Better Together: Native Knowledge and Western Science

Candice Gaukel Andrews July 27, 2021 0
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Indigenous knowledge and mythologies, such as those of New Zealand’s Maori, often spread throughout many generations, helping people adapt to climate change and other threats.

Throughout the United States, Native Americans own and/or manage nearly 95 million acres of deserts and forests, grasslands and mountains—much of it in still-intact habitats. That’s 10 million more acres than the National Park Service administers. These extensive holdings make tribes extremely important and significant partners in habitat and wildlife protections.

Indigenous knowledge—including mythologies, oral histories, classification systems and place names—often span many generations, preserving information that has helped native communities adapt to rapidly changing conditions and natural hazards. Although Western scientists have historically dismissed such information and deemed it unreliable, recently there has been increasing recognition of the advantages of bicultural approaches to scientific research, including verification of their reliability.

Now, a new review, published in the European Geosciences Union’s journal Earth Surface Dynamics and authored by native and nonnative researchers from New Zealand, offers a road map for weaving together Indigenous knowledge and modern research that maintains the integrity and validity of both methodologies.

Located on the border of Arizona and Utah, these 1,000-foot sandstone buttes are part of the Navajo Nation reservation. It’s possible to visit this land on an organized tour. ©Mike McBey, flickr

And, in my opinion, that’s the long-awaited and much-needed movement the world needs as we try to build back a better relationship with nature in the aftermath of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic.

The benefits of bicultural research

Bicultural research undertaken within reciprocal, respectful relationships can yield benefits for all of us. For example, the new Earth Surface Dynamics review mentions Indigenous oral histories, which could provide insights into events that have been erased from the geologic record. Filling in such gaps is crucial for projects such as the Aotearoa New Zealand Palaeotsunami Database, a catalogue of tsunamis that occurred prior to the start of historical written records. The database is being used to better understand the distribution and magnitudes of these potentially destructive megawaves.

Combining Indigenous knowledge with Western scientific research also has the potential to help native communities make informed decisions regarding potential hazards on their ancestral lands. An example cited in the review describes native Maori purakau (stories) about a ngarara, a mythological, lizard-like creature who lives in the Waitepuru River. According to the review’s authors, many Maori purakau are codified knowledge expressed through metaphors. These particular stories, first published in 2017, document the river’s past geomorphic activity and flood events through the analogy of the ngarara flicking its tail back and forth. These stories thus have implications for understanding both the area’s geomorphic history and the potential risks of living there; and the danger posed by the ngarara was taken into consideration when Maori built their homes, leaving them unharmed by river-related hazards that have affected other nearby settlements.

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A useful framework for working with Indigenous communities is based on Aotearoa New Zealand river systems, which are characterized by two streams: one symbolizing Maori knowledge and a second representing Western science.

Merging knowledge streams

In the review, the road map the authors describe that may help other researchers find respectful ways to initiate bicultural research projects include several potential frameworks—methodologies used during the theoretical design of the research—as well as step-by-step instructions for acquiring data that incorporates Indigenous values.

The most transferable framework, suggest the authors, is the He Awa Whiria/ Braided Rivers, which is based on the iconic Aotearoa New Zealand river systems that are characterized by networks of frequently shifting, sediment-choked channels. This framework consists of two streams, one symbolizing Maori knowledge and a second representing Western science. The two knowledge streams operate collaboratively as well as independently, but both have the same objective of providing a balanced research outcome.

When working with Indigenous communities, it’s essential to understand—or at least respect—their interests, priorities and worldviews. Rivers and rock formations might be ancestors, buffalo might be brothers or sisters, and soil could be a mother or Mother Earth.

Protesters called for a construction stop of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would have threatened the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe water supply and destroyed sacred places. ©Fibonacci Blue, flickr

Shifting language is also a challenge, and Westerners should be aware that purely extractive research is often not acceptable to native communities; there must be an element of reciprocity to it. The authors strongly recommend that scientists wishing to participate in bicultural research find cultural advisors who know the preferred procedures for engaging with the Indigenous people they work with.

Surprisingly, Antarctica—with no native residents—is a case in point.

The Antarctica-Aotearoa connection

Antarctica is unlike any other place on Earth: it is remote, there are no permanent human settlements and no one nation has sovereignty. It is a place dedicated to peace and science.

In anticipation of the possible review of the Antarctic Treaty System after 2048, New Zealand, one of the 12 original signatories to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, is resetting its priorities for future Antarctic research. And at least one New Zealand academic team, publishing a paper in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution in May 2021, says it’s time for the conservation and management of the Antarctic to begin focusing on responsibility, rather than rights, through a Maori lens. It’s the first paper to bring Indigenous frameworks to the issue of what an Antarctic future might look like.

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In the future, New Zealand’s research in Antarctica will focus on connectedness and relational thinking, humans and their nonhuman kin, and reciprocity and responsibility.

Often, global conceptions of Antarctica are dominated by colonial narratives that are focused on privileges, such as mining rights. Narratives of underrepresented groups and their connection to Antarctica remain poorly documented and recognized. But Indigenous Maori frameworks—such as matauranga, where relationships between different parts of the universe and those between humans and other living beings are acknowledged and embedded—offer powerful ways of thinking about how we can better protect Antarctica by concentrating instead on responsibilities, including those we have to future generations.

