Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/Could it be different?

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Could it be different? Re-evaluating collaboration attempts between Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Western Science

This wiki page examines some of the challenges and complexities embedded in the process of combining Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Western Science within the context of conservation science and environmental management. Included here first is a brief overview of the context of settler colonialism in Canada and the history of treaty development in the North. The next section details the treaty negotiation process in Yukon and outlines some key aspects of the Umbrella Final Agreement. Following this some discussion of the critiques made by indigenous scholars of environmental management/science as well as the use and creation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge are outlined. With this background context in place, two examples of co-management in Yukon are summarized before exploring some of the problems embedded in co-management projects more generally. The final section provides a list of questions that settlers involved in research with indigenous communities may consider with the aims of making their work more accountable.

Settler colonialism and history of treaty negotiation in the North

The particular impacts of settler colonialism on indigenous people in Canada have been documented widely [1] [2] [3] [4]. The historical and present manifestations of settler colonialism continue to structure the daily realities of indigenous people in Canada. Included in this is engagement with various sites of power such as the government and its agencies as well as, and of greatest relevance to the discussion here, research institutions and the non-indigenous researchers frequently employed by them.[1] [2] [3] [4]. It is important to foreground this context in any discussion of indigenous rights, title and access to land. It is also a necessary starting place for the process of considering how collaborations between indigenous communities and Western scientists could be improved.

The Importance of Treaties

Treaty negotiation between indigenous nations and both pre and post confederate governments have been a central feature of the history of the Canada state [2] [3]. However, in spite of the key roles that these political agreements have in issues of land access and tenure throughout the country, their importance is frequently overlooked. Some scholars have argued that taking the content and original intention of treaties agreements seriously has the potential to be a route toward decolonization [5] [2]. More generally treaties also provide a useful entry point into understanding how the access of indigenous nations to their land is structured.

Treaty arrangement in Canada can be divided broadly into several types - Historic and numbered treaties both pre and post 1982 and modern day treaties. While there are many similarities within each treaty type, it is important to remember the each individual treaty is the result of negotiation between indigenous nations and the government and are particular to the unique conditions in existence at the time that they were arranged. The majority of the land of what is now eastern and central Canada has been the site of negotiation of historic and number treaties. In contrast to this most of British Columbia, Yukon, North West Territories and Nunavut is either land that falls under modern treaties or land that remains unceded - that is land on which there has never been a formal agreement between indigenous nations and the Canadian government regarding the occupancy and use of the land [2] [6]

The first treaty to be negotiated in Northern Canada was the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975. This came about after the James Bay Cree attempted to seek an injunction against the development of a hydro-electric dam project on their territory. The Canadian government and the Quebec government moved to resolve the negotiations. The James Bay Cree agreed to legally surrender some of their Aboriginal rights in exchange for cash payment as well as governmental guarantees that particular rights and valuable species would be protected by the government on the lands not flooded by the dam. In addition to this the Canadian government also agreed to support culturally sensitive programs and encouragement of Indigenous ways of life. [2] [6]

In the final analysis however, in spite of financial and other supports provided by the government, ultimate control of the traditional territory of the James Bay Cree by the crown was strengthen as a results of treaty negotiation. Specifically James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement states that “The Cree must cede, release and surrender” (as quoted in Asch 2014, p. 97) [2] their rights in the area directly impacted by the hydroelectric dam project. The treaty was based on a model of rights extinguishment in exchange for simple cash payment and government sponsored initiatives aimed at the sponsorship and encouragement of the development of indigenous language and culture (Note however that the idea of extinguishment to begin with is one that remains controversial and strong arguments have been made the in contradicts the fundamental right provided under section 35 of the constitution [5]. This became the basis of what was to be known as comprehensive claims that would be sought and agreed to across Canada's north. [6] [2]

The history of treaty negotiation in Canada's north has always been one that has been closely linked to resource extraction. These factors are primarily what determines the tenure agreements that exist in Yukon. Indeed the Umbrella Final Agreement even contains text that is substantially similar to that that is in the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Namely, section of the UFA states the Yukon First Nations must “cede, release and surrender” [7] at least some of their rights to their traditional territorial in all areas that do not fall under Category A settlement land[2] (see below).

Land and Title in Yukon

Umbrella Final Agreement

The Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA) governs how the individual land claims agreements of the indigenous nations of the Yukon are to be negotiated with the Yukon Government and the Government of Canada. The UFA came about have a lengthy process of negotiation between Yukon First Nations, indigenous activists and federal and territorial government bodies. The agreement was finalized in 1990 and was the result of over 20 years of negotiation, political work and grassroots organizing on the part on Yukon First Nations members. Since this time all but three of the indigenous nations in the Yukon have negotiated individual land claims agreements with the Yukon territorial government. As part of the negotiation process the nations also produced self-government agreements. While only the final agreements established by each nations have legal standing under section 35 of the constitution, the self government agreements define the powers of indigenous governments on their territories which, after the negotiation process has been completed, are separate from and outside of the authority of the territorial Yukon government. [6] [7]

The UFA outlines three types of possible tenure arrangements on settlement land; Category A, Category B and Fee Simple. Category A settlement land is similar to fee simple land in the the first nation holds full rights to both surface and sub-surface lands. Category B settlement land allows that nation to have full rights to surface lands but subsurface land and any associated resources remain within the control of the territorial government. Both Category A and B lands are held collectively by members of the individual First Nation concerned. This distinguishes them from the third category of title land, Fee Simple which allows individuals to hold land as property with full rights to its use .[7]

As outlined in the self-government agreement of each nation, lands are managed by individual nations who responsible for a number of functions related to land access including permitting for researchers and scientists working with in their territories. [7] Each Yukon First Nation is also responsible to developing a management plan for how they intend to use and manage access to their lands. Although it has been some time since the UFA came in to effect, the many land offices remain over worked and unable to achieve many of their goals. This has left some scholars calling for the developing of more efficient and culturally appropriate methods of structuring land registry offices and administrative procedures.[8]

Yukon First Nations

Below is a list of the indigenous nations of Yukon. While it is beyond the scope of wiki page to detail the specifics of the land and tenure agreements of each individual nation links to the government website, final agreement and self-government agreement in place for each nation are provided for reference. As mentioned about all but three of the Yukon first nations have established final agreements under the requirements of the Umbrella Final Agreement, these three nations are marked with an * in the chart below. As tenure agreements for these nations have yet to be negotiated through any treaty making process, the access of indigenous people to their land in such areas is primarily determined by the Aboriginal rights outlines in section 35 of the constitution act.

Nation Website Final Agreement Self-Governing Agreement
Carcross Tagish First Nation Link Link
Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Link Link
Kluane First Nation Link Link
Kwanlin Dün First Nation Link Link
Liard First Nation* None Available Not Agreed Not Agreed
Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation Link Link
Na-Cho Nyak Dün First Nation Link Link
Ross River Dena Council* Not Agreed Not Agreed
Selkirk First Nation Link Link
Ta'an Kwach'an Council Link Link
Teslin Tlingit Council Link Link
Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation Link Link
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Link Link
White River First Nation* Not Agreed Not Agreed

Combining Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Western Science

Given the ubiquitous and insidious nature of settler colonialism, it should come as no surprise that issues of unequal power and control are inherent in attempted collaborations between indigenous communities and Western scientists. There is long history of exploitation and extractivist approaches to research involving indigenous communities. The history of research in this context is often inextricably linked to the worst abuses of colonialism as has been documented and critiqued by numerous indigenous scholars. [9] In an attempt to address these concerns there have been efforts on the part of non-indigenous researchers and academics to conduct research in a manner that aims to be more accountable to the communities that they are working with. Unfortunately, however well meaning such efforts may be they often fall short of the radical re-ordering of relations necessary to disrupt the power dynamics that that are manifest in the current colonial circumstance. [10]

Thus, these attempts at “doing better” have also come under intense critique from indigenous scholars across numerous disciplines. Within forestry, conservation and environmental science more generally this critique has often focused on the creation and use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge as a category of knowledge. [9] At worst the flurry of interest in TEK that has emerged since the 1990 is seen as a cynical project aimed at documenting Indigenous Knowledges only insofar as they are useful to Western scientists. At best the use of this category is seen as falling short of addressing the current political aims and aspirations on modern indigenous peoples and nations. [11] Embedded in the projects that use this as a category, it has been argued, are many of the same problematic power dynamics that that been that are a feature of settler colonialism. This is seen clearly in much of the writing the addresses is focused on “incorporating” indigenous knowledge in to the larger methods of Western science. [9] [10] In order to move beyond this any project that takes seriously the goal of combining or bridging Indigenous and Western Knowledge systems must begin with the understanding that both systems are independent and valid. Therefore finding ways of working in tandem must entail much more than merely appending the insights of one to the other. With the aim of understanding how such projects could be improved, here I want to look at examples of co-management that aims to include both Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Western Science and what can be learned from both their successes and failures.


This section looks at two co-management examples in Yukon and then discusses how such initiatives could have been improved by taking a different approach. Rather than taking the traditional approach to a case study in which a particular management circumstance is described and analyzed, this section summarizes cases important to the context in Yukon on two different projects and then uses that analysis to lead in to a broader discussion of how it is possible to approach co-management more critically.

