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Stronger Together: Weaving Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science

August 16, 2017


Katie Aspen Gavenus

Feature Series

The Arctic Council: A unique institution in 21st century international relations

Arctic in Context - World Policy Institute

As the president of the Saami Council, Áile Javo, reminded the Arctic Council in 2015, “neither science nor traditional knowledge alone can provide the answers needed to face the impacts of Arctic change.” Since its founding, the Arctic Council has recognized the importance of working with both Western science and Indigenous Knowledge, also referred to as Traditional Knowledge, to address challenges in the Arctic. But the process of incorporating two different knowledge systems into Arctic Council research and projects has proven difficult and slow.

In 2015 at the Arctic Council’s ministerial meeting in Iqaluit, there was hope that the adoption of recommendations from the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) for the incorporation of Traditional and Local Knowledge would be a momentous step forward. But some groups expressed concerns about conflating “local” knowledge—that held by anyone living in a specific place—with Indigenous Knowledge, which refers to systematic ways of knowing tied to multigenerational observation, interaction, and relationships. Beyond the issue of language, the list of proposals—the culmination of more than two years of dedicated effort by SDWG, other Working Groups, the six Permanent Participants (Arctic Indigenous organizations), and Indigenous Knowledge holders—was underwhelming. It prioritized technical and bureaucratic guidelines over meaningful guidance for engaging with diverse ways of knowing.

Permanent Participant Recommendations

Indigenous Knowledge is not simply a source of data for extraction, though many researchers have approached it as such. Rather, it represents holistic, relationship-focused, and place-based ways of knowing—including what Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Alaska president James Stotts called, “the culture behind the knowledge.” In 2011, the ICC, a Permanent Participant at the Arctic Council, offered a method to apply Indigenous Knowledge in the Council. Other Permanent Participants reiterated and expanded upon the ICC’s proposal at a 2014 meeting in Ottawa, presenting 13 principles for the inclusion, promotion, and use of Indigenous Knowledge to “address a collective need to produce information … of use to Arctic Indigenous peoples, decision makers, and scientists of all cultures from a community level to international governments.” These principles call for respect, trust, and understanding. They also raise critical questions about the ownership of published material, appropriate methods for engaging with knowledge holders, community verification of information, mutual exchange of knowledge, and costs and benefits to communities.

An early draft of the SDWG document outlined 19 suggestions that drew from these principles, yet the final recommendations brought to the Arctic Council in 2015 do not honor the essential tenet put forth by the Permanent Participants just a year earlier that “[the] inclusion, use, review, and verification” of Indigenous Knowledge must “be led and facilitated by the Permanent Participants.” Nor does the document refer to the equally important concept that the use of Indigenous Knowledge in Arctic Council work should benefit the knowledge providers themselves. As the principles were winnowed down to seven recommendations, the focus shifted primarily to technical aspects of using and tracking Indigenous Knowledge. Though this helps to guarantee that Indigenous Knowledge will be used, the recommendations do little to ensure that such use will be meaningful, respectful, and ethical.

The SDWG recommendations are a first step, but only that. Aleut International Association representative James Gamble said at the 2015 Iqaluit Ministerial Meeting that Indigenous leaders involved in the establishment of the Arctic Council would be “frustrated that issues identified in the earliest declarations of the Council, things like the support of the Permanent Participants, and the use of Traditional Knowledge in the work of the Council are still being discussed.” Though he acknowledged the work of the SDWG, Gamble reiterated that the Permanent Participants had “[created] our own set of principles for the use of [Traditional Knowledge] in the Council’s work, and, it is our hope, that someday the Council might adopt these broadly.”

The Coastal Expert Monitoring Group

While these different ways of knowing can supplement one another, weaving them together requires a re-examination of and radical shift in institutional systems of planning, research, and communication. Examples from Permanent Participants in collaboration with Arctic Council working groups suggest that this process may be possible, albeit difficult.

The Arctic Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Working Group focuses primarily on monitoring and assessing Arctic ecosystems, and has created four expert monitoring groups to help in this effort. Recognizing that Indigenous Knowledge and input from Indigenous peoples are typically included only in later stages of projects, Permanent Participants pushed the Coastal Expert Monitoring Group (EMG) to engage these knowledge holders from the beginning of project planning. This revised procedure for creating monitoring groups has potential for replication throughout the Arctic Council.

Held in 2016 in Ottawa, one goal of the Coastal EMG’s first workshop was to develop a process that will utilize both Indigenous Knowledge and science from the outset. Sessions were organized and led by Indigenous Knowledge holders and Permanent Participants to challenge misconceptions about Indigenous Knowledge and better understand the context surrounding it. The ICC also facilitated a separate meeting for Permanent Participants and Indigenous Knowledge holders to discuss their concerns and ideas separately before sharing their recommendations with the larger Coastal EMG. Providing this type of space in the future is crucial to fostering understanding and respect.

An important aspect of the workshop was the Arctic Coastal Ecosystem Questionnaire, which was made openly available online to ask people, especially those with knowledge of Arctic coastal environments, to identify species, areas, and issues of concern that were key to monitoring biodiversity. These “focal ecosystem components” were discussed and amended during the meeting. Those common to both Indigenous Knowledge holders and coastal scientists were visually displayed in a Venn diagram (below), highlighting where the knowledge systems meaningfully overlap and reinforce one another. At the same time, the diagram subtly illustrates the fundamental differences between knowledge systems. Thoughtful consideration must be given to these differences before any meaningful co-generation of knowledge is possible.

With significant urging from Permanent Participants, many people within CAFF have demonstrated a deepening commitment to integrating Indigenous Knowledge and developing mutually beneficial collaborations. They are beginning to truly listen.

Though the activities of the Coastal EMG provide a hopeful picture for bringing together different ways of knowing, it is crucial to recognize that the Permanent Participants led this endeavor. In fact, Coastal EMG reports use language directly from the ICC and other Permanent Participants. As this work continues, Permanent Participants’ efforts need to be supported, moving toward co-production of knowledge and community-based projects.

This work should guide the Arctic Council and other international institutions to engage with Indigenous Knowledge. Respectful and effective ways to co-generate knowledge and draw from many ways of thinking are crucial to understanding and addressing environmental change around the world. In the words of Unangan (Aleut) leader Ilarion Merculieff, “At a time when Earth’s life support systems are being pushed to the edge, we need other ways of knowing to complement and supplement Western science and management regimes.” We must heed this call.



By Katie Aspen Gavenus

Katie Aspen Gavenus grew up in the not-quite-Arctic town of Homer, Alaska. She is an environmental educator and a master’s student in science curriculum and instruction at the University of Washington College of Education. She is a current recipient of a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship in Inuktitut from the Canadian Studies Center, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. Katie is also a FLAS Fellow (2016-18) (Canadian Studies, Inuktitut).

Find the introductory article for this series here.

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State. Image courtesy of Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group]

*This article was originally published by World Policy Institute.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.