Indigenous and Western Scientists and Knowledge Holders Partnering for the Public Good

April 7, 2021 | 3:25 pm
Katarzyna Nowak
Katarzyna Nowak & Jared Gonet

We are two conservationists: a First Nations Yukoner and Canadian, and a first generation immigrant-settler with dual Poland-U.S. nationality. Our paths crossed through mutual interest in Indigenous-led stewardship, Two-Eyed Seeing, and holistic approaches like One Health. We are proponents of two-eyed seeing which means, “To see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous ways of knowing, and to see from the other eye with the strengths of Western ways of knowing, and to use both of these eyes together”. With two-eyed seeing, it becomes easier to see, for example that the health of people, wildlife and our shared environments is so intertwined as to be one (“One Health”). 

We think that an exciting paradigm shift is underway that could transform how we engage with governments and other institutions for the public good.    

Now is a time for justice for all species, places — for our planet. Scientists would do well to learn from civil rights movements, become advocates, communicators, and sources of deep equity that push against dominant western narratives that limit equity and too often represent a singular lived experience. We must practice science with a heart. We must tell stories that address the crises we face. We must open ourselves to spirituality and to diverse ways of knowing. 

In this time of intersecting ecological and climate crises, we need to hold our governments accountable to upholding international agreements that bridge boundaries and mobilizing knowledges that harmonize our relationship with Nature. We can achieve this through Indigenous and western scientists and knowledge holders learning from each other, fostering partnerships founded on mutual respect, and defining–and working together for–the public good. 

Respect Indigenous Peoples’ and Nature’s rights

We are fortunate to be living in a Zeitgeist of reconciliation between Indigenous Peoples and settler governments. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples charts a path forward, which many countries are implementing today, and which may take decades to justly achieve. It is a Nation-to-Nation relationship developing in many parts of the world between Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments. It is elevating voices previously in the background and bringing forth stories that speak of harmony with Nature.

As scientists, both Indigenous and western, we must strive to establish Ethical Space, “A space between the Indigenous and Western spheres of culture and knowledge, when two societies, with disparate worldviews, are poised to engage each other” (Willie Ermine), wherein our differences are respected while new possibilities are co-created. We are now hearing this ethos repeated across conservation, natural science, and land planning spaces and realms. 

As individuals and members of the scientific community, scientists must understand history, the role that colonization has played and continues to play in natural resource extraction, and Indigenous resistance to extractive practices, for example at Standing Rock and in the Arctic Refuge. To help avert further harm, we must recognize environmental racism and how Indigenous lands have been contaminated and degraded. As part of reconciliation, we can lend support (for example, through offering technical assistance) to the establishment of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) to safeguard sacred sites, biocultural values and traditional homelands and practices, as well as help remediate and heal degraded lands and waters and peoples’ relationships with them. As scientists, we must adhere to the Precautionary Principle when the stakes are high.

We must understand that many Indigenous nations throughout the world see Nature as having agency and therefore every right to exist as humanity does. While these thoughts are echoed by some western thinkers, they are deeply ingrained in many Indigenous views of the world. As scientists we must vocally support the Rights of Nature movement, and the broader equity it engenders. Last month in Canada the Magpie River was granted personhood status, with the right to sue for its protection, a movement accelerating throughout the world. As scientists we must acknowledge Nature has rights to exist, as deeply as we do, that we are interconnected parts of a whole, a living landscape with immunity intertwined with our own.

As scientists, we must be the voice for the voiceless by making space for stories of times and places, of species, of future generations, who cannot speak for themselves. This can be done by leaving an empty seat at the table for a caribou or a wetland, and taking time to envisage what they might say. This can be done by being storytellers ourselves, using science to tell stories that speak to the rights of other species (for what is data through observation but the observation of another being’s place in the world), and using our foresight to plan for future generations and their rights to exist.

Make space for Indigenous Knowledge across institutions and decision-making processes

As scientists, it is our duty to raise public understanding and engagement with regulatory and environmental assessment processes. Here in the Yukon this means ensuring people are included, primed and versed in how to engage. One example is through submitting comments on extractive projects being reviewed by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. Another is finding the public interest in regional land planning. We need to ensure that Indigenous knowledge holders are heard in such decision-making processes, which may mean advocating for comment submissions other than written—a medium prioritized by western culture but not friendly to oral traditions, nor those people who walk a non-academic path. 

Scientists working for environmental groups or Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (ENGOs) can more actively make space for Indigenous Knowledge and two-eyed seeing approaches to stewardship. ENGOs must work to diversify their boards, staff and memberships. Here in the Yukon it would mean that boards, staff and membership practice reconciliation and make space for First Nations in their organizations. In hiring, credentials need to be more broadly considered; in other words, we can better flesh out the “or equivalent” in job adverts given that those who fall into this versus the “degree” category may possess more relevant life experience and place-based skills.

