02 June 2016

Valuing Aboriginal cultural knowledge in Western science

The relationship between Western science (scientists, government officials, etc.) and Aboriginal knowledge has often been rocky, with Westerners often only acknowledging the value of local indigenous knowledge when it corroborates their scientific findings, or when it can be exploited for profit. The negative effects of this habitual dismissal of local indigenous knowledge was highlighted in Canadian media in 2014. To much fanfare and after considerable expense to Canadian taxpayers, the federal government announced that they had 'found' the long lost wreck of the Franklin expedition. Immediately after the announcement, a flurry of news articles followed indicating that local Inuit groups had known where the ship had wrecked all along:
Inuit oral tradition said the two ships appeared on the northwest side of King William Island, said Kamookak. One was crushed in ice and the other drifted further south.
It was afloat for two winters before it sank. Elders said there may have been people living on it during the first winter, but there were no signs of people during the second winter. 
"For us Inuit it means that oral history is very strong in knowledge, not only for searching for Franklin's ships but also for environment and other issues," Kamookak said. (Franklin find proves 'Inuit oral history is strong:' Louie Kamookak, CBC, 2014)
Unlike the ill-fated Franklin expedition, or the government's ill-considered hunt for these artifacts, new scientific studies and conservation projects are increasingly underscoring the mutual benefit of valuing indigenous knowledge and practices. This is the discussion in Researchers around the world are learning from Indigenous Communities. Here's why that's a good thing (Ensia, 2016)
“The hardest thing is to sit in a room with scientists who think they’ve discovered something, but their scientific discovery just confirms what our oral histories have talked about forever,” says William Housty, a member of British Columbia’s Heiltsuk First Nation and director of Coastwatch, a science and conservation program. “That’s been the biggest hump for us to overcome, to get people to think about our culture on the same level as Western science.”
The article covers many interesting cases from Canada’s Far North to Australia showing how working together can create better shared knowledge, and relationships that are more respectful of indigenous lifeworlds and the natural environment.

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