Module 3: The Intersection of Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Describe the significance of incorporating both Indigenous knowledge and Western science in climate adaptation projects.
  • Articulate the importance of centring Indigenous knowledge-keepers as experts.
  • Reflect on the ways that Indigenous knowledge related to climate adaptation may be considered as viable systems of scientific practice. 

“The Three Sisters offer us a new metaphor for an emerging relationship between Indigenous knowledge and Western science, both of which are rooted in the earth. I think of the corn as traditional ecological knowledge, the physical and spiritual framework that can guide the curious bean of science, which twines like a double helix. The squash creates the ethical habitat for coexistence and mutual flourishing. I envision a time when the intellectual monoculture of science will be replaced with a polyculture of complementary knowledges. And so all may be fed.” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 139


The purpose of Module 3 is to challenge conceptions which assume Western science is a dominant knowledge system within climate mitigation and environmental management. This module explores the notions of knowledge experts, place-based knowledge and collaborative learning opportunities through the recognition of Indigenous Knowledges as viable scientific bodies of expertise. This module invites learners to consider the ways in which Indigenous knowledge has been excluded from National approaches to climate solutions and to explore the ways in which Indigenous knowledge, knowledge keepers and leaders contribute to transformative models of climate justice and enduring resolution.

Braiding our knowledge

The quote above welcomes learners to consider the braiding together of different knowledge systems so as to better address complex and rapidly changing conditions of the climate.

Imagine the process of weaving, sewing or braiding different materials together. A process that creates a final product strengthened by the many individual pieces. The braid can be a helpful metaphor for us to consider the possibilities that lie within creating an intersection between Indigenous knowledge and Western science.

When braided together, Indigenous and Western knowledge systems reinforce a multifaceted knowledge that ultimately contributes to emboldened and shared responses to global climate crises. The aim is not to replace Western science with Indigenous knowledge but rather to complement and strengthen it with what Indigenous peoples have learned over thousands of years of caring for the land.



Melanie Goodchild, from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg and Ketegaunseebee First Nations, speaks about “Weaving together Western science and Indigenous knowledge

Shared Knowledge Systems: Strengthened Solutions

Biodiversity is the natural state of our planet. A biodiverse environment allows for diverse life to thrive, co-create, strengthen resilience and increase networks of regeneration. When a monocrop, such a soy, corn or wheat field is imposed on a biodiverse environment, the soil degrades and the entire crop is vulnerable to a single virus. We, as humans, also thrive under conditions of biodiversity, co-creative collaboration and difference.

“These ancients carry teachings in the ways that they live. They remind us of the enduring power that arises from mutualism, from the sharing of the gifts carried by each species. Balanced reciprocity has enabled them to flourish under the most stressful of conditions. Their success is measured not by consumption and growth, but by graceful longevity and simplicity, by persistence while the world changed around them. It is changing now.”
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 275

If you were tasked to write an academic paper you likely wouldn’t rely on just one reference. You would want to consider different points of view across multiple sources and carry out extensive research and data in order to make a comprehensive analysis and or compelling argument.

Efforts towards ‘Reconciliation’ require shared learning, Indigenous ownership and ongoing commitment to bettering relations with each other and the Lands. Listen here to David Isaac reflect upon “Project Ownership and going beyond consulting to reconciliation”.

David Isaac

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David Isaac – Project Ownership and going beyond consulting to reconciliation – Transcript

Similarly, relying on just one source of information – such as Western science – in climate adaptation and mitigation projects creates the opportunity for gaps. When situating Indigenous knowledge systems at the periphery of climate solutions, we fail to recognize the important contributions and comprehensive solutions when addressing relationships to our planet: past, present and future. Indigenous knowledge are not add-ons to environmental mitigation, rather they are systems of scientific study that have been tried and tested over millennia. For example, systems of traditional knowledge specific to their territories hold information about specific plant uses within the practice of medicinal treatment. Knowledge keepers within communities can add to that data and provide information that can be critical in terms of climate adaptation and how ecosystems and the environment are managed. This knowledge has been passed down over generations and should be treated with the same validity and weight as Western sciences.


Community knowledge keepers

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In Western society, those with credentials awarded through streams of academic research within higher-learning institutions, are often regarded as the “true experts” of subjective knowledge systems. These credentials also outline a socially recognized hierarchy of knowledge and thus power or influence within spheres of society. We default to a hierarchical point of view based on the formal education people hold, and this affects the value we place on the knowledge that certain people have.

Because of this, non-Indigenous professionals may find it difficult at first to value the traditional knowledge that Indigenous peoples possess, or to hold it up on the same level as the knowledge gained from Western science. Indigenous knowledge lives in community and collective bodies of shared learning, memory and relationships. In this way, knowledge is a living community entity that belongs to each individual and for the purpose of the entire community. Cultural teachings, governance practices and community protocols are all pillars of Indigenous knowledge in how it relates to land-based expertise, language and community values. Indigenous knowledge, as it pertains to each community, is a convergence of cultural, governance and traditional teachings that extends from the past, to inform the present, and in the interest of the future.

While Indigenous Knowledge is becoming more formalized through programming in post-secondary educational systems, it is more authentically passed on through relationships, land-based practices and personal or shared experiential learning. True experts in knowledge pertaining to changing environments, climate adaptation and more importantly, how to restore balanced relations with our planet are Indigenous knowledge keepers who protect and preserve systems of place-based knowledge for generations to come. Therefore, we must value and recognize the knowledge that lies within people in Indigenous communities and consider both Western and Indigenous knowledge perspectives equally to support the success of climate related projects.

Listen here to Chief Gordon Planes reflect on the importance of regarding the Land as a Teacher.

