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Indigenous Confluence: the Role of Indigenous Knowledge in River Restoration and Sustainable Futures

Indigenous Confluence: The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in River Restoration and Sustainable Futures

Over the past two decades, indigenous communities have become more politically empowered and often play a substantial role in negotiating complex co-management agreements. River restoration involves multiple jurisdictions and incites issues of land ownership, and in these cases, possessing a stronger political voice has concomitantly empowered indigenous knowledge and cultural values. In these contexts, indigenous empowerment opens the door for combining western European science and indigenous knowledge based approaches, which fosters the cross-cultural generation of knowledge and social learning, and provides for new possibilities of sustainability. The Indigenous Confluence: The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in River Restoration and Sustainable Futures project focuses on indigenous knowledge and its relationship to western European scientific ways of thinking about the world. The researchers of this project ask the question, “How does privileging indigenous knowledge and values affect the goals and outcomes of multi-party ecological restoration projects?”

This project works in partnership with three communities, namely the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in the United States, Walpole Island First Nation in southwestern Ontario, Canada, and the Waikato-Tainui, an Iwi (tribe) from the North Island of Āotearoa, New Zealand. These three communities are all engaged in complex river restoration projects. This project will investigate the ways that prioritizing indigenous values and knowledge in restoration partnerships influences outcomes, such as process outcomes (effect on the cooperative structures or team dynamics), socio-cultural outcomes (effect on subsistence resources and community well being), political outcomes (effect on regional power dynamics) and ecological outcomes (effect on riparian ecosystems and associated biota). Further, how do indigenous values and knowledge influence the project goals and the assessment of progress towards meeting project goals?

This project’s core research question has both empirical (scientific) and philosophical dimensions. Indigenous Confluence: The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in River Restoration and Sustainable Futures is an attempt to reconcile these two dimensions and provide a clearer picture of the fundamental nature of indigenous knowledge and values systems. It seeks to understand how indigenous knowledge and values are put into action, used as verbs rather than nouns, in cross-cultural ecological stewardship projects. If indigenous knowledge tends to relationships rather than seeking to understand the relationships (as in the scientific discipline of ecology), then how ought we understand indigenous knowledge? More importantly, how can indigenous knowledge be put into action beyond indigenous homelands? Bringing clarity to this question will help indigenous peoples and their partners bridge forms of cultural and philosophical differences to, hopefully, discover better approaches to addressing environmental degradation.

This project draws on visual methodologies. Dale Turner explains that his role in the river restoration project has been to observe, listen, and reflect upon community understandings of indigenous knowledge and how it is used both within the community and in relation to the ongoing legal, political, and scientific dialogues with outsiders. This project’s task is to explore the nature of the relationship between language, land, and traditional Anishinaabe and Maori philosophy. Turner explores photography as a way of disclosing indigenous ways of thinking, and therefore indigenous knowledge, as understood and practiced on indigenous homelands. Photography is a way of showing what cannot be said; for indigenous peoples, relationships to land cannot be explained by writing alone (contrary to what common law courts demand). For indigenous peoples, storytelling is a philosophical activity, and photography can be a powerful form of storytelling.

Project leader: Dale Turner

Associated Research Themes: Life Projects; Conservation and Protected Areas; Visual Methodologies

Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives