“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 of this series 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 third article in the series. For more information on IK, see the first and second articles in the series.
In recognition of the value of forming new relationships and strengthening existing ones with Indigenous peoples, the IJC is actively seeking to advance its collaboration on watershed management initiatives across transboundary waterways. IJC affiliates who are Indigenous or have extensive experience working with IK were asked what qualities they deem essential when incorporating IK in their work and developing relationships with Indigenous peoples. The following are insights from those conversations.
IJC Commissioner Henry Lickers, a Haudenosaunee citizen of the Seneca Nation, when asked what qualities are essential to the relationships needed to engage Indigenous nations, discussed the law of his people: the Great Way of Peace. Translating it from the Seneca language, he said it requires three things: respect, equity and empowerment, which forge relationships that grow and build upon themselves.
He added, “Under respect you have various tools. One of the tools is understanding … If you don’t understand who you’re talking to, then how can you expect to respect them?”
Many interviewees said it was important to have a willingness to listen, learn and approach a situation with an open mind.
Wanda McFadyen, who serves on the Souris River Study Board’s Public Advisory Group, emphasized the importance of taking the time to learn about the Indigenous peoples with whom a project team is hoping to collaborate.
McFadyen pointed to the etiquette of learning about different protocols for approaching different nations and specific community members, emphasizing the need to “understand those approaches … and what is proper.” She also added that people “shouldn’t be afraid to respectfully ask (questions).”
Lucas King, the Territorial Planning Unit director and water resource specialist at Grand Council Treaty #3, highlighted the importance of respect when engaging with groups who have different knowledge systems.
King said “nurturing the relationships with Indigenous peoples throughout the transboundary watersheds … will open us up to having that more holistic view.” He added that what this really comes down to is “a person-to-person respect for an alternative knowledge system and a step out of one’s comfort zone.”
His words echoed a similar point by Dr. Kelsey Leonard, a citizen of Shinnecock Indian Nation and member of the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board, who encouraged more people “to be courageous in this work and to have courageous conversations.
“I think what that also entails is a level of humility” and to “recognize that there are other knowledge holders in the world."
In addition to the importance of education and respect, Kelli Saunders, international watershed coordinator for the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation and previous secretary to the IJC’s Rainy and Namakan Lakes Rule Curves Study Board, indicated that in order to move forward with Indigenous engagement in a productive way, a “mechanism for ongoing interaction is still needed.”
This can be advanced in several ways. Saunders highlighted that “there needs to be support for Indigenous communities and organizations to participate in projects, contribute to workplans and fieldwork, etc.” She also noted the importance of including “concrete recommendations at the end of a project that sustain and build upon the relationships that were developed over the course of the project.
“Often this is suggesting joint projects or research to further the understanding of, perhaps, an Indigenous Knowledge item that could not be incorporated fully in the project itself.”
Vanessa Alberto, a tribal outreach specialist with the US Army Corps of Engineers who has been working with the IJC’s Souris River Study Board, also stressed the need to have a clear understanding of the commitments being made through collaboration with Indigenous nations.
“In working with Indigenous nations, often times there’s that lack of understanding about what it means to make a commitment, what is a commitment in our minds and their minds.” For successful collaboration, she says that “truly having an understanding of what commitments you are making and living up to them” is critical.
With experience working in a liaison capacity between Indigenous nations and the Army Corps, Alberto notes that “It’s not necessarily taking information and me trying to interpret and then provide it.”
It is important to give Indigenous Knowledge holders the tools and information needed to tell the story. “It gives them a voice. It gives them an ownership of Indigenous Knowledge while working within the project framework.”
In conjunction with listening to those who hold Indigenous Knowledge, Arnie Marchand, a member of the IJC’s Osoyoos Lake Board of Control, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and an Okanagan Indian, emphasized the importance of Indigenous peoples having "a person we could communicate with regarding water issues and water governance that can disseminate this information appropriately to the band or to the tribe.”
Chris Paci, a member of the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board, agrees that listening to those who hold special knowledge and values benefits the project and those involved.
“As a human, each and every one of us holds sacred knowledge,” Paci says. “What we lack is the means to access it. We lack experiences with cultural teachings and ceremonial practices that are not our own. We should therefore respect those who have these experiences and work with them to make better projects.”
Kristine Stepenuck, US co-chair of the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River Study Board’s Public Advisory Group, stressed the importance of ensuring that Indigenous peoples are involved in all public advisory groups, communications and references. “We cannot effectively incorporate Indigenous Knowledge until there are people with Indigenous Knowledge contributing to every aspect of every reference study that takes place.”
When developing a relationship with Indigenous peoples, many interviewees acknowledged the leading role of Indigenous women in water management.
Gail Faveri, previous member of the IJC’s Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board, said: “In terms of water, we have to recognize that women in traditional culture are keepers of water, they’re stewards of the water and we want to be working with the women.”
Leonard also highlighted the importance “striving for greater equity and inclusivity … for not only Indigenous nations but for all communities that have historically been marginalized.”
As organizations such as the IJC have expressed a strong desire to collaborate with Indigenous peoples, it is important to listen to the lived experiences and valuable perspectives of elders and knowledge keepers, and those who have collaborated successfully with them.
Being mindful of these insights will allow for the development of sustainable, collaborative and respectful relationships with Indigenous peoples which will only strengthen watershed management across North America. As we have heard from an IJC Commissioner, board members and affiliates, everyone benefits when Indigenous people are included.
Christina Chiasson is a policy analyst for the Canadian Section of the IJC in Ottawa, Ontario.
Diana Moczula is a junior policy analyst at the IJC’s Canadian Section office in Ottawa, Ontario.
Rachel Carmichael Campbell is a student analyst at the IJC’s Canadian Section office in Ottawa, Ontario.