Ruby Range Sheep Steering Committee

Anthropologist Paul Nasady conducted an ethnographic investigation into the formation and operation of the Ruby Range Sheep Steering Committee (RRSSC). The RRSSC took place in the late 1990s and was conducted in an environment just following the completion of a UFA. Because the UFA was newly in effect there were limitations to its implementation. The committee was composed of an ad hoc group of stakeholders as was assembled with the intention of seeking conservation outcomes on the territory of the Kulane First Nation. In spite of attempts by scientists to incorporate TEK and the voices of Indigenous community members the structure of the meetings was such that it was not possible for indigenous world views to be incorporated or even heard. One of the most significant reasons that this is considered a failure is that even after extensive consultation the opinions of the dominance of Western worldviews was not overcome. He sets out numerous reasons for why this is the case such as the discussion of TEK as artifact, issues with the definition of 'knowledge', the culture of organizing and the political motivations motivations of the stakeholders involved. Ultimately, he concludes that the committee was a failure as will be discussed below there is much to learn from how the participants in this process fell short of achieving their intended goals. [12]

Catch-and-Release Fishing in Yukon

In the late 1990s a committee was established by the Yukon Government to investigate the effectiveness of catch-and-release fishing. There was legislation in place that the time the dictated that it was necessary to release fish under a certain size under the advice of conservation biologist who felt that such regulation was necessary in order maintain fish stocks at desirable levels. This practice came into direct conflict with the views of indigenous nations. Nations in the Yukon believed that it was insulting to fish to refuse the gift that they had offered by giving up their lives. It was the view of many elders that such behavior was essentially playing with animals and was deeply disrespectful to them. In spite of this well considered and impassioned testimony on the part indigenous community, the territorial government did not change its policy and the catch-and-release fishing program remained in place. [13]

Much like the RRSSC, at play here were issues of power and control and an inability on the part of scientists and the government officials that were informed by them to value and recognize the knowledge and perspectives of indigenous world views. While the interests of indigenous peoples were consulted there was little meaningful attempt to include the perspective of elders when their views came in direct contrast with the recommendations of conservation scientists. As Easton (2008) ultimately concludes many indigenous people that the UFA is the most insidious tool yet created to separate indigenous people from their lands because it facilitates the appearance of collaboration and mutuality in negotiation but fails to deliver substantive improvement the dominance of the colonial government. [14]

Re-evaluating Co-management

As discussed above co-management projects have often been faced directly with the challenge of combining Indigenous Knowledge systems and Western science. While these these efforts have sometimes been viewed as the potential saviors of environmental management in indigenous communities they often fallen short of their intended goals. [15] Thus, given that there is a lack of abundant examples of successful co-management projects, it is informative to look at cases that have been analyzed for their failures. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many [16]

As was discussed above with the examples of the Ruby Range Sheep Steering Committee and the Catch-and-release fishing program in Yukon, an evaluation of power relations is a necessary part of structuring a successful co-management. [17] Within in this context it is also particularly important to consider the impacts of colonialism and the particular effects that these have and in Canada's North. [13] The predominant message that comes out of this critique of co-management is the ongoing need for reevaluation and self-reflectiveness. In spite of its initial promise it appears that co-management is far from a straight forward solution to the complex challenges of combining Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Western Science. [18] Rather success is as politically nuanced, complex and particular as the individual communities and nations that as participating in a structuring the projects in the first place. The next section turns to some of the broad considerations that settlers must take into account with engaging in such processes.

Remaining Implicated

In settler colonial states such as Canada, colonialism and the violence that it entails is incorporated into everyday reality in multiple, complex and often clandestine ways. [1] Thus, the biases and power settler scientist and researchers hold and benefit form are often difficult for those situated in such positions to accurately observe. [3] This however makes it all for more urgent and necessary for settlers to recognize that, as Patrick Wolfe reminds us, “settler colonialism in a structure rather than an event”(Wolfe 2006, 390). [19] This re-framing calls for settlers to contend with the many and deep ways that the histories that have brought us together contribute to the ways that we are engaging in the present. Thinking of settler colonialism this ways calls for settlers to remain implicated in all the work that they are doing. Such an approach encourages the search for types of engagement with epistemological differences that are broader in scope and require dealing with more complex and unsettling questions. Such an approach is different than that that appear to be offered by co-management solutions which are focused on the facilitation of communication between indigenous communities and non-indigenous researchers but are not necessarily prepared to or capable of going to the lengths necessary to truly understand or value Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Going to these lengths requires a commitment on the part of the researchers to be self-reflective and accountable. [20] [21]

