Indigenous knowledges and inclusivity: understanding the challenges before science.

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Mercredi 19 février 2020

Guest blog by Julien Commanda, a member of the Anishinaabe people, currently studying at Carleton University in Communications and Media.

When I was invited by the Federation to attend the Canadian Science Policy Conference and write about my experience and thoughts, I found it rather intriguing. For me, "science" meant what they call "hard science" (e.g. Math, Physics, Chemistry, Earth Sciences), which came in contrast to my Social Sciences background and particular interest in Indigenous Studies. As a young Anishinaabe man, the interest in Indigenous Studies did not happen by accident ― it is a field that allowed me to learn a lot about myself and to tap into my intellectual curiosities and passion. Once I read about the conference and got a glimpse into its program, I began to understand that "science policy" is actually inclusive of all sciences, and that the session that mostly was the object of my observations, The Influence of Indigenous Knowledge on Policy and Practice, was an interdisciplinary panel, bringing together perspectives from both 'hard' sciences and 'soft' sciences, as well as across sectors of activity, on a topic close to my mind and heart.

My mind started to think about how I was going to approach this joining of two worlds. I looked up the panelists and did a little bit of research. Not only were they prominent names in academia generally, but in Indigenous academia more specifically. I must admit I was somewhat star-struck. I was quite happy to attend this panel and take as many notes as possible. Seeing names of outstanding First Nations scholars like Kim TallBear, Vanessa Watts, and Nadine Caron started to shape thoughts on how I was going to write about this panel: Indigenous minds and knowledge were finally getting through into the world of science!

To understand my excitement about Indigenous voices in the world of science, one has to look at science in the past. There is a reason why this panel, and others like it, are taking place today: the scientific world has long been dominated by Western ideas and principles. It should come to no one’s surprise that the science we know today, both 'hard' sciences and 'soft' sciences, comes from the same forces that colonised the lands that are now called Canada. What Western thought and practices did to Indigenous spirituality, identity, and understanding of the world, Western Science did to Indigenous Science: it discredited it or it ignored it. Similarly to how many Indigenous ceremonies and teachings had to be taken underground and kept safe, Indigenous Sciences had to do the same, as many of these things cannot be separated (i.e. teachings and ceremonies are also often, if not almost entirely, part of Indigenous Sciences and Knowledge).

Before the panel, I got to meet the panelists and join them for the pre-panel discussions. The experience planted a seed in my head, but I was unable to articulate what exactly it was. There I was, in a room with all those prominent professionals ― Indigenous representation was very present, with a majority of speakers First Nations and Inuit and the others having worked closely with Indigenous communities in their respective fields. Yet, something did not sit right with me.

The panel started off with a valid critique of terminology and associated meaning in the world of science, where a more appropriate term to use is "Indigenous knowledge systems," to encompass the diverse and rich ontologies and epistemologies that Indigenous peoples have relied on as societies since times immemorial. But the news was mostly good, with examples of what a proper partnership with Indigenous communities in research looks like, with case studies of Indigenous knowledges being applied in various fields of study, and with making the point that Indigenous knowledge systems need to be understood and accepted as 'valid' science that can complement current Western scientific endeavors. However, panelists did not shy away from critiquing science policy and its stakeholders when it came to recognizing the 'validity' of Indigenous knowledges as science, including funding issues and matters related to ways of thinking and doing business (pun intended!) in the research and education industries. The fact that this conversation was had, looked like we were on the right track for Indigenous inclusion in the world of science. Except that we are not, or at least not as quickly as one may think.

That seed that was sprouting in my thoughts bloomed and completely changed how I looked at this panel. Yes, this is a step forward in beginning to understand Indigenous knowledge systems. And, yes, it is also a step towards Indigenous inclusion in sciences. But that is where it stops for me. I was looking at some of the most prominent Indigenous scholars and it hit me ― the colonial forces of science have opened up and started including Indigenous ideas and thoughts, but only once they pass through another colonial institution: academia.

I am not stating that these panelists have become part of a system that denies Indigenous inclusivity. Every one of these panelists has contributed palpably in their fields when it comes to Indigenous inclusion. What I am saying is that academia itself brings extensive challenges, hopefully not insurmountable, to ‘true inclusion’ of Indigenous knowledges and understandings in science.

This first challenge I see is that this institution adds another barrier for Indigenous peoples to prove that they are ‘up to snuff’ when it comes to higher education and knowledge. This is not a new problem, neither is it unknown: Indigenous youth are some of the most at risk when it comes to graduating high school, let alone continuing past that. This can be attributed to many factors that are worthy of a separate discussion. The fact of the matter is that, to be included in these discussions on policy and inclusion, Indigenous people must pass through the gauntlet that is known as higher education.

This gauntlet not only affects individuals that have decided to pursue it, but also the knowledge that the individual brings. Indigenous knowledges as sciences have been around since time immemorial, but the process of having those knowledges recognised is still fraught with Western influences. In other words, academia only credits Indigenous knowledges that have gone through the scrutiny of university rigour and research, defeating the “true inclusion” of Indigenous peoples in science and their knowledge. There are many more teachings and ceremonies that can bring innovation and understanding to the table, but the judgement of those knowledges is still in the hands of colonial powers. Only once they have deemed that this does in fact bring something, will it be “considered valid”.

This was not missed by a couple of the panelists, who pointed out the lack of a broader understating of Indigenous inclusivity, not solely confined to one’s field of study or specific application. They called for a more honest and open relationship between Indigenous knowledge keepers and the ‘gate keepers’ of science.

A second aspect that I noticed while attending this panel was that academia can create an inner elitism within the Indigenous community. There is a ‘clique’ feel of who can hold knowledge and who is credible in exhibiting this knowledge, which can still be confined to the standards of value that academia brings ― a person who has gone through the rigours of university and graduate studies has more value than someone who has not, even though that person may have a lifetime of knowledge and understanding. And, as part of the education and research industry, conference organizers replicate this mode of thinking, too.

This is by no means a critique of Indigenous scientists. It is a critique of the larger system that still decides who, what, and when is ‘credible’ and useful. Indigenous knowledge systems have always been there as Indigenous sciences, yet they are still being disregarded and ignored. This also applies to those who hold that knowledge, given their lack of 'accreditation' from a ‘reputable’ education institution.

In other words, while this panel was a good step forward in Indigenous inclusion in science policy discussions, I could not help but notice the irony that Indigenous inclusion only happened by crediting knowledge and thoughts of Indigenous professionals who have passed through another institution that holds power over knowledge and policy.