6: Science and local/indigenous knowledge

Becoming academically trained in natural sciences can takes years of hard work and even once you’ve got your little piece of paper saying you’re qualified, there’s always so much more to learn throughout a career in research. It seems natural then that scientific research about the environment should be done by trained scientists, and so might seem odd that there is a slowly growing movement of collaboration between scientists, and local and indigenous peoples who don’t have this formal training.

This week we will be exploring why these collaborations are super important, as well as what things need to be kept in mind to avoid misunderstandings, miscommunications and creating genuine hurt when working together. Also just for the record this is focusing on natural sciences like ecology and environmental science. It’s not necessarily a good idea to let people without training have free reign over a chemistry lab!!

Participants at a workshop called “Pathways from Science to Action” held in Colorado in 2017. The workshop brought together over 130 people including NGOs, scientists, community representatives and Indigenous leaders. (Photo: Miriam Anne Frank)

So why is it good?

Right, let’s start with a hypothetical example. Say you have recently discovered that some unexpected species of plants are growing in a meadow in a remote village somewhere. You spend months reading up about these plants- what eats them, where they grow, everything. Then, finally, the time comes to head out for fieldwork! You head out there for a week, studying the plants that are there naturally as well as these new unexpected species. You start to think: “perhaps the birds eat the seeds in some far-away place, migrate here and then deposit them in their droppings. Once on the ground the seeds could start growing”. Your research over the week does indeed tell you that there is a lot of birds hanging around in this meadow. Feeling happy and excited that you might have discovered the source of these unusual plants, and thinking of what this could mean for the movement of plants between countries and continents, you head home ready to write a scientific paper. As you drive off into the sunset, a farmer leaning on his fence next to the meadow looks at their pal and says:

“See that researcher, do you think we should have told them that the meadow is where Gladys goes to feed the birds with her exotic bird seed mix?”

“Nahh… they never asked…”

There you have it. You go home with an assumption which might be reflected in the information you got from your week of research, but because the week you were there happened to be the week Gladys was visiting the grandkids you missed out on the important piece of info that it was she, and not the bird poops, that were introducing the exotic plants. If you would have spoken to the locals, you could be going home with a much fuller and more accurate picture of the situation.

A coal tit (Periparus ater) enjoying some exotic seeds, perhaps left by a lady called Gladys

Yeah but, scientists are a bit more careful than that!

Well, yes, they definitely often are. Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying all science is wrong and flawed, but if researchers often just spend a few days or weeks in a research site (maybe because it is too difficult or expensive to be there any longer) there is important information that they could just accidentally miss.

To give you a real life example, a census was done by the scientific community in northern Alaska in the 1970s on the number of bowhead whales. This census showed that the population was worryingly small, so the local indigenous people called the Inupĩaq, who relied on hunting these whales as part of their subsistence lifestyle and as an important expression of their culture, were told they were no longer allowed to hunt any whales until the numbers recovered.

Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) (Picture: NOAA)

This caused a lot of concern for the Inupĩaq, as this really was an important food source for them in a part of the world were you simply cannot grow enough food for people because of the climate. It also caused some concern because the Inupĩaq knew perfectly well that the whale numbers were perfectly healthy. So what was going on then?

When the scientists and the Inupĩaq hunters got together and talked, they discovered the issue. When the scientists had done the whale counts, they had counted the number of whales that they saw from land, because common knowledge at the time told them that whales don’t like to swim under ice as they can’t come up for air. The hunters however, showed that the whales did indeed swim under the ice quite happily, and actually have a special lump on their backs which they use to crack the ice to give them breathing holes.

Armed with this new information, and with some slightly better technology, the scientists re-did their census and discovered that the whale population was actually almost double what they had previously estimated. They allowed the Inupĩaq whale hunting to continue, and even with this hunting saw over time that the whale population was actually growing.

This is a very important example of how collaboration between local or indigenous people and scientists can lead to far better quality science, and can benefit the local people too. Whilst they may not always hold relevant degrees, people who have been living in an area for decades, or even generations will know things about a landscape and it’s wildlife that are hard to grasp within a few weeks of fieldwork from a visiting scientist. In projects where it is appropriate, collaboration sees the bringing together of advanced scientific techniques and background training, with the long term knowledge of the locals. Both are quite different types of knowledge, but both are also very important.

