‘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.

Just Posted

THC boardmember Melody McLorie and municipal councillor Coun. Duncan McMaster celebrated the start of construction on a 14-unit affordable housing development at 700 Sharp Road in February, 2021. (Westerly file photo)
Tofino Housing Corporation asks for portion of town’s MRDT funds

Tofino’s hotels and resorts collect a 3 per cent Municipal and Regional District Tax from visitors

B.C. Centre for Disease Control data showing new cases by local health area for the week of May 2-8. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island COVID-19 local case counts the lowest they’ve been all year

On some areas of Island, more than 60 per cent of adults have received a vaccine dose

Black Press Media file photo
Tofino sets municipal tax rates

Tofino’s residential property values are rising while businesses are declining.

A nurse gets a swab ready to perform a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Island’s daily COVID-19 case count drops below 10 for just the second time in 2021

Province reports 8 new COVID-19 cases on Vancouver Island Wednesday

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the shooting of a Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman in the Ucluelet First Nation community of Hitacu on May 8. (Black Press Media file photo)
Indigenous woman shot by police was holding a replica gun, says Ucluelet First Nation

Woman has been identified as a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day rolling average in white, to May 12, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. preparing ‘Restart 2.0’ from COVID-19 as June approaches

Daily infections fall below 500 Friday, down to 387 in hospital

On Friday, May 14 at Meadow Gardens Golf Club in Pitt Meadows, Michael Caan joined a very elite club of golfers who have shot under 60 (Instagram)
Crowds at English Bay were blasted with a large beam of light from an RCMP Air-1 helicopter on Friday, May 14. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marc Grandmaison
Police enlist RCMP helicopter to disperse thousands crowded on Vancouver beach

On Friday night, police were witness to ‘several thousand people staying well into the evening’

Sinikka Gay Elliott was reported missing on Salt Spring Island on Wednesday, May 12. (Courtesty Salt Spring RCMP)
Body of UBC professor found on Salt Spring Island, no foul play suspected

Sinikka Elliott taught sociology at the university

The first Black judge named to the BC Supreme Court, Selwyn Romilly, was handcuffed at 9:15 a.m. May 14 while walking along the seawall. (YouTube/Screen grab)
Police apologize after wrongly arresting B.C.’s first Black Supreme Court Justice

At 81 years old, the retired judge was handcuffed in public while out for a walk Friday morning

Queen Elizabeth II and Clive Holland, deputy commonwealth president of the Royal Life Saving Society, top left, virtually present Dr. Steve Beerman, top right, with the King Edward VII Cup for his drowning-prevention work. Tanner Gorille and Sarah Downs were honoured with Russell Medals for their life-saving resuscitation. (Buckingham Palace photo)
Queen presents Vancouver Island doctor with award for global drowning prevention

Dr. Steve Beerman receives Royal Life Saving Society’s King Edward VII Cup at virtual ceremony

Former UFV Cascades wrestling coach Arjan Singh Bhullar is now the ONE heavyweight champion after defeating Brandon Vera via TKO in round two on Saturday in Singapore. (ONE Championship)
Former UFV wrestling coach wins MMA championship

Arjan Singh Bhullar captures ONE heavyweight title, first Indian origin fighter to achieve honour

Astra Zeneca vaccine waits for injection in a Feb. 3, 2021 file photo. A Langley man has become the second B.C. resident to suffer a blood clot following an injection. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
B.C. man required emergency surgery after AstraZeneca vaccination

Shaun Mulldoon suffered ‘massive blood clot’ after jab

Chilliwack’s Kile Brown, performing as drag queen Hailey Adler, dances and lip syncs in front of hundreds of people during the inaugural Chilliwack Pride Barbecue at the Neighbourhood Learning Centre on Aug. 24, 2019. Monday, May 17 is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of May 16 to 22

International Day Against Homophobia, Talk Like Yoda Day, Sea Monkey Day all coming up this week

Most Read