Reconciling Ways of Knowing society seeks “transformative synergies” between Indigenous knowledge and Western science

Mark Mann
August 5, 2020

On July 27, the Reconciling Ways of Knowing Forum launched its first dialogue on the need for reconciliation between Indigenous and Western scientific ways of knowing. The conversation was moderated by Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative and a registered professional forester. The participants were Miles Richardson, O.C., Dr. David Suzuki, Dr. Nancy Turner, and Elder Dr. Dave Courchene, Jr.

This initial dialogue sought to address the question of “Why do we need to reconcile ways of knowing?” The Reconciling Ways of Knowing society — along with its partners the David Suzuki Foundation, the Turtle Lodge Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness, and the Indigenous Leadership Initiative — had planned an Indigenous Knowledge and Science Forum at the Turtle Lodge in Sagkeeng First Nation and in Winnipeg, Manitoba on May 25-27, but it was postponed due to COVID-19.  The idea for the dialogue partly originated from conversations between Suzuki and Richardson, who is a founding board member of the David Suzuki Foundation.

The Reconciling Ways of Knowing society acknowledges that “For generations, Western knowledge has invalidated the ways of being and knowing of Indigenous Peoples,” while becoming “the dominant form of knowledge in Canadian society” and around the world. The success of Western science to exploit “significant immediate benefits … has created the illusion that increasing scientific knowledge and technology enable human beings to escape the limits of nature.” But those benefits “often come with devastating unanticipated consequences” in the natural world. ”Reconciling Ways of Knowing emerged out of a recognition that these two problems and the responses needed for each are interconnected.”

Recognizing interconnectivity

Suzuki opened the conversation with a discussion of Rachel Carson’s famous book on the consequences of pesticide use in agriculture, Silent Spring, pointing out that the creator of DDT — a notorious chemical used in insecticides — won a Nobel prize in 1948. It wasn’t until much later, when the negative effects of DDT were recognized in fish and birds, that scientists discovered biomagnification, whereby the concentration of chemicals increases as they move up the food chain.

Suzuki went on to criticize the reductionism in Isaac Newton’s model of a mechanical universe; rather, the universe is greater than the sum of its parts. “In focusing and controlling, we fragment nature,” Suzuki said. “We look at nature in bits and pieces, and we become blind to their interconnections.” For example, by studying DDT exclusively in growth chambers and test plots, we get too limited an understanding and fail to recognize interconnectivity, Suzuki said.

“We’re very anxious to apply our discoveries but not humble enough to realize they could have ramifications we can’t expect,” Suzuki observed. “Too much of science in its applications is being driven by the need for money… or by power and control, with little to guide us, constrain us, or caution us in the way we apply that knowledge.”

The possibility of "transformative synergies"

Richardson of the Haida Nation spoke next, emphasizing the importance of beginning with ceremony. Richardson is the Director of the National Consortium for Indigenous Economic Development at the University of Victoria and an Officer of the Order of Canada. He works to support Indigenous economies and has served as Commissioner to the BC Treaty Commission, as well as President of the Council of Haida Nation.

“Everything we do with reconciling ways of knowing, we must begin with proper ceremony,” Richardson said. “It’s about gratitude… saying 'thank you' for all the blessings we enjoy. That opens the door to accepting responsibility for who we are as humans…. We’re all one. We’re interdependent. What befalls one of us befalls all of us.” ”

“If you look at any Indigenous person on Turtle Island, we’re the living generation of ancient cultures,” Richardson said. “Our people have been here 15,000 years at least… Do you think the fact that we’re still here is a coincidence? If not, why is it? I say to you it’s because of ceremony, and using our hard-won lessons from living and experiencing our homeland on this earth over great expanses of time and distilling that knowledge and accumulated experience into our ceremonies, rituals and cultures that are available to us today.”

Richardson described the continuing existence of Indigenous peoples as a paradigm that's at war with the colonial paradigm “of the nation-state of Canada, that bases its knowledge and its application of that [knowledge] on science.” But “transformative synergies” are possible when Indigenous traditional knowledge and science work together: “The purpose of this dialogue is to find our way forward together, by respecting both ways of knowing.”

Richardson emphasized the importance of establishing nation-to-nation relationships. “In our homelands, Indigenous people must be respected as who we are,” he said. “Our Indigenous people need to step forward and… invoke our understandings and our cultures and work with our neighbours, who we’ve welcomed into our territories, to hear and understand the truth, and to live in a sustainable way.”

Articulating "kincentricity"

Turner, an ethnobotanist and Emeritus Professor in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, spoke of her career working with elders and knowledge-holders from different First Nations. Turner observed that “the scientific knowledge that I grew up with and was trained with represents only a part of Indigenous knowledge systems.” Those systems are so much broader, she said: “They extend across all the different fields that you might encounter in a university, from linguistics, philosophy, political science, governance, education, as well as the sciences.”

Turner described the underlying worldview of “kincentricity” that she learned from Indigenous scholars like Dennis Martinez, which articulates an “understanding that we have an obligation to all of the other living things that we shared the planet with,” because “we as humans are actually related to all the other living things on the earth.”

Knowledge "embedded in the earth"

Elder Dr. Dave Courchene - Nii Gaani Aki Inini (Leading Earth Man), founder of the Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness, spoke about the immense challenges we face with climate change and social unrest, and how nature is the original true teacher. “We have no choice but to change if we are going to survive,” Courchene said. “We have to reach a level of understanding: Nature has always ruled, governed by her laws that are self-enforcing.”

“We have to begin by recognizing that Mother Earth is a living entity and she has an intelligence we can all learn from,” Courchene said, explaining how Indigenous knowledge is based on knowledge and understanding of our "sacred relationships," or values that respect all life. This knowledge is accessed through teachings that are given by nature, he said: “It is embedded in the earth itself.”

“Technology has done us well in many ways, but we have fallen short in expressing acts of kindness, compassion and respect for the Earth,” Courchene said. “Indigenous understanding begins with this understanding: to know and feel the love of the land, one needs to be connected to her.”


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