“Indigenous Knowledge: Lived Experiences and Valuable Perspectives” is a three-part series that examines the potential of Indigenous Knowledge (IK) to strengthen water management in North America. This series is based on interviews with people who have worked with the International Joint Commission (IJC) across the boundary and are either Indigenous, or have experience working with Indigenous Knowledge (IK). The intent is to promote a greater understanding of IK, articulate the benefits and barriers associated with its integration into water management, and identify essential qualities of building relationships with Indigenous peoples, nations and communities. This is the second article in the series. For more information on IK, see the first article in the series.
Where We Are Now
The IJC is increasing collaboration with Indigenous peoples in its work to prioritize the inclusion of IK, and in recent years has completed such projects along the boundary between Canada and the United States. This article includes interviews with individuals about their experiences in carrying out various IJC projects.
Gail Faveri, who previously served on the IJC board, relayed efforts in meeting with First Nations, Tribes and Métis in the basin to listen to their concerns about how water levels affect their interests, stressing: “From these conversations, we were able to learn from them and start building on a relationship between the board, the IJC and Indigenous people in the area.”
This partnership between the board, IJC and the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty #3 initiated projects to improve the conditions of wild rice (manoomin in the Ojibwe/Anishinaabemowin language) and lake sturgeon spawning habitat in the area. The board continued to work closely with Indigenous peoples and their leadership in the Rainy-Lake of the Woods basin to develop an understanding of ideal water level conditions to address these needs.
IK holders shared natural indicators that could be used in conjunction with water temperature data of the lake sturgeon spawning timing. They also collaborated with the Rainy and Namakan Lakes Rule Curves Study Board by sharing knowledge about ideal wild rice conditions and collecting information on how water levels could impact archaeological and pictograph sites.
Kelli Saunders, who was the secretary to the study board, recalls that “the study team benefitted greatly from the input of Indigenous communities regarding the impacts of varying water level regulation scenarios on wild rice, fish, archaeological resources and vegetation.”
As part of the IJC’s current study of flooding along the Souris River, the Souris River Study Board has been working with Indigenous peoples in the basin to incorporate their knowledge and concerns.
In 2019, the IJC and board organized an inaugural meeting at the International Peace Gardens that included First Nations, Tribes and the Métis Nation from both sides of the border.
“As nations, it was the first time they had come together across borders to speak on an issue such as water … so that was very significant and very moving,” said Wanda McFadyen, who serves on the board’s Public Advisory Group and First Nations, Tribes and Métis Committee.
The work to incorporate IK and Indigenous voices will continue throughout the current study in the basin.
Barriers to Engagement
The IJC recognizes that there are many barriers that have and continue to impose limitations to inviting IK and Indigenous engagement in its work. Understanding these barriers and listening to people with experience in this field will help improve future collaboration.
IJC Commissioner Henry Lickers, a Haudenosaunee citizen of the Seneca Nation, says he feels that a large barrier is a lack of fundamental knowledge about Indigenous peoples.
“Even though we have lived together for 500 years, you don’t know us,” he explained. His words emphasize the importance of incorporating a greater knowledge and understanding of Indigenous peoples into all educational settings and collaborative activities, including watershed management initiatives.
McFadyen similarly spoke of the need for people to be educated on Indigenous history, relevant treaties and previous relations. This sentiment was echoed by Lucas King, who works for the Territorial Planning Unit for Grand Council Treaty #3: “It takes being there and being with people. Take the time to be there and learn. Talk to people. Be curious.”
Lack of institutional education contributes to the lack of inclusion of Indigenous voices in watershed management initiatives.
Arnie Marchand, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, an Okanagan Indian, and a member of the IJC’s Osoyoos Board, said: “This issue is just developing and being identified … that is the very biggest barrier.”
The strides being made to include Indigenous voices are important and must be done thoughtfully. He emphasized that “any beginning is good, and every beginning takes time.”
King also spoke of the need for a willingness to change and the importance of looking into different ways of doing things. This requires flexibility, humility about what we think we know about water management and “being able to switch your mindset.”
This flexibility helps to avoid another common barrier, which is the hard timelines that are imposed on projects, King said: “You need to build relationships into the time it takes for a project. How do we truly have a solid engagement process when a hard deadline confines our ability to incorporate other knowledge systems?”
Another barrier, as expressed by Great Lakes Water Quality Board member Dr. Kelsey Leonard, a citizen of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, “is non-Indigenous representatives not valuing Indigenous Knowledge.”
“Even if there is acknowledgement that it should be included, it is often perfunctory,” Leonard says.
She suggests that this can come from “a lack of understanding of what Indigenous Knowledge is, how to authentically build community partnerships and co-mobilize bringing knowledge together.”
Other barriers include “governmental distrust on the side of Indigenous Knowledge keepers and Indigenous governments” as the result of a century of exclusion from water management in North America.
In addition to the proper valuation of IK, Dr. Chris Paci, an IJC Great Lakes Water Quality Board member, emphasized that for successful integration of IK, “Indigenous knowledge holders need to see themselves in the work of the IJC, need to see the value and benefit of being part of it.”
Despite the barriers to working collaboratively – including those that challenge the sharing of knowledge – the IJC continues to place a priority on welcoming the engagement of Indigenous peoples.
The third and final part of this series will explore how IK can be better integrated into future IJC work.
Rachel Carmichael Campbell is a student analyst at the IJC’s Canadian Section office in Ottawa, Ontario.
Diana Moczula is a co-op student at the IJC’s Canadian Section office in Ottawa, Ontario.
Christina Chiasson is a policy analyst for the Canadian Section of the IJC in Ottawa, Ontario.