Diagram of a bowhead whale cracking the ice, and photo of scientists and local Inupĩaq working together to do accurate counts of the whales. (Both pictures from Craig George)

So we should all do collaborations then?

Of course this isn’t appropriate in all research projects, and in ones where it is there are a few pitfalls we need to be aware of before running head first into collaborations.

Firstly, if you are going to collaborate you should genuinely collaborate. If including locals is just a token gesture to make your project look worldly but you actually disregard everything they say, then you’re going to end up with some unhappy people, and it’s a pointless and frankly disrespectful activity.

Secondly, treat the knowledge they give you with respect. Learning from the farmer that Gladys feeds birds may not be especially deep or personal, but for many indigenous groups particular locations in a landscape or particular processes in the environment may hold special meaning for them, perhaps even sacred meaning. While it might not be apparent to you, the way that this information is shared and treated could be a sensitive topic. If someone has trusted you enough to share this information with you, honour that trust by treating the information with respect and being honest with them about your intentions for the info they give you. Otherwise you could really deeply hurt some people who have opened up about something important to them. Also going out of your way to be respectful can build positive bonds. Some scientists actually ask local/indigenous communities for their blessing to do experiments in areas which are culturally significant.

Thirdly, backlash. Going from 3 weeks of interviews to one tiny scientific article means you are condensing a lot of information into very few words. In this process it is essential to make sure information isn’t represented out of context or in obscure ways. Saying that a group regularly sacrifice animals, placing them over a burning pyre and consuming their flesh with glee gives off a very different impression than saying they like to have BBQs sometimes. When information is portrayed in this very ‘different’ way, it can be taken at face value by some people who don’t know this group and so may create false assumptions and even racist sentiments towards them as they get stereotyped as a primitive, uncivilised and a scary group. Yeah they might speak a different language, wear different clothes and find it culturally normal to eat different types of things (eating horse or snake in some culture is just as normal as eating chicken in others), but essentially they’re doing the same thing as having a BBQ in your back garden. You don’t want to cause unnecessary issues like this, so it’s just about being mindful of how you share information and about having enough background info included for context.

Masaai BBQ anyone? (Photo: Rosemary Ntoipo)

Finally, just make sure you understand all the underlying assumptions you have when asking your question, and are aware of the assumptions they have underlying their answers. Even when speaking the same language some things can get lost in translation between cultures. For example some cultures view time as cyclical, whereas general ‘western’ culture views it as linear and so you might call your son your granddad, as your granddad’s spirit is embodied within your son, which could confuse a researcher’s family tree. Sometimes, also, realise that people have a sense of humour. Despite all the old photos of indigenous peoples as stoic and serious, they are just real people so if you’re asking what they might consider a stupid question they might give a stupid answer just to mess with you and see if you’re fooled.

Even for myself (note: not indigenous in any way), coming from a small remote island, I’ve gotten tired of people asking whether we had internet so just started to roll with it saying of course not! We also didn’t have electricity! Or cars! Naturally we got to school by pony. Some people genuinely believed this, some of them probably still do!

Also, just remember that indigenous/local people speaking to you about their area is them doing you a favour. Sometimes they might just not have the time or energy to help researchers out, so it’s important to respect that too, as it’s not their job to go out of their way to educate you.

When done well, collaborations can really add to a research project which is why more and more people in the natural sciences are starting to include this in their work. It is something I am also trying to do, as I do research in the Swedish Arctic about reindeer migrations. Not having much real life associations with reindeer beyond reading scientific papers, it makes perfect sense for me to work together with some Saami who actually are reindeer herders, and who know the animals and the environment through generations’ worth of experience. Hopefully my scientific training and their environmental knowledge put together will not only create a great project, but will highlight how my scientific and their experiential knowledge systems are both important and should both be shown respect.

For more info:

Pathways from Science to Action conference

The bowhead whale story in more detail

Paul Stoller- The taste of Ethnographic things: The Senses in Anthropology (This is a book which include some interesting experiences of Paul’s work with indigenous peoples in Niger)

Music: kongano.com

Cover Picture: Australian government

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