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Practices for braiding Indigenous knowledge systems and Western science for research and monitoring of terrestrial biodiversity in Canada

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About the project

Western scientific approaches have been dominant for biodiversity monitoring and management due in part to colonial legacy; while Western scientific tools are useful, our current global biodiversity and climate crises reflect that a paradigm shift in how we coexist with animal and plant kin is needed. The Indigenous Peoples of what is now referred to as Canada have been living and working on the landscape for thousands of years, and over this time developed complex monitoring and stewardship practices for living in harmony with the land.

Although strong guiding frameworks exist for different Nations and knowledge types to work together (e.g., two-row wampum, two-eyed seeing, dish with one spoon), a synthesis of braiding practices at each project stage and their scalability does not exist for biodiversity in Canada. Additionally, much information about if and how knowledge systems should be used together remains with communities and has not been published in the literature.

In this work, we synthesized practices for braiding Indigenous knowledge (IK) and Western science (WS) in terrestrial ecosystems in Canada and international areas where Indigenous territories span the Canada-US or Canada-Greenland borders. We then identified gaps in knowledge about how knowledge systems can be used together. To do this work, we: 1) interviewed 46 people spanning 12 Indigenous communities (from BC, AB, QC, ON, NB) and asked about their experience with braiding knowledge systems, and if/how it should be done; and 2) conducted a systematic review of braiding practices in the peer-reviewed and grey literature for terrestrial ecosystems.

Key findings

Interviews

  • Most interviewees spoke of their communities using multiple knowledge systems for research, monitoring and/or as a part of everyday life.
  • Some projects where IK and WS were used included water protection, species at risk programs, assessment of proposed industrial developments (e.g., mines, roadways, hydro developments), Indigenous protected and conserved areas (IPCAs), climate change adaptation planning and basic research (e.g., fisheries, terrestrial mammals).
  • While WS does have a role to play in environmental research and monitoring, IK should guide projects.
  • IK is lived experience, place-based and a system of governance, including key values. Although IK is place-based, many values are shared across Nations.
  • Individuals from most communities spoke of early and/or current challenges with braiding knowledge systems. Challenges included IK not being trusted or taken seriously by non-Indigenous Peoples and systems, IK being extracted and not treated with respect, capacity issues, political will, the right to practise Indigenous values in order to teach them, and mistrust due to maltreatment in the past and present.
  • IK must be respected equally with WS.
  • Pillars to braiding knowledge systems are relationships, responsibility, reciprocity, gender and age representation, and intergenerational knowledge transfer.
  • Language revitalization is needed for capacity development within communities because knowledge is held within language.
  • Community-led research is critical, leading with IK.

Systematic literature review

  • We reviewed 12,088 written documents and found 78 research and monitoring articles and reports met our criteria for data to review in more detail to explore how IK and WS have been braided in Canada.
  • There was no discernible pattern to how IK and WS were applied throughout the research process (i.e., design, implementation, analysis, reporting and decision making).
  • Indigenous values were discussed in 52/78 documents.
  • WS was not defined in most documents, while attempts at defining IK were included in most documents.
  • The demographics of knowledge holders, including age and gender, were also not indicated for most written works, except in the case of Elders. Most works indicated that Elders had been a part of the work.

Synthesis of the interviews and systematic literature review

  • Rather than there being specific prescribed instructions for how to braid knowledge systems, successfully doing so requires building and maintaining good relationships. This process requires time, and interactions at all stages of the research.

Policy implications

  • Ongoing funding is needed to support capacity-building within communities and organizations, and within project teams with communities, to build and maintain the relationships needed for respectful knowledge-braiding projects.
  • Multi-year funding to support language revitalization and lands-based activities is key to capacity development within communities for the implementation of biodiversity monitoring within local context and knowledge systems.
  • It is necessary that timelines for biodiversity programs are flexible to allow for 1) relationship-building, 2) meaningful team engagement throughout the research project and 3) space for the dynamics of multiple knowledge systems to be considered in context of each other, which in and of itself can differ from project to project.
  • Guidelines for braiding knowledge systems should focus on engagement between researchers/proponents and Indigenous communities early and throughout the entire research process; be guided by IK; and emphasize gender and age representation, reciprocity with communities and lasting relationships.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Ella Bowles, postdoctoral fellow, The University of British Columbia Okanagan and University of Guelph; bowlese@gmail.com

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR and the Government of Canada

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