How Indigenous land-based learning can help fight climate change

Ontario university students are doing hands-on work in food and medicine gardens and in manomin fields — all part of a community-based research program aimed at cultivating healthy relationships and a healthy environment
Garden sites have been established with the assistance of the local Indigenous community at the University of Guelph Arboretum to address food access and knowledge barriers. (



Hannah Tait Neufeld is an assistant professor of family relations and applied nutrition at the University of Guelph; Brittany Luby is an assistant professor of history at the University of Guelph; and Kim Anderson is an associate professor of family relations and applied nutrition at the University of Guelph.

What we’re learning about climate change can be paralyzing, especially for young people who are contemplating life pathways.

Indigenous land-based learning offers an avenue for hope — and action. The approach has been taken up in recent years by a number of post-secondary institutions in Canada and internationally.

This is the focus of our work as mixed ancestry (Hannah), Anishinaabe (Brittany), and Métis (Kim) scholars at the University of Guelph. According to Indigenous ways of knowing, we are only as healthy as our environments. And so our research addresses sustainable food practices that feed the well-being of “all our relations”: human, land, spirit.

Using food as a starting point for action, we have launched a community-based research program to promote conversations and opportunities across geographic and social spaces that forge and rekindle relationships focused on traditional foodways.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

Our journalism depends on you.

You can count on TVO to cover the stories others don’t—to fill the gaps in the ever-changing media landscape. But we can’t do this without you.

This work starts with relationships and involves labour — both of which are critical to Indigenous pedagogy. With Indigenous community partners, we engage social-science, nutrition, and engineering students in hands-on work in Indigenous food and medicine gardens and in manomin (wild-rice) fields.

This enables us to focus on time-honoured relationships in our homelands and university lands while preparing for the future.

The relationship that Indigenous peoples have with the land encourages practices and traditions that perpetuate healthy families and communities. On- and off-reserve, momentum is building, and communities want to be involved in creating opportunities for learning and social interactions around food.

In collaboration with other Indigenous faculty, students, and a growing urban network, we have been working to expand gardens in the wider Grand River Territory and at the University of Guelph — on the ancestral lands of the Attawandaron people, and the treaty lands and Territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit. We work together to strengthen land-based relationships and local food sovereignty.

In an effort to address community needs in southwestern Ontario, our ongoing research is designed to engage a diverse group of partners, collaborators, and knowledge users. Garden sites have been established with the assistance of the local Indigenous community at the University of Guelph Arboretum to address food access and knowledge barriers and explore innovative land-based education and practices.

Since the spring of 2018, a group of committed community members, faculty, and students have planted and nurtured edible and medicinal plants. The gardens are known collectively as Wisahkotewinowak, which means “green shoots that grow after a fire.”

The garden brings together community agencies such as the Grand River Métis CouncilWhite Owl Native Ancestry Association, and Global Youth Volunteer Network. Elder-led workshops on medicinal plants and preservation methods have taken place throughout the four seasons.

This project has strengthened intergenerational and inter-regional relationships. Using food as a starting point, conversations and opportunities for exchange allow people to share their knowledge and to forge relationships with the land and each other.

In some cases, however, environmental change has limited the ability of Elders to pass on traditional knowledge through hands-on activities such as planting and harvesting foods.

Such is the case at Dalles 38C Indian Reserve, where Brittany’s Anishinaabe ancestors originated. Upstream and downstream dams control the flows into and out of the Winnipeg River, which runs through the reserve.

Water depths in manomin habitats have been altered by hydroelectric development and continue to be subject to fluctuations during the growing season that do not resemble the natural patterns to which manomin adapted.

Discharges from upstream sources have also affected sediment and water quality. These sources include the community of Kenora and a pulp-and-paper mill, which ceased operation in the 2000s.

Researchers at the University of Guelph have partnered with the Economic Development Committee at Dalles 38C Indian Reserve to determine which factors are limiting the growth of manomin and to develop management strategies to control these factors.

The traditional knowledge of Elders — shared through interviews and river tours — aids in understanding the historical relationship between water fluctuations, urban discharge, and the growth of manomin.

By combining traditional knowledge of manomin with more recent observations about riverine change, youth involved in the research can begin to understand that histories of loss may, indeed, provide clues for regrowth. This changed lens results in a future-oriented view of the Winnipeg River that challenges the nature and duration of settler-industrial landscapes.

Elder knowledge allows youth to envision compromised fields as productive Anishinaabe spaces.

University research and the teaching provided through such projects as the Wisaktowinowak gardens and the manomin/wild rice project create new opportunities for youth and Elders to interact, both on campus — by planting seeds — and in Anishinaabe homelands through the revival of traditional harvesting.

It’s the land that brings us together — the land that teaches relationship-based ways of knowing about the natural world and its food systems.

And with the increasing uptake of post-secondary land-based education, we may just change the way upcoming generations envision our environment and shape the future that unfolds on it.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related tags:
Thinking of your experience with, how likely are you to recommend to a friend or colleague?
Not at all Likely
Extremely Likely

Most recent in Indigenous