Racism at root of Indigenous knowledge being ignored in academia says UBC professor

The University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO) hosted their second webinar in a three-part series focused on systemic racism in science.


Jeannette Armstrong (left), Aaron Prosper, Elder Albert Marshall (right).  Photos from UBCO webinar.

Indigenous people still face systemic racism and their voices are often left unheard in the world of science say academics taking part in a webinar held by the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO).

Jeannette Armstrong, associate professor in Indigenous Studies at UBCO, was one of three speakers discussing the issue in a series of conversations around Indigenous knowledge in academia.

“In these times of climate change, societal disease and diseases, we need Indigenous knowledge,” said Armstrong. As Canada Research Chair in Okanagan Indigenous Knowledge and Philosophy, Armstrong has been recognized for her award-winning literary work on education, ecology and Indigenous rights.

During the two-hour discussion, three Indigenous leaders and researchers discussed some of the differences and misunderstandings of Indigenous knowledge and western science, as well as the impacts of what they framed “environmental racism.”

Armstrong, who shared a Syilx Okanagan perspective, spoke alongside Aaron Prosper from Eskasoni First Nation, and Elder Albert Marshall from the Mi’kmaw Nation.

This was part two of three in the series. The third and final webinar will take place in the spring.

Indigenous knowledge vs Western science knowledge 

Indigenous knowledge remains overlooked in academia, particularly in science, because unlike a western scientific method, Indigenous knowledge is not evidence-based, according to Armstrong.

She says it’s focused on a holistic perspective incorporating traditional knowledge and lived experiences.

“A general definition of Indigenous knowledge consists of those beliefs, assumptions, and understandings of non-western people developed through long-term associations with a specific place,” Armstrong told participants during the event.

“Therefore, Indigenous knowledge is considered the second tier of knowledge, that is, below science. This is racist.”

According to Prosper, Indigenous knowledge has been misused or co-opted within the scientific field.

“Indigenous people had knowledge prior to Western scientific knowledge, in terms of traditional medicine,” said Prosper, who studies Indigenous Health and Indigenous Ethics & Research Methodologies.

“In my personal opinion, there is a significant issue within the scientific field when it comes to racism, systemic racism.”

Prosper feels Indigenous knowledge, and Indigenous information or data should be valued the same as Western scientific knowledge.

“Usually what you see done is an Elder getting interviewed, getting traditional knowledge taken out, and then the researcher collects the data as a western methodology, to interpret that data, which makes it incorrect,” Prosper explained.

Marshall believes two-eyed seeing is the transformative change society needs to understand Indigenous knowledge.

“Being Indigenous, I see everything through my Indigenous lens,” said Marshall, who says ‘two-eyed seeing’ means a worldview which incorporates Indigenous ways of knowing and western scientific ways of knowing.

“To see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledge, and to see from the other eye with the strengths of Western science knowledge and to use both of these eyes together, is two-eyed seeing.”

Protecting the tmxwulaxw and tmixw 

According to Armstrong, the Syilx Okanagan people view the land as a dynamic system, and their sole purpose is to protect the tmxwulaxw (land) and tmixw (all living lifeforms).

“In the Syilx view, the human duty is to perceive how the tmixw are regenerating themselves and how therefore the human must move forward in unity with them,” she said.

“Immersion in the knowledge of tmixw allows us to view its reality and makes it possible for the aliveness of each separate life form.”

During the webinar, environmental racism was discussed.

“In the context of environmental racism, the government had been failing to shut down treatment plants in Indigenous communities,” Prosper told participants.

The Pictou Landing First Nation community in Nova Scotia is east of Boat Harbour and is utilized for traditional fishing and hunting.

“This place is a significant importance to the Pictou Landing First Nation community,” he said.

According to Prosper, Boat Harbour has been receiving wastewater effluent from the pulp mill, and the government has neglected health concerns from the Indigenous people living there. The government told the community that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to make a change, he says.

“The government told the people, there’s no evidence of this effluent that we’re putting into boat harbour is affecting the health of the people,” says Prosper.

After years of lobbying by Pictou Landing First Nation, Northern Pulp pulp mill was closed in early 2020 but the clean up will take years to complete.

According to the province of Nova Scotia it will take about “$100 million project to clean the harbour.” The province says its working with universities, the federal government and Pictou Landing on the project.

“If our environment is not healthy, how can we be healthy?” said Marshall.

Marshall said Indigenous Peoples need to amplify our voices, to protect the environment for future generations. People cannot live in silence, he says, allowing the government to continuously destroy the land.

“The government needs to be held accountable because all they do is compromise the ecological entirety of the area, and they compromise the system,” Marshall says.

“I was taught, while you stay here on earth, you have to be mindful for the next generations. Most importantly, the future generations will have the same opportunity as we had, of being able to sustain themselves in a healthy environment.”

Moving forward

Armstrong says she’s is committed to pursuing an alternative academic approach to Indigenous environmental knowledge in her research and study.

She has created a methodology that she says may assist as a model in Indigenous Peoples’ struggle to include Indigenous knowledge in the academy.

“I am developing better access to Indigenous knowledge through Indigenous oral literature situated as the knowledge documentation system of the Syilx peoples,” Armstrong explains.

Marshall is working on cultural understandings and healing of our human responsibilities to care for all creatures and our Earth Mother through two-eyed seeing.

“These essentials of the web of life should be protected under the charter of human rights because they constitute to me, a climate emergency,” says Marshall.

In response, Prosper is committed to approaching his research mindfully.

“How do Indigenous communities consent to research when they were exposed to these unethical experiments, whether be in the residential school or within their own communities?” Prosper asked the group.

“We have to be mindful when engaging with Indigenous communities.”

“Even the most adverse individuals are still dealing with various issues as a result of their experience with colonialism, and they are still trying to reconcile that.”

Prosper acknowledges that little progress in the scientific field has been made, but a lot of work needs to be done.

“Yes, we’ve been a lot done within 100 years. Have we done a great job? I don’t think so,” explained Prosper.

“I think it’s going to take another hundred years to see a difference.”

This event is the second of three examining racism in science, specifically from Indigenous perspectives, with the final one, planned for the spring, exploring Black scientists’ views.

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