Among the coastal fjords of British Columbia, Canada, mountain goats are beginning to disappear.
“People have been talking about a decline in sightings,” says Tyler Jessen, a graduate student at the University of Victoria who’s investigating how big of a decline we’re talking about, and what might be causing it.
The problem is institutions founded by colonizers and settlers, such as the one that Jessen currently does his research in, don't have a whole lot of data to pull from. The good news is that they are not the only data source out there. The Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation has been watching these goats for decades, so Jessen talked to members of the community to see how often they’d been seeing goats over the years. And sure enough, they recall a very stark and gradual decline over such sightings the past 40 years.
Combining Indigenous Knowledge with what limited western historical data was out there, Jessen and the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation are collaboratively developing a conservation status for these coastal mountain goats to better ensure long-term survival.
Today, 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is on Indigenous lands, where people and wildlife successfully coexisted for tens of thousands of years. Yet, western researchers have a long history of discounting Indigenous Knowledge and exploiting the lands they call home.
But that’s starting to change. A new report led by Jessen confirms the intuition that Indigenous Knowledge contributes greatly to our understanding and conservation of the natural world. Experts say western science needs to acknowledge these valuable contributions, reconcile with Indigenous peoples, and work together in reciprocal and respectful relationships to conserve wild places.
Since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, what’s commonly known as the scientific method has served as the bedrock of western scientific research. Making observations, developing hypotheses, designing experiments to test those hypotheses, and making conclusions based on the collected data are all trademark steps of the western scientific method.
Another step... is doing it all over again. Reproducing studies is essential to falsification, or trying to prove a hypothesis wrong. If study after study produces the same results, then a scientific hypothesis gains credit. If not, then a hypothesis is discredited or outright rejected.
Compared to our expedited modern world, nature usually moves at a snail’s pace. Observing change and unraveling natural mysteries takes time and many sets of eyes. But a “publish or perish” culture often leads to short funding cycles and studies lasting just a few years. Scientists are incentivized to conduct research with flashy, novel results that can be rapidly published, neglecting reproducibility and studies with less impactful results along the way.
Using a combination of western measurements and historical accounts from the Haíɫzaqv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Nuxalk, and Wuikinuxv peoples of western Canada, researchers added over 50 years of data on rockfish size linked to rockfish fertility and population growth.
Yet boring, conflicting, or no results are just as important as exciting ones. Reproducing studies, re-testing hypotheses, and replicating results are what makes science… science. Without it, this toxic culture in western science propagates research that goes against its own foundations. Furthermore, there are so many moving and interlocking parts in nature’s ecosystems that reducing variables to create a reproducible study is in and of itself a daunting task.
Still, western science has long since become the de facto gold standard, or only standard, for answering questions about our observable world, while other ways of knowing, like Indigenous Knowledge, rarely receive such accreditation. Oftentimes, Indigenous Knowledge wasn’t held up to the same level of fact as a scientific fact until it was confirmed by western science, Jessen laments. “Ignoring the damage of that, it’s just not true.”
But many are starting to acknowledge the immense value and countless contributions of Indigenous Knowledge to understanding the natural sciences, even considering it a type of science itself, adds Jessen. After all, Indigenous Knowledge and western science share many commonalities. Natural experiments, hypothesis testing, fiercely detailed observations — all are characteristic of both ways of knowing. Sometimes they’re even more prominent in Indigenous Knowledge systems.
In western science, long-running projects are a hot but rare commodity. If you’re one of the lucky few, you might be able to collect data somewhere for decades. These “long-term” projects are revered in ecology because they can offer answers to questions that a few years of data can’t. Scientists can re-do studies and improve them as more data comes in. Test if old hypotheses still hold up and develop new ones.
Long-term takes on a whole new meaning in Indigenous communities. Oral histories and relational, place-based observations of nature can span many generations, even millennia, creating unparalleled knowledge generation. In western Brazil, the Enawene-Nawe tribe can distinguish between 48 species of stingless bees and identify their niche, or status, within the ecosystem. The Sahtú Dene and Métis peoples can look at caribou behavior in northern Canada to differentiate between boreal (tǫdzı), mountain (shúhta ɂepe), and barren-ground (ɂekwe) caribou subpopulations. Western researchers had to look inside caribou, at their genes, to figure this out.