Conclusions and Recommendations

The discussion here has focused on the challenges faced when combining Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Western Science in the context of environmental management with a particular focus on the context in Yukon, Canada. The intention here has been to highlight the complexities of this challenge by looking at both Traditional Ecological Knowledge, one of the central interests of such collaboration attempts, and at how the failure of co-management projects can inform the development of better initiatives in the future. My hope is to highlight here that a central part of the development of better co-management project in the future lies with a commitment of settlers involved in such project to interrogate how they are implicated in the many types of violence that impact the indigenous communities they engage with. While this process may take many forms and is far too broad to be adequately summarized here. I would like to suggest that there are several domains that settlers must seek to understand in order to approach co-management projects and our own self-reflective processes accountably. Below I have provided a list questions that settlers may ask ourselves as a route into this process and the general types on information that we required to explore them.

  • What is my position to this land and this project? How does settler colonialism impact my personal history and that of the indigenous communities I am working with? Have I made myself aware of the work of indigenous scholars outside of my field?
  • Whose territory is this and what are the treaties in place? Which nations and communities use and claim the land I am working on? What treaties, agreements and other legislation is relevant at the level of First Nations government as well as provincial, territorial and federal Canadian governments?
  • What is the national and international context in which this is taking place? How is the relationship I have to the communities I am working with related to other indigenous groups in Canada and the situation of indigenous people globally?
  • What are some other relevant models that I can consult before beginning this project? What are other examples of similar work and how can I learn from their successes and failures?

While this list is by no means a clear list of set of instructions on how to go forward with the creation of improved co-management structures, it points to what an appropriately accountable starting place might look like. Perhaps it builds the ground for a process in which things could be different.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 [1], Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society 1 (1): 1–40.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 [2], Asch, Michael. 2014. On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 [3], Mackey, Eva. 2016. Unsettled Expectations : Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.
  4. 4.0 4.1 [4], Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. 2017. As We Have Always Done : Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  5. 5.0 5.1 [5], Borrows, John. 2016. “Unextinguished: Rights and the Indian Act.” University of New Brunswick Law Journal 67: 4–37.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 [6], Elliot, David W. 2005. Law and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, 5th Edition. Captus Press: Ontario.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 [7], Government of Canada, Council for Yukon Indians and Government of the Yukon 1993. Umbrella Final Agreement. Government of Canada.
  8. [8], Ballantyne, Brian. 2017. “Beyond Aboriginal Title in Yukon : First Nations Land Registries.” In Aboriginal Title and Indigenous Peoples : Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, edited by Louis A. Knafla and Haijo Westra, 108–21. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 [9], Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Second Edition. London: Zed Books.
  10. 10.0 10.1 [10], Simpson, Leanne R. 2004. “Anticolonial Strategies for the Recovery and Maintenance of Indigenous Knowledge.” The American Indian Quarterly 28 (3): 373–84. doi:10.1353/aiq.2004.0107.
  11. [11], Simpson, Leanne R. 1999. “The Construction of Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Issues, Implications and Insights.” University of Manitoba.
  12. [12], Nadasdy, Paul. 2003. Hunters and Bureaucrats : Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  13. 13.0 13.1 [13], Natcher, David C., and Susan Davis. 2007. “Rethinking Devolution: Challenges for Aboriginal Resource Management in the Yukon Territory.” Society and Natural Resources 20 (3): 271–79.
  14. [14], Easton, Norman Alexander. 2008. “It’s Hard Enough to Control Yourself; It’s Ridiculous to Think You Can Control Animals.” Competing Views on “The Bush” in Contemporary Yukon. Northern Review, 29: 21-38.
  15. [15], Ellis, Stephen C. 2005. “Meaningful Consideration? A Review of Traditional Knowledge in Environmental Decision Making.” Arctic. Arctic Institute of North America.
  16. [16], Booth, Annie L., and Norman W. Skelton. 2011. “‘There’s a Conflict Right There’: Integrating Indigenous Community Values into Commercial Forestry in the Tl’azt’en First Nation.” Society and Natural Resources 24 (4): 368–83.
  17. [17], Natcher, David C, Susan Davis, and Clifford G Hickey. 2005. “Co-Management: Managing Relationships, Not Resources.” Human Organization 64 (3).
  18. [18], Spak, Stella. 2005. “The Position of Indigenous Knowledge in Canadian Co-Management Organisations.” Anthropologica 47 (2): 233–46.
  19. [19], Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8 (4): 387–409.
  20. [20], Kovach, Margaret. 2009. Indigenous Methodologies : Characteristics, Conversations and Contexts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  21. [21], Latulippe, Nicole. 2015. “Bridging Parallel Rows: Epistemic Difference and Relational Accountability in Cross-Cultural Research.” The International Indigenous Policy Journal 6 (2).

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