Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Volunteers help the SeaChange society prepare eelgrass for transplant as part of a seagrass restoration effort in Cowichan Bay, Vancouver Island.Shane Gross/The Globe and Mail

Jennifer Grenz is a Nlaka’pamux Indigenous ecologist and assistant professor in the Department of Forest Resources Management at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of the forthcoming book Medicine Wheel for the Planet: A Journey toward Personal and Ecological Healing, from which this essay is partly adapted.

They don’t listen.

I think this is one of the most common phrases I hear in every Indigenous space I have the privilege of being within. “They” being non-Indigenous government agencies, politicians and scientists that hold most of the power. They don’t listen.

Across the country, we have all breathed in the acrid smoke, eyes and throats burning, unable to go outside, but unable to find reprieve inside either. A new season that has seemingly replaced summer, and even spring in some places: fire season. They don’t listen.

Across the country, our fisheries dwindle. A legacy of mismanagement grounded in the illusion of early settlers to this country that there exists infinite resources for the taking. Historic pictures and stories of salmon piled high on the sides of the Fraser River, left to rot because settlers took more than they needed. They don’t listen.

Across the country, we harvest swaths of toothpicks from the forests, and perhaps the few remaining old growth giants, and call this sustainable. We see the sediment washing down our streams and rivers and into our ocean because what happens upstream, affects downstream. They don’t listen.

Across the country, we watch our favourite insects, animals and birds struggle. Our encounters with them have changed within the span of our own lifetimes from familiar friends to surprise visitors, to, in some cases, merely memories. They don’t listen.

The devaluation of Indigenous knowledges has a long history on Turtle Island. I became interested in this issue as an ecologist working on the management of invasive species for almost two decades. While I am a proud Nlaka’pamux woman of mixed ancestry, my training came mostly from the Western scientific education I received at both the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia. It was the lack of long-term successes in eradicating invasive plant species and the failure of the native plants we planted in their place, that sent me on a journey to look beyond a Western scientific world view for answers. The more time I spent with Indigenous land guardians, knowledge keepers and elders of differing nations, the more I realized that even I, an Indigenous woman, wasn’t listening.

While I discretely embraced my culture at home – growing and harvesting plants for foods and medicines – I created a comfortable cognitive dissonance that allowed me to engage in traditional knowledges and practices while maintaining my credibility as a woman in science. I feel sad and somewhat repulsed by myself to even write that. I don’t think I hid this side of my life on purpose, in fact, I know I didn’t. It was later, when I went back to graduate school to focus on bringing together both of my selves, Western scientist me and Indigenous me, with the hope of helping to improve ecological restoration outcomes, that I had to confront it. The forces that were at play to make that my reality became clear.

Western science is held up as the gold standard, in some ways, a capital T truth. Despite the more recent increased interest in Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, particularly within ecological contexts, they continue to be denigrated and leave Indigenous communities to both defend and assert them as equals. A respected scientist and mentor of mine told me at the beginning of grad school that, “This Indigenous stuff is going to undermine you as a scientist.” This stung. For so many reasons. I tried to rationally argue for the value of being informed by differing world views, that the relational lens of an Indigenous world view, which places humans as part of the ecosystem, could provide the paradigm shift ecology needed to ask better research questions, especially in the context of a changing climate. That using the best of both worlds to inform and approach the research of complex ecological systems would benefit us all. It was to no avail, he wouldn’t listen.

Well, I didn’t listen either. I was fuelled by my past experiences, the knowledges shared with me by my Indigenous friends who grew up on their homelands, and the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer in my freshly read and now dog-eared copy of Braiding Sweetgrass. I knew I was on the right path.

During my PhD research, applying an Indigenous world view to ecology and invasion biology, I came across a story of the Bitterroot Valley that felt oddly familiar. That when the first settlers arrived in Montana, the Salish people there warned them not to settle on the west side of the Bitterroot River. The warnings were ignored – settlers attributed the warnings to Salish belief that there were evil spirits on that side of the river – and much of the group of people that settled there became ill with a mysterious disease and died. They had fevers and developed purple spots on their bodies. Their bodies would become sore, and some people became blind and/or deaf. It seemed to be caught in the springtime, but did not appear contagious. Despite the ease of crossing, the river being shallow and narrow in the area, the water seemed to provide a protective barrier. The Salish living on the East side rarely got the disease. Eventually, as the population grew due to the gold rush, scientists were sent to investigate. It was later that doctors recognized the association of the illness with tick bites; in 1903 the official name of the disease was published – Rocky Mountain spotted fever. If only they had listened.

This story spoke to me because it seems little has changed over the past 125 years to have our knowledges disregarded with serious consequences. Whatever the reasons may be for this historic pattern, I think we have a collective responsibility (settlers and Indigenous peoples alike) to dig deeper and understand how and why this devaluation hap­pens and what we may be losing out on by accepting it as the status quo. This story could have had a much shorter timeline with lesser consequences if the information was not dismissed and the power of both knowledge systems had been brought together right away for the greater good.

It is in that spirit that I share what elders Peter and Mena Williams of Cowichan Tribes on Vancouver Island shared with me, that the greatest journey a person can take is to connect their head to their heart. For me, this was Western science (head) and Indigenous world view (heart). The teachings of the medicine wheel, something I had learned from a medicine woman from my own nation, provided me a way to do what seemed impossible having worked from a Western approach my entire career. It was a messy journey of learning and unlearning and learning again. Each direction, providing me exactly what I needed as I made my way around.

Beginning in the North: honouring the wisdom of the elders; then to the East: being spiritually open to new possibilities; the South: a time of rapid growth and transformation; and finally the West: a time to reap what we have sown and reflect on a new trajectory. To me, this is exactly the journey we all, Indigenous or not, need to take to give ourselves permission to work and think relationally. To make the old new again and in this case, to make science better to bring the healing our planet needs. To be brave and set aside the rules of Western science like the guise of objectivity and be open to learning in new ways. All to ultimately do what my friend, Qwustenuxun, characterizes as, “bringing together the tools of the new and old ancestors.”

I recently gave a talk for a virtual conference on invasive species and climate change and the comments and questions were rolling in as I spoke. Generally, I try to ignore them until I am finished presenting because not only are they visually distracting, but sometimes when I talk about Indigenous science, there are often ignorant, hurtful and even racist remarks. This time, one caught my eye. Someone stated that it wasn’t 1492, and I shouldn’t be trying to put things back to then. I wished I had had the opportunity to address this but had run out of time. Applying an Indigenous world view and learning from Indigenous knowledges isn’t about putting things back to an arbitrary point in time. Indigenous peoples are still here. Our relational world views, the source of our knowledges, along with our intimate relationships with our lands and waters, help us all to plan ahead. By honouring the past and present, we can write stories for our collective futures. Futures built on bringing the best of all world views together, so we don’t ignore potential solutions to the significant challenges we face because we assert that one knowledge system is better than the other.

Last summer, I sat in the sun with an elder, watching a drone fly over the Cowichan Estuary, capturing data about the vegetation there. We watched as it zigged and zagged past us, running its multispectral cameras over the landscape. He took pictures and videos with his iPhone as he described to me how the estuary was a critical part of the Quw-utsun seasonal food system and that what we were observing was a legacy state of that. I couldn’t help but marvel at the experience. A glimpse of my dream of a day when we are all truly listening coming true.

Interact with The Globe