By combining literature and oral histories, researchers concluded in a June 2021 paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand that Maori were likely the first people to explore Antarctica’s surrounding waters and possibly the continent. They write that Maori and Polynesian journeys to the deep South have been occurring for a long time, perhaps as far back as the seventh century.

According to the oral histories of the Maori tribal groups Ngati Rarua and Te Ati Awa, the first human to travel to the Antarctic was the Polynesian explorer Hui Te Rangiora. According to oral traditions, their people named the Antarctic Ocean Te tai-uka-a-pia, with “pia” referring to arrowroot, which when scraped looks like snow.

Moai are figures carved by the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island in Polynesia between A.D. 1400 and 1600. The first humans to reach Antarctica were Polynesians, who found the continent 1,300 years ago. ©Lee Coursey, flickr

Records of Polynesian oral histories from 1899 describe journeys to Antarctica, recalling “the monstrous seas; the female that dwells in those mountainous waves, whose tresses wave about in the water and on the surface of the sea; the frozen sea of pia, with the deceitful animal who dives to great depths—a foggy, misty and dark place not seen by the sun. Rocks, whose summits pierce the skies, are completely bare and without vegetation on them.” These oral tales may describe Antarctic Ocean bull kelp, marine mammals and icebergs.

The researchers say that Antarctica challenges our perspectives, unsettles them and in doing so provides us with opportunities to reimagine our relationship with the natural environment and to rethink our global responsibilities. Including Indigenous philosophies in our conservation efforts will help us chart more sustainable and healthy paths into the future.

The Amazon-Indigenous link

Taking into account Indigenous knowledge and ways in scientific research not only will aid conservation in the Antarctic but in the Amazon, as well.

In 2018, Amazon Basin Indigenous leaders met in Columbia and called for the consolidation of the world’s largest cultural and environmental corridor. ©Cesar David Martinez/Avaaz

One method to curb deforestation in the Amazon rain forest—and help in the global fight against climate change—is to grant more of Brazil’s Indigenous communities full property rights to their tribal lands, suggests a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using an innovative method that combined satellite data of vegetation cover in the Amazon rain forest between 1982 and 2016 and Brazilian government records of Indigenous property rights, the study’s researchers found significantly reduced deforestation rates in territories that are owned collectively and fully by local tribes when compared to territories that are owned only partially by the tribes or not at all. The average effect was a 66 percent reduction in deforestation.

The Amazon accounts for half of the Earth’s remaining tropical forest, is an important source of the biodiversity on our planet and plays a major role in climate and water cycles around the world. Yet the Amazon Basin is losing trees at an alarming rate, with particularly high levels in recent years, due to a combination of massive forest fires and illegal activities.

Granting more of Brazil’s Indigenous communities full property rights to tribal lands could curb deforestation in the Amazon rain forest. ©Jennifer Bravo

Who owns the Amazon, meanwhile, is hotly contested, with numerous actors vying for the privilege. Some private entities go ahead with illegal mining or logging, for example, to demonstrate “productive use of land” and thereby gain title to that land. At present, about 5 million acres of Indigenous lands are still awaiting official designation as tribal territories.

The research shows that full property rights have significant implications for Indigenous people’s capacity to slow deforestation within their territories. So, not only do these regions serve a human-rights role, but they are also a cost-effective way for governments to preserve their forested areas and attain climate goals.

Havens for wildlife

Yet another recent project demonstrates how crucial it is to take into account Indigenous knowledge in conservation efforts, since native lands may globally harbor a significant proportion of threatened and endangered species.

Fifty percent of the endangered red panda’s natural habitat is in the Eastern Himalayas within Indigenous lands. ©Justin Gibson

Indigenous lands cover more than one-quarter of the Earth, most of which are still free from industrial human impacts. As a result, Indigenous peoples and their lands are of utmost importance for the long-term persistence of the planet’s biodiversity and ecosystem services. Unfortunately, relatively little is known about what animals reside in or depend on these lands.

So, researchers overlayed maps of Indigenous peoples’ lands and habitat data for 4,460 species assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They discovered that 2,175 mammal species—about half of the total species tracked—have at least 10 percent of their ranges in native peoples’ lands. And 646 species—or 14 percent—have more than half of their ranges within these lands. Amazingly, 413 threatened species—or about 41 percent of threatened species tracked—occur there.

For example, the endangered red panda and the endangered tiger of Southeast Asia have more than half of their habitats within such lands. In Australia, the critically endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat has 100 percent of its habitat in Indigenous holdings.

Tigers inhabit the forests, grasslands, mangrove swamps and savannas of Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, 93 percent of their range has disappeared due to expanding human activity. ©Surya Ramachandran

Minding the rocks

It’s clear that only through equitable and respectful partnerships with Indigenous peoples all over the world will it be possible to ensure the long-term conservation of the diverse animals and landscapes that now grace our world. Drawing from multiple knowledge streams will help researchers and native communities create a better future in which our planet can thrive; a tomorrow that wouldn’t be achievable if we work in isolation.

In the winter 2020 issue of Orion Magazine, author Max Liboiron wrote in his article titled Plastics in the Gut, “I want science that thinks with locals, that works toward homegrown needs and questions, that minds the rocks.”

I think if we can get that science that thinks with locals, we’ll have science that reflects on and works for the whole world.

Perhaps, even, science that converses with rocks.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

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