Chief Gordon Planes

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Chief Gordon Planes -Indigenous constitution environment as teacher – Transcript

Collectively held knowledge

An important difference to be aware of between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities is how knowledge is held in the community. The stories that communities hold, and their history, in many ways could be related back to a multi-generational study with significant baseline information that has been passed down through generations. Whereas Western science commonly focuses on experts or individuals who have studied a certain area or topic, Indigenous knowledge is held collectively within a community. There are numerous people who have valuable information, and they may not necessarily be employed in a professional capacity.

Coralee Miller

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Coralee Miller – Benefits for All Relations – Transcript


Clyde Tallio & Elijah Mecham

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Clyde Tallio & Eljiah Mecham – Multi-Generational Connections – Transcript

Food for Thought: Knowledge Keepers

Who communities determine are the knowledge keepers of their community will differ from place to place and community to community. This is driven by cultural teachings, governance practices and community protocols. In many cases, Indigenous elders or knowledge keepers/holders may not consider themselves as ‘experts’, because that in itself is a western term and construct. Indigenous peoples are more in a state of constantly growing and evolving and there is no real test or institution that holds up the validity of what they know, they simply hold and protect and, where appropriate, transfer this knowledge with the interest of the land and environment at heart, not for academic or professional recognition.

Ask the “Experts”

Indigenous knowledge keepers may be the quietest people in the room. They may be unassuming, perhaps even shy. They may not even be in the “room” at all; you may need to seek them out by asking community members who and where they are. Look for the people whose lived experience gives them credibility and puts value to what it is that they can share about the environment and climate and history of their land. Where non-Indigenous people may turn to a biologist to give us information about a number of different species within an ecosystem, within an Indigenous community there may be one person who knows specifically about the history of salmon runs or herring populations. There may be another person who knows about ungulates based on their family history of hunting. There may be another person who is an expert on birds and their migratory patterns.

It makes sense that the people who have lived on the land the longest, who have watched the environment and climate grow, shift, and change, would have an intense and deeper level of understanding and knowledge versus individuals who had only been studying the same area for decades.

Coralee Miller

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Coralee Miller – Working with Professionals – Transcript

Remunerating Indigenous knowledge keepers

We are now starting to see academic and higher-learning institutions turn to Indigenous knowledge keepers, emerging scholars and community-based learning pedagogies in the formation of Indigenized programming within climate mitigation and environmental studies. While Indigneous knowledge has historically been pushed to the periphery of academic contemplation and research, it is now perceived as an important field of study across diverse disciplines. Within climate related study, it is helpful to begin to reflect upon how diverse systems of knowledge can be braided together so as to recognize many “experts” in their own positions of respected “authority” in knowledge mobilization and transmission. This could include, ensuring that Indigenous knowledge keepers and or individuals and communities who hold knowledge outside of the institution receive the same levels of funding or compensation as their academic counterparts within programs of study or research. How we validate knowledge can also be represented in how knowledge holders are compensated and recognized monetarily. If Indigenous knowledge is seen as important and, in some cases, critical to ensuring not only the success of a project but the health and longevity and cultural well-being of these communities, Indigenous knowledge keepers must be compensated accordingly.

Sharing Indigenous Knowledge

While we said above that community knowledge keepers are usually happy to share what they know to support projects with outcomes that benefit their communities, there actually are some limits to this which are important to mention. Not all Indigenous knowledge is considered fit for public consumption. Some history and information may be culturally sensitive and should not be fully shared outside of a community context. The story shared in this section gives an example of a real project, and shows a workaround that was devised to make sure that everyone involved was satisfied with what level of information was shared.

“When working on a transmission project, the community had a number of culturally modified trees and various sacred sites that they wanted protected, but did not want to externally disclose what those sites are for, or what may be at those sites. Unfortunately, there is a history that when this information has been provided to different contractors or has gotten out to the public, that sites have been destroyed.

One way we helped to ensure this didn’t happen on our project was by educating the contractors and people who would be working in those areas about the fact that there were sacred cultural sites that needed to be respected, and in a practical way we came up with markers that could be included on line sheets/maps in a legend that identified areas so contractors knew that it was sacred but didn’t necessarily know the details of that specific site. In some cases this generalized information about areas that needed extra protection was utilized by communities on other projects that they undertook.

-Janis Brooks [Sto:lo from Sts’ailes (Chehalis Indian Band)]

Decolonizing our approach

Module 3 outlines the possible avenues for braiding together Western and Indigenous knowledge systems in the interest of collaborative solutions within climate action solutions. Western science offers important data, research and expertise that when tied together with Indigenous sciences embolden collaborative responses and sustainable outcomes within environmental management and land-based futures. One way to consider a reconciled future between Western and Indigenous societies, is to explore options for collaborative work and learning opportunities within shared efforts towards a healthier planet.

For the most part, Indigenous communities are willing and happy to consider and use Western science for the betterment of projects that help their communities.

It is time for non-Indigenous professionals to explore Indigenous leadership models and treat knowledge systems as bodies of science. It is an opportunity to blend the two views, to use two lenses to consider impact to the environment, history of those areas, specific information on impacts to the land or air or water or animal populations, or even additional information regarding how people living in those areas on the land have interacted with that environment.

Module 4 will explore different definitions of “decolonization” within climate mitigation work while also reflecting Indigenized approaches to knowledge mobilisation within the field. Take a look at this article entitled: “Decolonizing Climate Change” and reflect on your own current understanding and definitions of the concept of decolonization at this point in time.

“Science and art, matter and spirit, Indigenous knowledge and Western science – can they be goldenrod and asters for each other? When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary colour, to make something beautiful in response.” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 47


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Indigenous Knowledges and Perspectives on Climate Adaptation Copyright © by Royal Roads University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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