Reflections from the Tuesday parallel session “Indigenous knowledge and social-ecological innovation Social-ecological transformations for sustainability”

I hold my breath as Melanie Goodchild takes the floor and greets us in her native language. (Well… That I only find out after a minute of listening to sounds I have never heard in my lifetime.) To explain the trauma that resettlements in reserves had on the Anishinaabe clans, we need to understand that her culture is place based and language based, and that there is no sovereignty of nations involved. “Knowledge resides in the land and is progressively revealed through experience on the land.” This idea contrasts with the Western picture of knowledge coming from within, instead knowledge is found externally.

Melanie Goodchild, based at University of Waterloo, Canada, wants to us to understand how the spirituality of indigenous culture can lead a shift into new pathways for sustainability. She recalls Kate Browns notion of the social consciousness we should create to respect Mother Earth once again. Indigenous spirituality can help us get there in many ways. In Goodchild’s clan, the tree nation is their elderly, the plant nation gives them everything they need to live off and ceremonies teach them how to respect the earth. When she asked two of her elderly clan members to describe what resilience means to them, they both independently described the picture of a river twisting and turning through the land.

One attempt to engage with this kind of knowledge is presented by Erin Alexiuk from University of Waterloo, Canada. With the Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society, Alexiuk and colleagues are aiming to remove barriers for reconciliation through teaching and research. Their recent project is guiding undergraduate students from natural resource sciences and reconciliation studies into Haida Gwaii for an inclusive, immersive, place based classroom experience that creates learning experiences for both the students and the community.

A voice from the audience poses a question that was burning in my head looking at Melanie Goodchild, with a ritualistic feather in one hand and an (imaginary) smartphone in the other; “what about current urban dynamics and indigenous people’s interactions with those?”

We just heard two examples of how indigenous people have managed to engage with natural resource extraction or conservation dynamics. Through indigenous social innovation, they have found a way to become in concert with external disturbances. In Haida Gwaii, a blockade to stop illegal logging was organized. From that, an agreement arose that convened both parties and resulted in a protected zone in the lower half of their land. “When the fight for South Moresby moved beyond struggle and became collaboration, it seemed magical how people unified, reached out and worked to find solutions together.”

Earlier, another colleague of Goodchild from University of Waterloo, Melanie Chaplier, brought us the story of the Peace of the Braves, a nation-to-nation agreement between Canada and the Cree of Eeyou Istchee, that alone says enough about the strength of it. The Cree are stewards of the land, as they believe in acting respectfully towards the animals and sharing the land and its resources with them, from which the moral obligation for sharing with other humans arises.

Indigenous people are thus exerting indigenous innovation by becoming businessmen, political leaders, scholars and so on, whilst remaining stewards of the land.

However, that still doesn’t answer the question of where spirituality can be found in the urban world that many of us and these days even indigenous people live in.

Chaplier continues: “Underneath the concrete, in the crust of the earth, spirit helpers are still there. In an urban environment, you can find them in park settings, in the water and the trees. The stars are still there, the sun is still there.” She however has to admit this doesn’t compare to the experience of living with the land, catching the fish in the rivers and eating it in the evening. This is where social innovation approaches can help once more, even if people’s daily life doesn’t allow them to be canoeing through the ancestors’ roots, then there are still experiences we can develop that can help them love the earth again.

Responding to Carl Folke’s call for combining different types of knowledge for learning to build adaptive capacity in social-ecological systems, it is clear that indigenous knowledge is indispensable. However, to do good settler-research, Dan McCarthy puts it bold(ly); as a bold, tall, white man coming into (indigenous) communities, some guidelines are needed:

1. Respect for indigenous knowledge and general humility towards their wisdom.

2. Responsibility in the research one is carrying out.

3. the research should carry Relevance for the community and be an outcome of co-production

4. Reciprocity: it should be a two-way street. Rather than extracting data to go away and write papers, one should produce meaningful results that are brought back to that place.

I bet you believe no one was angry for this session to go way out of Swedish speed-talk time!

Your Resilience2017 correspondent:

Elke Markey is a former Master’s student from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where she earned a degree in Social-Ecological Resilience for Sustainable Development. Her roots lie in political science and in Belgium, where she gained another Master’s degree in Comparative and International Politics from KU Leuven University. To complete these endeavours, she packed her backpack for field work on forest governance in the Amazon region as well as on food systems in South Africa.


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