What are Indigenous knowledge systems — and how can they help fight climate change?

Indigenous communities have their own experts and ways of knowing. Here’s how people are working to bring them together with Western science to tackle the climate emergency
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Sep 30, 2021
An angler from Curve Lake First Nation ice-fishing on Pigeon Lake. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

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This summer, northwestern Ontario was hotter and drier than usual. Drought hurt farmers across the region, and wildfires were larger and more frequent, necessitating the evacuation of thousands of people living in remote Indigenous communities. The smoke from those fires travelled across the province, affecting the air quality of millions of Ontarians.

According to the latest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this is consistent with the effects of the ongoing climate crisis. In Ontario, many of the devastating impacts are felt disproportionally by Indigenous people in the province’s north. 

In 2014, the IPPC stated that Indigenous knowledge systems “are a major resource for adapting to climate change, but these have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts.” And experts say that such systems have not been widely integrated into climate strategies developed by provincial or federal governments.

TVO.org spoke with experts to discuss what Indigenous knowledge systems are, what they can bring to the climate-change conversation, and how they can be used in concert with Western scientific practices. 

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What are Indigenous knowledge systems?

There is no universal definition for Indigenous knowledge systems — there are thousands of Indigenous communities across the globe, and their knowledge systems are as diverse as the societies they support. 

According to Marie Battiste, Mi’kmaw from Potlotek First Nation and professor emerita at the University of Saskatchewan, “Indigenous knowledge comprises all knowledge pertaining to a particular people and its territory, the nature or use of which has been transmitted from generation to generation.”

Deborah McGregor, who is Anishinaabe from Whitefish First Nation and an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, says that such systems “have their own experts, their own ways of generating and conveying knowledge.”

Indigenous knowledge experts include traditional Elders and knowledge keepers, who convey knowledge “formally and informally among kin groups and communities through social encounters, oral traditions, ritual practices and other activities,” writes Margaret Bruchac, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania who is of Abenaki Indian descent. These activities include “oral narrative that recount human histories, cosmological observations and modes of reckoning time, symbolic and decorative modes of communication, techniques for planting and harvesting, hunting and gathering skills, specialized understandings of local ecosystems, and the manufacture of specialized tools and technologies.” 

The systems used to transmit and preserve that knowledge are inextricably tied to the land. Myrle Ballard, an Anishinaabe scholar from Lake St. Martin First Nation, in Manitoba, writes that knowledge systems “are based on intimate knowledge of the local environment” and on “the actual hands-on-interactive association with the land through generations.” 

Ballard notes that Indigenous language also plays a key role in the transmission of Indigenous knowledge systems: “Because language defines the world and experience in cultural terms, Anishinaabe literally shapes our way of perceiving.” 

How can Indigenous knowledge systems help manage the climate crisis?

It’s important to recognize the contributions Indigenous peoples have already made in the battle against climate change, says McGregor, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous environmental justice. “One of the things [scientists] recognize is that most of the biodiversity in the world — 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity — is in the lands that Indigenous people steward and manage and control and govern,” she says. “So, obviously, this knowledge is maintaining ecological integrity.” 

Research suggests that Indigenous knowledge gained through close observation over generations is particularly useful in climate-change mitigation: Indigenous methods for managing land and resources not only contribute to increased biodiversity (even when compared to protected areas) but also help reduce deforestation, carbon emissions, and the risk of wildfires

smoke billowing above a forest
Cultural burning practices can reduce the intensity of wildfires. (Terry Pedwell/CP)

Indigenous communities have been using fire to shape the landscape for millennia. Some cultural burning practices provide benefits similar to those of controlled burns — which are set intentionally in order to make a forest less combustible. Such fires can reduce the intensity of wildfires and encourage the growth of berries and mushrooms.

Experts say that Indigenous knowledge also contains lesson for climate adaptation. Indigenous groups, including the Anishinaabe, “used seasonal mobility to help adapt to changing weather patterns,” says Graeme Reed, an Anishnaabe-European PhD candidate in the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development. Historically, Indigenous people would travel throughout their territories in search of food and other resources on a seasonal basis. 

So what can scientists learn from Indigenous knowledge systems? “I’d say everything,” says Ian Mauro, the executive director of the Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg. “The kind of holistic view of the world that is truly an Indigenous way of seeing and knowing and being, it’s something that science is … trying to achieve.” 

“Indigenous people have been practicing and learning for millennia,” Mauro, who is non-Indigenous, says. “So it’s absolutely critical that we not only respect that knowledge but actively seek for it to guide us.”

