‘Both things are true:’ Science, Indigenous wisdom seek common ground

Reconciliation between Canada and First Nations is playing out not only in legislatures and courtrooms but in labs across the country

The berries tasted different. The blueberries and cranberries didn’t look the same either.

When elders from Fort McKay near Alberta’s oilsands went to their traditional picking areas, things just didn’t feel right. They knew something was off. But what?

The First Nation’s questions eventually grew into a collaboration with university-based researchers that brought botanists out on traditional berry-picking trips in an attempt to use western science to investigate community concerns.

Sure enough, the elders were right. Berries closer to the oilsands were different.

That effort to unite the white coats and the bush jackets was so successful that the Alberta government is extending the model into fish and wetland projects.

“We have a lot of scientists working in the area, but they don’t always get to meet the elders and learn from them,” said Jenelle Baker, a botanist who helped direct the research. “A lot of the scientists that are doing that are having some pretty big, almost life-changing moments.”

Reconciliation between Canada and First Nations is playing out not only in legislatures and courtrooms but in labs across the country. Research grant applications often require provision for what is called traditional ecological knowledge and Indigenous communities have a growing influence on what questions are explored.

It isn’t always easy. Differences between science rooted in European ideas and the conceptual tools of Indigenous people are real and both parties still sometimes struggle for common ground.

“Anything science can’t measure on the x and y axis, they tend to disregard,” said Elmer Ghostkeeper, an engineer, anthropologist and member of the Alberta government’s Indigenous Wisdom Advisory Panel — a group charged with bringing Indigenous perspectives to environmental monitoring.

“Everything is about measurement and anything you can’t measure is not scientific,” said Leroy Little Bear, a University of Lethbridge professor and another panel member.

On the other hand, individual experience and oral history isn’t always enough, said Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta polar bear biologist with extensive field experience.

“There’s been a push to try to move the traditional ecological knowledge into the science and that has not worked very well. They are two very different entities.

“Traditional ecological knowledge isn’t feeding directly into the scientific questions that we have anymore.”

Science isolates a variable, notes its behaviour under controlled conditions and extrapolates that into a general rule. The scientist stands apart, neutrally observing.

Indigenous people have been more interested in relationships between many things at once as they interact in the real world. That real world includes the observer.

“I am nature,” said Ghostkeeper. “I am the environment.”

That perspective inevitably includes feelings and values — love for a place, for example.

“Science can’t measure love,” Ghostkeeper said.

But those feelings and values are real and they matter. In Fort McKay, they were what started the whole study.

“They have subtler indicators of contamination,” Baker said. ”Often, that involves symbolic, spiritual contamination.”

Sometimes, science itself causes the contamination. Inuit have long objected to polar bear research that involves tranquilizing, handling and taking samples.

“It is very disrespectful to the animal,” said Paul Irngaut of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which monitors the Nunavut land claim. “It goes against our beliefs and it goes against our values.”

And even in successful collaborations, Indigenous concerns sometimes leave scientists nonplussed, Baker said.

“If we’re doing a traditional land-use assessment and we’re talking about the landscape, what happens when someone brings up the serpent that lives under the muskeg?”

Still, both scientists and Indigenous leaders understand they have a lot to offer each other.

“We welcome science,” said Irngaut. “It enhances our knowledge.”

Derocher credits Inuit hunters with invaluable advice about bear behaviour and habitat.

“We’re talking to people who have been on the land for decades,” he said.

Fred Wrona, Alberta’s chief scientist, said Indigenous input has been at the heart of research programs he’s worked on.

“It’s important for us, when we’re reporting on the condition of the environment, to understand the values of that environment,” he said. ”It’s broadened my perspective. A classical western scientist, you tend to look at components in isolation from each other and try to understand all these pieces.

“The Indigenous perspective has always reinforced the importance of understanding relationships between components of the environment.”

Ultimately, western and Indigenous viewpoints may not be that far apart. Little Bear points to the findings of quantum physics, which conclude that the observer and the observed are part of the same system and that the only constant in the universe is flux.

“A subatomic particle, isolated — which is the western approach to science — doesn’t have much meaning. It’s only when you take that particle and relate it to something else that it begins to have meaning.

“We may measure. But we also have to relate.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Kicking Horse Mountain Resort will be looking to crack the Top 10 Ski Resorts list by USA Today for the second straight year. (Claire Palmer photo)
Kicking Horse tapped as one of North America’s favourite ski resorts

The resort finished in tenth in the same poll last year

The Golden Food Bank will host its third annual Trick or Eat fundraiser this Halloween. The food bank has experienced a rise in clients since the onset of the pandemic. (File photo)
Golden Food Bank to hold third annual Trick or Eat fundraiser

The fundraiser will look a bit different from years past as the event is adjusted for COVID protocal

test tube with the blood test is on the table next to the documents. Positive test for coronavirus covid-19. The concept of fighting a dangerous Chinese disease.
Interior Health records third COVID-19 death

A new community outbreak was reported at Okanagan Men’s Centre in Lake Country

NAV CANDA is considering closing its station at the West Kootenay Regional Airport. Photo: Betsy Kline
Nav Canada considering closing station at West Kootenay Regional Airport

The organization is conducting a service review at Castlegar’s airport

Burnaby RCMP responded to a dine-and-dash suspect who fell through a ceiling in March 2020. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Suspected dine-and-dasher falls through ceiling of Burnaby restaurant

A woman believed to be dashing on her restaurant bill fell through the kitchen ceiling

B.C. Premier John Horgan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee arrive for annual Cascadia conference in Vancouver, Oct. 10, 2018. They have agreed to coordinate the permanent switch to daylight saving time. (B.C. government)
B.C. still awaiting U.S. approval to eliminate daylight saving time

Clocks going back one hour Nov. 1 in Washington too

A man was caught on surveillance taking a large outdoor heater from the patio at Intermezzo early morning Wednesday, Oct. 28. (Contributed)
WATCH: Heater theft leaves Okanagan business cold

Patio heater stolen from Intermezzo, found trashed

City workers installing the Trail Picasso. Photo: City of Trail
Reclaiming the Silver City Picasso

A replica of The Chicago Picasso was fabricated in Cominco (Teck Trail) workshops back in the 70s

Vernon North Okanagan RCMP and a local Vernon man are asking the public to keep their eyes peeled for a unique piece of art stolen from Chris Saunders’ Okanagan Landing home Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. (Chris Saunders - Contributed)
Unique work of art stolen from Vernon man’s courtyard

‘Theft and trespass violations are getting out of control in Okanagan Landing’

SilverStar Mountain Resort is nominated as one of 20 of North America’s most favourite ski resorts in USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice 2020. Winners will be announced Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. (SilverStar Mountain Resort - Facebook)
SilverStar tapped as one of North America’s favourites by USA Today

‘We are so humbled to be nominated,’ says Vernon resort’s communications manager

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

An artist’s rendering of the proposed development that would replace the Hiawatha RV Park in Kelowna. (Contributed)
Eviction notice leaves Kelowna trailer park resident fearing homelessness

44 mobile home units at Hiawatha RV Park were served an eviction notice yesterday, making room for new development

The City of West Kelowna revealed the new fire engine for station 34 in Glenrosa on March 10. (Photo: Graham O’leary/Facebook)
Abandoned house fire in West Kelowna deemed suspicious

The structure located in the 2700 block of Shannon Lake Road went up in flames on Oct. 28

Most Read