Climate change, maple syrup and Indigenous Knowledge

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Tuesday, 19 January 2010: 5:15 PM
B213 (GWCC)
Brenda L. Murphy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford, Ontario, Canada; and A. Chretien

For the past three years our interdisciplinary team, consisting of a physical scientist, a social scientist* and an aboriginal scholar based in the humanities have been developing a research program focused on climate change and maple syrup. Specifically, we have been focusing on the way in which local knowledge, including indigenous knowledge, can inform our understanding of climate change. Local and indigenous knowledge is important because the regional/local impacts of climate change are variable and understudied and long-term climatological data is often incomplete for rural and remote spaces. Maple syrup and maple forest ecosystems are a valued environmental, cultural and economic resource. As such, they are associated with a plethora of information including diaries, formal records and stories; this information can be used to inform our understandings of the impacts of climate change at the local scale. However, what is consistently striking in the research about maple syrup production and maple forest ecosystems, including that associated with climate change, is the dearth of Aboriginal perspectives and knowledges. This, of course, is all the more disturbing considering that maple syrup production is an Aboriginal technology – one that was taught to settlers upon their arrival in the ‘new world'.

Currently, in the research development initiative stage of our project we have been grappling with such concepts as interdisciplinarity, Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and participatory research. We aim to critically evaluate both the methodological approaches and methods that will underpin the subsequent data gathering phase of this research project. In particular we are asking questions such as: What is knowledge, what is research, what biases does the academic team bring with them into the ‘field', who designs the project, whose voices are (un)heard, who benefits from the research, what happens to the knowledge that is produced, and, how will we evaluate the research outcomes? While it is clear that Aboriginal perspectives and their knowledges will be an important part of this project (we have been working with both First Nations and Métis producers), the existing literature provides only limited guidance regarding how to design the research in a way that forefronts Aboriginal understandings and knowledges. Indeed, the very idea of ‘Indigenous Knowledge' is a western construct designed to help western scholars come to terms with a knowledge system they did not understand. Although this construct has helped highlight the importance of ‘other' knowledges, framing Aboriginal knowledges in western terms, freezing IK as a written text, and using IK to meet western data needs (among other problems) further enforces the hegemonic position of western scholars and their knowledges.

In this paper we will present a brief summary of our research to provide the background context. We will then turn our attention to IK. First, we will turn the lens onto the academy itself and discuss how IK is framed within the academy. Second, to the extent that it is possible, we will explore Aboriginal perspectives on IK and contrast these with the dominant discourse. Finally, we will outline some of the consequences and possible principles for a methodological approach and set of methods that is centred around the epistemological and ontological implications of Aboriginal ways of knowing.

*(Note: As the principal investigator on this project, I, a social science geographer, am deeply aware that even this most sincere attempt to ‘unpack' IK and critically reflect on my research approaches, serves to reveal more about my own academic background than about ‘other' ways of knowing – such is the power of western knowledge and academic training. For instance, I can vaguely imagine, but can not possibly capture the way in which either my physical science or Aboriginal scholar colleagues would have framed this abstract).