What are the challenges of incorporating Indigenous knowledge with Western science? 

Mauro says that, more than a decade ago, while working with Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk on the documentary Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, their interview subjects told them that the Earth had appeared to shift on its axis. “They kept saying to [Zacharias] that the Earth had tilted on its axis and that the sun, the moon, and the stars were out of position from where they had normally been,” Mauro says. “It was unlike anything I had read in the peer-reviewed literature, and yet it was consistent, and it was ubiquitous across all of the different communities in Nunavut where we interviewed people.” He began asking around to see whether anyone had heard of such a thing.

Eventually, an engineering professor at the University of Manitoba suggested a scientific explanation for the observations: the Novaya Zemlya effect — essentially, a mirage caused by the refraction of sunlight between layers of the atmosphere, also known as “optical ducting.” In the years since Mauro and Kunuk filmed the documentary, research has also emerged suggesting that the Earth’s axis had, in fact, shifted in the 1990s due to melting glaciers and the redistribution of water on the Earth’s surface. 

Northern Lights above an Arctic landscape
The sky above Iqualuit. (Abishek Indukuri/Wikimedia)

“They just told us what they knew to be true, and it turns out that it can be validated in a number of different scientific ways,” says Mauro. Still, many people were “very, very critical,” he says, “because they simply didn’t believe that the Inuit had the capacity or knowledge to actually understand these astronomical events … There was a fundamental lack of respect or understanding for what traditional and Indigenous knowledges are and what they can provide.” 

Indigenous knowledge systems and Western science function differently, and sometimes there’s an “incongruency” between the two, says Reed, a senior policy adviser at the Assembly of First Nations. Italian researcher Fulvio Mazzocchi notes that Indigenous knowledge tends to be more subjective and qualitative and be “passed on orally from one generation to the next by elders,” while Western science rests on objective and quantitative approaches and relies on academic and “literate” transmission. 

Because the IPCC climate assessment reports, for example, are based solely on peer-reviewed literature, they are “limiting the amount of evidence or knowledge systems that can actually enter this conversation,” Reed says. 

How can Indigenous knowledge and Western science be integrated?

Canadian climate-policy documents, such as the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, acknowledge the value of Indigenous knowledge in the battle against climate change and contain commitments for working with Indigenous peoples on climate-related initiatives. Still, these policies have been criticized for excluding Indigenous people from decision-making. They “miss that deeper understanding of what an Indigenous knowledge system is,” Reed says, adding, “There’s an Elder in Carcross, Yukon, and he has a line that always sticks with me. ‘How do you fit a round peg into a square hole? You make it smaller.’” As it stands, Reed says, Canadian climate policy takes a reductionist approach to Indigenous knowledge systems, viewing them simply as sources of data. 

And McGregor cautions that “you have to work with Indigenous peoples, not just knowledge”; researchers, she says, should consider such questions as “What are the systems? What can be shared and not shared? How does knowledge govern what’s appropriate? What are the protocols for working with Elders and knowledge keepers?” 

Asked how Indigenous knowledge can inform climate science, a spokesperson with Environment and Climate Change Canada tells TVO.org via email that “many of these questions can only be answered through a proper dialogue between the two knowledge systems, facilitated by a ‘concepts translator’ (a ‘concepts translator’ is a person who is knowledgeable enough in both knowledge systems that they can ensure concepts are communicated and understood by both groups). Indigenous Knowledge Holders and systems will bring forth different elements, approaches, data, and insights and should not be grouped under a single unified system.”

The ECCC, they write, “has consulted such concept translators and Knowledge Holders on many of its activities, including for example the Species at Risk Act, which directs the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, a committee of Western biologists/ecologists/scientists to use ‘Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge’ when it assesses species’ level of risk of going extinct or extirpated from Canada.”

Agenda segment, July 14, 2021: Can Indigenous knowing help solve climate change?

McGregor says models are being developed that may allow for a blending of Indigenous knowledge and Western science in climate assessments. For example, Two-Eyed Seeing, developed by Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall, encourages researchers “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.” 

Researchers, she notes, are starting to do this kind of work: “Hopefully, this means in five years, six years, there’s a good body of work to then draw on that can inform decision-making.” 

But any attempt at integration must be done carefully, Mauro says: “I think integration is a fabulous and a very dangerous word, simultaneously. Yes, we want to find the interconnections. Yes, we want to fly on both wings of Indigenous knowledge and science. And, yes, we want to have a broader and more complete sense of the world that integration could achieve. But integration is also synonymous for assimilation, and the fact is, lots of integration has actually caused damage.” 

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