Western science and Indigenous Knowledge can also be woven together to co-produce knowledge. Using a combination of western measurements and historical accounts from the Haíɫzaqv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Nuxalk, and Wuikinuxv peoples of western Canada, researchers added over 50 years of data on rockfish size linked to rockfish fertility and population growth.
But Indigenous Knowledge’s value extends far beyond the realm of scientific understanding. You must look deeper, at Indigenous conservation and stewardship.
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAM) says that wildlife is a resource held under public trust, that wildlife is not owned by any one person, but collectively, by everyone. Placing wildlife under public ownership “implies that society values wildlife,” says a NAM review. But does ownership of wildlife really imply value?
Public valuation sometimes comes in the form of a price tag, like a wild-caught salmon costing 10 dollars a pound. While this might help promote the value of a species or individual, it can also promote exploitation rather than conservation. In our nascent western models, we see ourselves as independent from nature and having ownership or dominion over it. While ruling over wildlife can work well for species we like, it doesn’t always bode well for those we don’t.
Why must we assign value and ownership to anything and everything we come across? Why can’t nature exist as it is, belonging to nobody, cherished by all, and held in priceless esteem?
Ownership and price tags reduce lives to objects. They create separation. To put it in another way: Why must we assign value and ownership to anything and everything we come across? Why can’t nature exist as it is, belonging to nobody, cherished by all, and held in priceless esteem?
Indigenous peoples see it differently. It’s not about dominion over nature, but dependence on it that creates long-lasting conservation. It’s about a holistic focus on not only how we understand the natural world, but also how we value it — seeing nature as a series of interconnected, reciprocal relationships rather than independent transactions. “There is growing interest in Indigenous Knowledge as their strengths lie in the acceptance of the complexity of the ecological world, diversity of interdependent systems, and the need to find our collective place of balance within these systems,” says Lawrence Ignace, an Anishinaabe graduate student at the University of Victoria and co-author of a recent report outlining calls to action for reconciliation.
The stark contrast between Indigenous and western worldviews is showcased in how each name the natural world. Westerners, taking the path of ownership and separation, have a long history of naming landmarks and species they “discovered” after white explorers and the rich men who funded them. But Indigenous peoples intimately connected with the land often chose names that described how something looked or what it meant to their lives — the relationship they shared with it. Take the Cascade volcanoes, which were commonly known by translated Indigenous names like “The Great White Watcher” and “The Smoker.” Today, they’re usually known by other names like Mt. Baker and Mt. St. Helens, named after friends and naval officers of the Vancouver expeditions. Racial slurs and the names of slave owners, perpetrators of atrocities towards Indigenous peoples, and other powerful white men still run rampant across our peaks and valleys — through the birds that call them home. These names serve as constant reminders to Indigenous peoples of a long history of oppression and a narrow mindset of superiority.
The damages of replacing such place and connection-based Indigenous names don’t just take their toll on Indigenous peoples. They also hurt the very places and species whose names have been changed. Over the thousands of years that Indigenous peoples have spent learning to live and connect with the natural world, they were developing their own languages to characterize and make sense of what they were learning.
Their names don’t tell of powerful friends, but of rivers and lakes full of fish, fertile and infertile lands, plants and roots that provide essential nutrients and medicine to make it through harsh times, and some that could kill you but not other animals. Many of them tell of words and connections that our western languages can’t even comprehend. Their names hold deep histories of cultural identity and traditional ecological knowledge that could save species and ecosystems on the brink of extinction.
But centuries of colonialist suppression of Indigenous peoples and their culture has left many native languages with only a handful of speakers left, and many others that have been lost entirely. It is worth pointing out again that the last residential school in Canada, which was described by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada as“an integral part of a conscious policy of cultural genocide”, only closed in 1997, after both Ignace and I were born. Reversing this language crisis means working to restore Indigenous names to the natural world and listening deeply to the people who created them. They hold the knowledge and perspective, passed on through millennia of meticulous observation, trial and error, and documentation through stories, to live in harmony with our natural world.
"To restore the Earth’s balance we need to shift from a philosophy, a dominion over nature, dominion over self, to a relationship and understanding and respect of the natural laws" — Tom B. K. Goldtooth (Diné and Dakota), Executive Director, Indigenous Environmental Network
A growing number of experts say the only way to conserve and restore nature, in the long run, is to move from a western ideology to an Indigenous one. “To restore the Earth’s balance we need to shift from a philosophy, a dominion over nature, dominion over self, to a relationship and understanding and respect of the natural laws,” said Tom B. K. Goldtooth, an enrolled member of the Diné and Dakota tribes, and the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, in a 2013 speech.
