‘Our greatest source of hope’: Weaving together Western science and Indigenous knowledge

TVO.org speaks with researcher Melanie Goodchild about how to integrate different ways of looking at the world
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Jul 15, 2021
Melanie Goodchild says there is increasing openness to learning Indigenous knowledge both in Canada and globally. (Turtle Island Institute)



During July, The Agenda is revisiting some notable interviews from previous years.

This Friday’s program features a 2018 interview with Melanie Goodchild, a senior Indigenous research fellow at the University of Waterloo, who was helping NASA and Indigenous communities collaborate on researching climate change:


Goodchild is moose clan, from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg and Ketegaunseebee First Nations in northwestern Ontario. In addition to her work at Waterloo, she is founder of the Turtle Island Institute, an Indigenous social-innovation think tank.

TVO.org caught up with her to discuss climate change, her recent work — and keeping an open mind.

TVO.org: The relationship between scientists and Indigenous communities has often been tense. How challenging has it been to manage those relationships?

Melanie Goodchild: I think the challenge is that whether we’re scientists or just folks that haven’t studied climate science specifically, we have mental models that underlie our approach to the work that we do. And some of those mental models have gone unchallenged. An example of mental models is the planet Earth as a commodity, versus Mother Earth as our relative. And that’s the source of the conflict.

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Generally, I think in terms of the work that I’m doing and that I’ve been able to contribute to since 2018, there’s a much greater openness to Indigenous knowledge at the global level, as well as at the Canadian level. I think that’s because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because of the concept of reconciliation. But even the United Nations Human Development Report 2020, which talks about the Anthropocene, has a heavy emphasis on Indigenous knowledge. And I’ve done work with the United Nations Development Programme this year to talk about Indigenous knowledge, addressing climate change.

TVO.org: In your interview with Steve Paikin, you talked about how presenting Indigenous knowledge is in a sense challenging Western concepts of science and about how doing that can provoke pushback from scientists. How much pushback you are encountering now, compared to when you began this kind of work?

Goodchild: Traditionally, there has been a privileging of the empirical, positivistic, quantitative, measurable — what we would call conventional science — and then degrading or dismissing Indigenous knowledge as non-scientific. However, when you really look at the lifespan of science versus the lifespan of traditional local and Indigenous knowledge, it’s been tested for thousands of years. It has both an empirical and spiritual source. And it’s now facing the same complexity that conventional science is facing. And so bringing those together, I think, is still our greatest source of hope. The challenge is that those who are indoctrinated, who don’t have an open mind to multiple perspectives, are going to miss out on that potential.

We’ve been doing quite a bit of work on what we’re calling the ethical space. That’s what Willie Ermine, a Cree scholar, calls it. My uncle, Dan Longboat, who’s Mohawk, calls it the sacred space. And an Andean Elder calls it the third space. Essentially, it’s an invitation to be into that space of the third presence where you braid together different worldviews instead of fully dismissing one. And the challenge for some folks is they think, oh, if you’re going to listen to Indigenous stories of the land and song and ceremony, you’re somehow dismissing science. But it’s not that simple. You’re actually asking for a more complex view, a more nuanced view of what we’re talking about when we talk about climate change.

TVO.org: You involve a lot of Indigenous ceremony in what you do. Why is it important to do that when you’re trying to weave conventional science and Indigenous knowledge together?

Goodchild: It’s important to introduce more and more people to ceremonial practice and ritual, because introducing someone to different ways of knowing involves a shift in consciousness. There’s a vulnerability there, there’s healing that happens, and there’s letting go of strongly held things they’ve believed in from their upbringing. So in order to help people, and to do it in a good way, with ethics, we introduce people to ceremony, because those ceremonies can hold that discomfort and can heal. Sometimes we’ve asked people to prepare dinners, we’ve had Elders sit with us, and we feast, we drink tea, we do water ceremonies. All of those activate a spiritual awareness for people.

TVO.org: What else have you been doing since your interview with Steve that you think people should know about?

Goodchild: I’ve had an opportunity to work with a lot of different universities, as a guest lecturer in Canada, the United States, and Australia, particularly, but also in the United Kingdom. The influence that that has had, which I think is significant, is that, working with Elders, I have been able to take some of the experiences we’ve had in Canada and share that on a global scale in countries like Sweden, for example, which haven’t explored reconciliation yet but are thinking about that because of the Sami people. Even the United States is nowhere near a truth and reconciliation commission on what’s happened with Native American communities or Black communities, for that matter.

Zoom has really been wonderful, because I think I’ve been doing a lot more international work over the past year and a half than I would have normally, because prior to the COVID pandemic, I would have been having to fly all over.

TVO.org: That’s not what I would have expected, because it seems so much of what you do is based on a sense of place and being in a physical space together.

Goodchild: It’s been surprising, and the Elders have been very supportive of it. We’ve learned over the past year and a half to try to evoke a connection with all five senses. I’m near Niagara Falls, and the thundering waters are powerful medicine. We’ve recorded videos of the falls and asked people to close their eyes and just listen to the water. And just having tea together or eating together on Zoom — all that’s been very powerful. People obviously miss being in person, and you’re not going to be able to do certain ceremonies on Zoom. But it has introduced us to this metaphysical or telepathic connection.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

For more on Melanie Goodchild's work, read her recent article in the Journal of Awareness-Based Systems Change.

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