditional ecological knowledge is the importance of collaboration, the importance of working together. We can be thinking about the past all we want, but what we need is to be loyal to the future.” 

Overall, the gathering met with a positive response from participants, presenters and the IJC family alike. IJC Commissioners, staff and board members were particularly grateful for the time invested by everyone and the gift of knowledge shared. But there’s a need to recognize that this event is only part of an ongoing journey. 

As IJC Commissioner Lance Yohe observed in his closing remarks: “This gathering is a step in that process; there are more steps hopefully to come, more work to be done, and more gatherings to happen. We would like to see this continue, as a team approach, building relationships as we go."

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