But restoring the Earth requires an Earth-sized effort — the collaboration of all peoples and all ways of knowing. And reaching this point means reconciling with Indigenous peoples and the dark history of western colonialism that systemically haunts them to this day.
Even though there’s still intergenerational transmission of knowledge and conservation practices, western colonization broke many of these down by taking Indigenous communities away from their land and resources.
In a lifetime of 78 years spent in Northwestern Ontario, Ignace’s mother Ruby has witnessed dramatic shifts in wildlife populations. The development of industrial forestry has changed the face of this area: Woodland caribou have lost their habitat and have been extirpated from the area, with white-tailed deer moving into the clearings. While the Ignace family didn’t rely on either species of deer for food, they formed an important part of the forest that they considered themselves part of. The same can’t be said for Ruby’s involvement in the ancient Indigenous tradition of fur trading.
“My mother’s trapline has also been impacted with the loss of access to pine marten so much so she has had to completely shift to simply trapping beaver,” said Ignace. “My mother doesn’t feel she has a voice to influence how decisions have and continue to be made.”
Natural scientists often share strong physical and emotional connections to land and wildlife with Indigenous peoples. Because of this, natural scientists have an important role to play in reconciling and rebuilding trust with marginalized Indigenous peoples. Ignace believes that advocating for more Indigenous-led research, allowing for more intergenerational knowledge building and sharing, and reclaiming some of these practices are critical to better support Indigenous communities and their needs. “Creating space for Indigenous youth in science can start building those linkages,” he says.
He also stresses the importance of building more understanding for knowledge co-production between western scientists and Indigenous Knowledge holders. Co-production of knowledge is integral to rebuilding the “highly colonial” resource management systems that aren’t recognizing Indigenous peoples' knowledge and presence on the landscape. “Honestly, we’re still just scraping the surface.”
Knowledge co-production isn’t about integrating or subsuming one way of knowing within another. Doing so would disrespect the unique values and qualities of each system. Instead, the strengths of both can be bridged together to complement each other — a connection between two worlds.
And there are many approaches out there. One is Etuaptmumk, or “Two-eyed Seeing,” first introduced by the Mi’kmaw elder, Albert Marshall. With one eye, you see the world through the strengths of Indigenous ways of knowing — with the other, the strengths of western ways of knowing. Together, you can see a balanced and diverse perspective of the world.
Two-eyed Seeing serves as a framework that can be molded to fit whichever ways of knowing or peoples are involved — whatever knowledge or practice is being co-produced. Researchers can use it to lay a path for their work to ensure there are reciprocal benefits for all, like his mother Ruby, says Ignace. “And in light of broader societal challenges we’re facing now, there’s even more of an impetus to start bridging these two knowledge systems.”
With one eye, you see the world through the strengths of Indigenous ways of knowing — with the other, the strengths of western ways of knowing. Together, you can see a balanced and diverse perspective of the world.
Still, it’s challenging and complex. It requires a lot of hard work, flexibility, respect, and deep listening. But it’s necessary. There are over 567 federally recognized tribal entities in the U.S. and 630 Indigenous Nations in Canada alone, with thousands more around the world, each with their own knowledge systems, practices, and worldviews. Without their fierce stewardship of biodiversity and vast contributions to understanding nature over millennia, it’s hard to imagine what the state of our natural world would look like.
For the future of conservation, Ignace believes that Indigenous voices need to be brought to the forefront of research and management, working alongside western scientists. “There is still a great need to respect the rights and interests of Indigenous communities to protect their knowledge and wisdom that continues to be shared across generations. This places an onus on researchers to shift their approach to where Indigenous communities are full partners in developing the research and research process.”
“It is about establishing relationships that recognize the past traumas of colonization and immersing yourself in depth and breadth of the knowledge of the Indigenous communities.”
But it's about more than just a full partnership. Conservation research and management on Indigenous lands should be Indigenous-led, period. As western researchers, we created this injustice. It’s our responsibility to right our own wrongs, to elevate and empower Indigenous communities. Maybe then the forest, with all its caribou and pine martens, will return to Ruby’s land.