What is Indigenous Science?

2022: Sharing knowledge of fire tools in the Saskatchewan River Delta.

2022: Sharing knowledge of fire tools in the Saskatchewan River Delta.

Science has been and can be defined many different ways depending on who is doing the defining. But one thing that is certain is that "science" is culturally relative. In other words, what is considered science is dependent on the culture/worldview/paradigm of the definer.[1]

-Leroy Little Bear

The term “Indigenous Science” is the science that Indigenous Peoples developed independent of Western Science. Specifically, Indigenous Science is a

  • philosophical process by which Indigenous Peoples build their experiential knowledge of the natural environment/land in relation to the larger social and human context (such as communities and well-being);
  • practical application of theories of knowledge about the nature of the world; and
  • metaphor for a wide range of Indigenous-based processes of perceiving, thinking and acting that have evolved through human experience with the natural world.[2], [3]

Other core elements of Indigenous Science follow:

  • Indigenous Science is holistic and spiritual. Indigenous Science does not view living systems and the universe reductively, but rather grants them full integrity—everything is viewed as animate and having spirit. Therefore, human beings are in existential relationship to all domains of nature with corresponding responsibilities—interdependent and interrelated with one another.
  • Indigenous Science is intuitive. Human beings must recognize their roles and responsibilities to assist in maintaining dynamic balances of the natural world through participation and renewal.
  • Indigenous Science is contextualized. Responsibilities people naturally feel toward communities and individuals are extended to a place because each place reflects the whole order of nature.
2022: Effective spring burn in the Saskatchewan River Delta.

2022: Effective spring burn in the Saskatchewan River Delta.

Culturally Congruent Approaches and Methodologies

According to Dr. Gloria Snively & Dr. Wanosts’a7 Lorna Williams,[6] the following multidisciplinary approaches are

Qualitative Approaches and Methods

The use of qualitative approaches (such as ethnography, field research) and methods (such as observation, in-depth interviews, case studies) helps researchers gain a deeper understanding of human behaviour, culture and related issues. For example,

  • Observation (Participant Observation or Direct Observation). Indigenous scientific approaches seek knowledge acquired through long term observation of the relational networks and the desire to maintain balance and harmony—natural co-existence.
  • Lived Experience. The practical experiences of individuals and groups are often based on knowledge gained through observation, stories, songs and ceremonies.

Social Sciences

The use of social sciences (such as anthropology, economics, geography, political science, psychology, sociology) is acknowledged as a culturally congruent way to better understand and appreciate Indigenous Peoples and associated cultural groups.

Searching for Patterns

Indigenous Peoples generally view the universe as consisting of energy waves in a state of constant flux transforming, combining, recombining and deforming. Therefore, there is interest in discovering regular patterns, which then can be used as reference points to expand one’s knowledge base.

Story, song and ceremony

Manifestations of regular patterns in the flux, story, song and ceremony are used for knowledge and renewal purposes.[7]

What is Indigenous Ecological Knowledge?

Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) is intended to reflect the local and culturally specific knowledge Indigenous Peoples gain through generations of respective social, physical and spiritual understandings of the world and associated practical experiences. IEK is a means of forming one’s self-identity and ensuring survival on the land and the natural co-existence between natural and social environments. IEK is unique to a given culture, location or society.[8], [9], [10], [11]

IEK tends to be closely linked to survival in that it provides a basis for local decision-making in

  • education (for example, land-based learning);
  • natural resource management;
  • health and well-being; and
  • community-based activities.[12]

This knowledge source can be viewed as complementary to Western Science as a means of resolving socio-economic issues on the land base.

Concerns regarding IEK often center around these topics:

  • Intellectual Property. As research of IEK in local Indigenous communities becomes publicly available information, there tends to be a concern over who owns the exclusive rights of cultural practices, resources and property.[13] Historically, cultural property (including IEK) has been taken from Indigenous Peoples without prior informed consent or compensation. In addition, there is concern that research in Indigenous communities may lead to revealing IEK to those who might commodify and misuse this cultural property with little or no involvement by the participating Indigenous Peoples and communities;[14] and
  • Risk of Extinction. As IEK tends to be passed down orally from generation to generation, there is a risk of this knowledge source becoming extinct if pertinent information, strategies and skills are not shared and subsequently documented with each generation of local Indigenous Peoples (in each cultural group, territory and area of interest).[15]

[1]Cajete, G. (2000). Native Science: Natural laws of interdependence. Clear Light. p. ix.

[2]Cajete, G. (1999). Igniting the sparkle: An Indigenous Science education model. Kivaki Press.

[3]Cajete, G. (2000). Native Science: Natural laws of interdependence. Clear Light. p. ix.

[4]Cajete, G. (1999). Igniting the sparkle: An Indigenous Science education model. Kivaki Press.

[5]Cajete, G. (2000). Native Science: Natural laws of interdependence. Clear Light. p. ix.

[6]Snively, G. & Williams, L. (2005). The Aboriginal knowledge and science education research project. In W.M. Roth (Ed.), CONNECTIONS ’05. 233-250.

[7]Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Fernwood.

[8]Battiste, M., & Henderson, J. Y. (2000). Protecting Indigenous Knowledge & heritage: A global challenge. Purich.

[9]King, L., & Schielmann, S. (2004). The challenge of Indigenous education: Practice and perspectives. UNESCO.

[10]Sillitoe, P. (2002a). Chapter 1: Participant observation to participatory development: Making anthropology work. In P. Sillitoe, A. Bicker, & J. Pottier (Eds.), Participating in development: Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge. Routledge.

[11]Sillitoe, P. (2002b). Chapter 6: Globalizing Indigenous Knowledge. In P. Sillitoe, A.Bicker,& J. Pottier (Eds.), Participating in development: Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge. Routledge.

[12]Battiste, M., & Henderson, J. Y. (2000). Protecting Indigenous Knowledge & heritage: A global challenge. Purich.

[13]For more information about OCAP (ownership, control, access and possession) Principles, visit https://fnigc.ca/ocap-training/.

[14]Battiste, M., & Henderson, J. Y. (2000). Protecting Indigenous Knowledge & heritage: A global challenge. Purich.

[15]Ibid.