At universities, scientists can help co-develop courses with Indigenous content, advance two-eyed seeing, and open courses up to working practitioners such as Indigenous guardians, land stewards and community members. Conservation planning courses can be linked with First Nations communities to, where desired, help address their priorities through students’ projects. The work conducted by researchers must align with communities’ protocols and needs. Scientists partnering with communities can help co-create guides for how rural people can transition from fossil fuels, mining, other extractive activities to renewable energy and other job- and income- generating projects that promote rather than degrade land health; one example from the Yukon is the Ross River native plant nursery.

Co-producing knowledge then communicating and applying it and making co-produced knowledge accessible for decision-making is vital to helping enact more equitable, inclusive and just policies. 

Cooperate across borders and through holistic approaches

If we listen to Indigenous scientists and knowledge holders we will learn about ecologically relevant, meaningful spatial (e.g., bioregional) and temporal scales, for example seven generations in the future. This will help uplift transboundary cooperation and conservation efforts and encourage committing to these formally and long-term continentally in North America. This may mean that the United States, Canada and Mexico join the other 116 countries and enter into the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). The CMS  “Gandhinagar Declaration” highlights the importance of international cooperation in ensuring ecological connectivity is considered across national boundaries and flyways when planning conservation or development. 

To be more consistent about intergovernmental cooperation (for example in the Yukon-Alaska border region, or under the auspice of the Trilateral Committee) and make it more resilient to political changes, involve more Indigenous North Americans, particularly transboundary Nations, in dialogue, committees and agreements, and help strengthen Indigenous environmental governance.  

The One Health (OH) approach—which ties together human, animal and environmental health—is holistic, and we advocate for the establishment of OH task forces (like the one recently created in New Jersey) that include Indigenous knowledge holders and foster western scientific and Indigenous collaborations across borders for COVID recovery and future pandemic prevention. Using Indigenous health indicators can help make the connections between human and land health more explicit.

Closing thoughts on calls to action

There is a call for change throughout the world as we address global climate and biodiversity crises. Indigenous Elders, scientific experts, and UN bodies alike are speaking a similar message: we must Make Peace With Nature. Elders are calling for more responsible stewardship, from Old Crow in the Yukon’s Far North where Elder Stan Njootli Sr. has called for protection of wetlands, to Maori Elder and pacifist Pauline Tangiora who said, “if you destroy mountains, you also destroy yourself.”

The disparate groundwork has been laid to make change possible, if we listen, if we answer this call, and amplify the call with our own voices. Scientists can use the power so inherent in the knowledge they seek to uplift the voiceless, Indigenous, the places we live in. This amplification is part of seeking equality, justice, diversity, and inclusion. 

We can better confront crises with the strengths of science through one eye, and the strengths of Indigenous ways of knowing through the other. We must bring two-eyed seeing forth in the work we do, in our communications with governments.

For this blog, we converged—from distinct and different backgrounds—to propose some of the ways scientists can elevate all forms of knowledge to better address crises we face. These ways include connecting health with conservation, thinking holistically and continentally, amplifying diverse and historically marginalized voices, practicing Ethical Space, advocating for Nature’s Rights, and co-producing solutions. In these and other ways, we hope that Indigenous and western scientists and knowledge keepers join together for the public good and co-forge pathways to holding governments more accountable. 

Katarzyna Nowak grew up in Poland, and was granted asylum in the United States with her parents and sister in her pre-adolescent years which made possible going into a field like conservation. Her work has included helping foster coexistence between elephants and rural people; using evidence to promote transboundary cooperation; and employing community science to better understand alpine mammals’ susceptibility to climate change. She was a 2016-2017 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a three-time fellow of The Safina Center, which helps advance the case for life on Earth through science, emotional connection and moral calls to action. She is one of the founders of Gage, a global directory of women and gender minorities in STEMM, and currently teaches land planning at Yukon University. 

Jared Gonet is a born and raised Yukoner. He is a member of the Taku River Tlingit, with roots throughout the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Currently pursuing a PhD in Conservation Biology around biocultural indicators, he completed a MSc in Wildlife Ecology on Northern Mountain Caribou in 2019. A long-time runner, with a deep-appreciation for the North and its natural systems, large-landscape questions have always fascinated him. Backgrounds in studying industrial ecology, environmental science, and conservation planning have given him a deep appreciation of the need for harmonious human-ecological systems. Throughout his studies, work, and volunteering he hopes to bring forward Indigenous ways of knowing and seeing the world.

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