June 18th, 2013
By Chris Darimont
(This blog first appeared on HBI’s Events Page – see all the amazing stuff going on there here)
According to a story that is widespread among indigenous societies*, there once was a time during which the four tribes of the world met. Owing to their differences, conflict and war ensued. But after some time, they learned to find strength in their diversity. This story is embodied in a metaphor about a canoe they learned to share. By paddling together, so to speak, they travelled towards a better world.
This parable serves well to set context to the historical interaction between academia and indigenous communities. Not too long after waves of guns, germs and steel came waves of ethnographers, archaeologists, medical researchers and others from research institutions. Often, indigenous people were merely subjects of research. Or worse, they were harmed by those seeking discovery.
Times are changing. Supported by increasing legal and societal support, Indigenous Nations are re-asserting their sovereignty around the world. Like other governments, many of these nations are turning to academia as a resource in their portfolio aimed at change. In the context of resource management, this is especially the case. Cultural knowledge and practices are increasingly being coupled with western science. This interaction serves as a powerful asset in resource and land use negotiations. At the same time, western-trained scientists and resource managers are coming to consensus on these facts: indigenous people have a lot to teach the rest of the world about humanity’s relationships to resources; additionally, resources managed locally are typically more sustainably managed compared with those managed in centralized bureaucracies. Finally – and what’s really exciting to researchers – the insight and discovery that emerge from the combination of perspectives can break new ground.
Our course – UVic’s Geography 453 field school – was situated exactly at this intersection between science and local values, knowledge and practise. Few places on earth could have hosted us other than the Hakai Beach Institute (HBI). At this one-of-a-kind research centre, communities and academics are uniting in a progressive model that couples scientific discovery with community-based resource management. Its science for ecosystems, people and management.
I say “our” course because I was certainly not alone as a teacher. About this time last year, I asked my dear friend and colleague, Jessie Housty, if she’d consider being a co-instructor. Neither of us knowing what our fusion of perspectives and skills could bring, other than something contemporary, exciting and in the spirit of the nascent course’s theme, we forged ahead with planning. Jessie – Director of Traditional Ecological Knowledge at the Heiltsuk non-profit Qqs Projects Society, tribal councillor for the Heiltsuk Nation and graduate student at UVic – brought with her knowledge well beyond her 26 years. She captivated us with stories, imbued with insight, that were told to her by her parents, grandparents and other elders, all of whom learned similarly. In this way, she brought generations of stories and knowledge to share.
Stories in a 4th year university class? You bet. In a class focused on the use and management of natural resources, stories could not be more important. Why? Because they reveal lessons about how individuals and societies ought to relate to resources that sustain them. And when you think about it, science is just another way of telling stories too. At its heart, scientific research reveals patterns. And often in those patterns are the very same lessons about how modern society and their governments can manage resources in a more thoughtful manner.
While the course honoured components of conventional academia, including several hundred pages of scholarly reading before we arrived, we also drew from the Heiltsuk model of learning. In addition to stories, we learned by doing. We either followed Jessie’s lead, or observed as appropriate, as she harvested resources such as clams, licorice fern rhizomes and hellebore plants. Even the students’ “Digital Harvesting Collections” stressed interaction with resources; armed only with digital cameras, they ‘harvested’ photons that, combined with a pithy write up on each of 25 species, told the story about how plants and animals of Heiltsuk Territory were, and are, harvested, used and managed. And complementing the journal articles and scholarly discussions was oral transmission of knowledge, a staple of indigenous learning. In addition to Jessie, we thrived on hearing from Will Atlas and crew at the Koeye River salmon weir, Kelly Brown, Jennifer Carpenter and their team at the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD), Howard Humchitt, Anne Salomon, Nancy Turner, Larry Jorgenson, and Barb Wilson. We also learned from the class’ very own Desiree Lawson, conservancy planner at HIRMD. Among the highlights of the course was a presentation about engagement between scientists and indigenous communities, co-presented by Megan Adams of UVic and Jennifer Walkus of the Wuikinuxv Nation. The presentation and ensuing conversation was courageous and well ahead of its time; one that could not have taken place anywhere other than HBI.
The entire two weeks were about weaving these stories, learning models and experiences together into a coherent whole. The results of this experiential process were profound. As the adage goes, the sum was far more than its parts.
This class was also about research and discovery. And one of the best measures of the class’ success was comprised of the major projects tackled by the 15 students. Jess and I had challenged them to design and execute rapid research – a mini-study – that blended science and local values, knowledge and/or practises. And after a week of immersion among knowledge holders and the HBI flora and fauna, the students had only one week.
With the deadline looming but no shortage of inspiration, creativity and productivity emerged. For example, students Al Laliberte and Nathaniel Glickman examined how an historical harvesting rule might have fostered sustainability. Prior to contact, as Kelly Brown at HIRMD shared, Heiltsuk (and likely others) harvested only those abalones at or above the low tide line. Accordingly, Al and Nathaniel sought to measure the distribution of individual abalones over their depth gradient and understand how different sized individuals might occur at different depths. In principle, such knowledge could not only affirm sustainable Heiltsuk harvesting techniques but also support Food, Social and Ceremonial (FSC) harvests, should population recovery occur.
