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

‘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

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

White Rock Rotary Club president Mauricio Browne de Paula (front right) with other club and community volunteers at the launch of the free hot lunch program at the city parking lot at Russell Avenue and Johnston Road on May 21. (File photo)
Daily demand for White Rock Rotary, city lunch program surpasses 40

Recipients ‘are very good people… going through some tough times’

Surrey Fire Service responded to a fire in the industrial area of 192nd street and 54th Avenue early Saturday morning (Jan. 23, 2021). (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
Surrey crews respond to fire in industrial area

Fire happened early Saturday morning

Students at Creekside Elementary in Surrey wrote letters to seniors over the holidays, and are planning to write more for Valentine’s Day and Family Day. (Photo: surreyschools.ca)
Surrey elementary students connect with seniors through letter writing

Creekside students planning to send more cards for Valentine’s Day

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Police called to Surrey home for report of weapon, man taken into custody

Surrey RCMP say people evacuated from house, one found in a bedroom ‘hiding from police’

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

sd
VIDEO: Mission drag racer scores 1st career win, sets world record, makes history in 2020

Justin Bond, founder and owner of JBS Equipment Mission, has break-out year

A 75-year-old aircraft has been languishing in a parking lot on the campus of the University of the Fraser Valley, but will soon be moved to the B.C. Aviation Museum. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Vintage military aircraft moving from Chilliwack to new home at B.C. Aviation Museum

The challenging move to Vancouver Island will be documented by Discovery Channel film crews

Giants defenceman Bowen Byram has recorded his first NHL career point (Rob Wilton/special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Vancouver Giants Bowen Byram records first NHL career point with Colorado Avalanche

Player with Langley-based WHL franchise assisted on goal against the Ducks

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A video posted to social media by Chilliwack resident Rob Iezzi shows a teenager getting kicked in the face after being approached by three suspects on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (YouTube/Rob i)
VIDEO: Security cameras capture ‘just one more assault’ near B.C. high school

Third high-school related assault captured by Chilliwack resident’s cameras since beginning of 2021

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma State Rep. Justin Humphrey prepares to speak at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. A mythical, ape-like creature that has captured the imagination of adventurers for decades has now become the target of Rep. Justin Humphrey. Humphrey, a Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season, He says issuing a state hunting license and tag could help boost tourism. (Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman via AP, File)
Oklahoma lawmaker proposes ‘Bigfoot’ hunting season

A Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season

Economic Development and Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly responds to a question in the House of Commons Monday November 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Federal minister touts need for new B.C. economic development agency

Last December’s federal economic update promised a stimulus package of about $100 billion this year

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2017, file photo, Larry King attends the 45th International Emmy Awards at the New York Hilton, in New York. Former CNN talk show host King has been hospitalized with COVID-19 for more than a week, the news channel reported Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. CNN reported the 87-year-old King contracted the coronavirus and was undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)
Larry King, broadcasting giant for half-century, dies at 87

King conducted an estimated 50,000 on-air interviews

Most Read