Desiree Lawson and Audrey Cockett pursued a different coupling of the two worlds. They used standard intertidal sampling protocols in a most unorthodox – but appropriate – way. These two students were interested in an edible seaweed, called “Black Gold” by the Heiltsuk by virtue of its colour when dried. But you see, Black Gold is not solely one scientific species of seaweed. It’s an assortment among a great many closely related seaweeds. Some 22 species exist, or thereabouts, many only differentiable via molecular or microscopic means. The rest, according to the Heiltsuk in the context of harvests, was “sealion seaweed” (and that’s the polite term). Des shared with Audrey and others some straightforward cues, which involved nibbling, to sort the good from the bad. Genetic analyses not required. Honouring one of our readings, titled, “Whose Reality Counts?”, Des and Audrey tested their hypothesis (that Black Gold would be more frequent at a certain tidal height) using this “indigenous taxonomy” approach. It was science with a purpose and simply more appropriate to the question at hand. It also complemented the world-class taxonomy being conducted at HBI by the Martone group at UBC, who were thrilled to advise on, and learn from, this work.
Deer comprise another species valued by local people. Carmen Smith and Nick Robinson started what they thought would be a pilot project on “deer and wolves” of the Hakai area and the nearby Goose Island group. As time progressed, however, they learned (by doing and listening) that theirs was really a study about the interrelationships among deer, wolves, cedar trees and the Heiltsuk. This became clear out on Goose. Whereas deer are in relatively low numbers in the Hakai area, they were – until very recently – extremely abundant on offshore Goose. Sometime in the last several decades, deer colonized these distant forests. They ate themselves out of house and home; in the absence of wolves, they over-browsed. Although being green was not easy on Goose, we learned from Howard Humchitt that the plants had a little help; Goose was one of two most important deer harvesting areas in Heiltsuk Territory. In this way, humans helped prevent even worse over-browsing (and likely catastrophic deer die-offs from unchecked over-browsing). But as we also learned (by observation, and by data collected by Kelly Forbes and Ashlene Akterian), there was a hidden cost to this plentiful supply of locally important wild meat. Given that cedar – the tree of life – is the favourite food of deer, young (tender and delicious) seedlings simply never had a chance to get a toe hold, even with human hunters helping them out. As a result, the island group is blessed with monumental (giant) cedars but eerily missing the younger generation.
That’s changed according to our observations and data. Local knowledge (including my own) suggests that at least a handful of wolves colonized the island group in around 2007. Since then, deer numbers have dropped. Carmen and Nick had opportunity to examine this empirically. Jessie’s brother, William, and his Coastwatch crew, had conducted deer pellet group surveys there in 2010. Our 2013 data showed significant declines along every transect. As Howard let us know, local people will miss out on some deer in the short term but be compensated in knowing that wolves have helped them restore balance to the islands. Plus, the monumental cedars for future generations of Heiltsuk will be given opportunity to establish themselves.
Borrowing again from Heiltsuk culture, Jess and I wanted this class to give something back to those that gave to us. Selected Digital Harvesting Collections will be printed, laminated and bound. They will enrich the youth camper experience at the Qqs culture and science camps. They will also join other resources for visiting children at HBI. Desiree will use her seaweed project as a launching point for examining whether co-management of local conservancies (which, to date, has jurisdiction only over the terrestrial environment) should in fact include plans for the adjacent intertidal resources valued by local people. Nathaniel Glickman will volunteer as a TA for an upcoming HBI course. Al Laliberte and Audrey Cockett also chose not to head south; instead they are volunteering for Qqs. A report on the course, which expands on this blog, will be submitted to HIRMD and Qqs, so that student projects and data might provide some value to ongoing or future initiatives. Finally, students (and instructors) that are from – or bridge – both worlds will be newly informed and inspired to give more back to the ecosystems and people of the Hakai area.
Oh – by now many might still be puzzled by what we mean by “consilience”. Jess and I had to have a short-hand name for this course, and we wanted to have something that ignited conversations and thought. Technically, consilience is defined as a context in which independent lines of evidence arrive at the same conclusion. We like this because it’s our experience that the values and practises championed by indigenous people and conservation scientists often align. We also believe it can be much broader than this, but that cultivating a deeper understanding of how this might occur will require much work. In this sense, consilience is not an end point or destination, but a journey. And in this journey, we paddle together in a magic canoe.
We also thank Qqs for allowing UVic to second Jessie from her many jobs with them and for hosting us at Koeye. Much thanks to Raincoast Conservation Foundation too for hosting us at the field station for a couple nights. Also, we are grateful to the guest speakers and resources people who shared knowledge with us. Finally, we thank the HIRMD for their blessing for the course and their time and insight
*Story shared by Jessie Housty