Traditional Knowledge Is Science

by George Hobson

I was brought up in southern Ontario, and for reasons that I will never know, my father talked to me about the Six Nations Indian Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. This was what I might call my introduction to native studies. In 1960, I made my first trip to the high Arctic to conduct a scientific project. It was five years later, when I went to Povungnatuk to assist in the setting out of a seismograph station on the Ottawa Islands, that I realized that there was "traditional knowledge", although those words were not used at the time. The owner of a peterhead boat agreed to take our small crew and equipment to the islands, but we had to wait until the time was correct-not when the weather was clear, but when the spirits were favourable to allow us to go to that sacred place. This was one of my first introductions to Eskimo culture.

Western science has been defined as a systematic approach, a methodological approach to answering questions. Science is equated with knowledge, and it is the development of knowledge that promotes the solution of problems. The "western" scientist knows that science is based upon the principles of repeatability and predictability. In terms of the northern experience, science also equates to traditional knowledge, and southern scientists must never forget that traditional knowledge is science.

Western scientists have a tendency to reject the traditional knowledge of native peoples as anecdotal, non-quantitative, without method, and unscientific. From our scientific ivory towers we tend to ignore basic knowledge that is available to us. However, as southern scientists, it is absolutely necessary that we develop a system to provide traditional knowledge with a "scientific" framework that allows native and scientific knowledge to interact in a complementary fashion. Southern scientists must learn that "western" scientific knowledge and native knowledge and experience both have validity, that both must be used if the objectives of scientific research in the North are to be achieved. An effective system must be developed to collect and classify native knowledge, particularly with respect to northern resources, environment, and culture. Means must be found to interpret such knowledge so that it will be meaningful in other contexts without losing its essential native content and value.

Often overlooked is the fact that the survival of northern aboriginal peoples depended on their knowledge, their special relationship with the environment, and their ways of organizing themselves and their values. Traditional knowledge was passed on from one generation to the next. Today, aboriginal peoples are aware that they must integrate traditional knowledge into the institutions that serve them; it is essential to their survival as a distinct people, and it is the key to reversing the cycle of dependency which has come to distinguish aboriginal communities. Only recently has the value of traditional knowledge been recognized beyond the communities-even internationally-as western scientists attempt to manage the environment and renewable resources. Traditional knowledge is the accumulated knowledge and understanding of the place of human beings in relation to the world in both an ecological and spiritual sense.

The use of traditional knowledge is increasing in the North, but southern scientists are not yet making full use of its potential. I ask several questions: Why is it not part of the education process of the southern scientist to become familiar with traditional knowledge? How can science as undertaken by southerners be explained and demystified for northerners? How can southerners be encouraged to use traditional knowledge? Must we forever regulate the participation of northerners in southern-inspired projects?

Somehow northerners must become an integral and operational part of the planning, execution, and interpretation of southern science undertaken in the North. Several years ago I attended a workshop in Anchorage, Alaska, where three native people and one white Alaskan discussed how science should be conducted in Alaska and how native peoples might participate. How can we achieve that level of involvement in Canada so that the native peoples can become an integral part of southern science conducted in their backyards? How do we get that involvement in a voluntary manner as opposed to a legislated one? The southern scientist must give more relevance to traditional knowledge and must involve northern peoples in all phases of research, including planning, execution, and interpretation. There are those with advanced degrees who would readily employ native people in the field to collect data but balk at the suggestion that traditional knowledge may be used in project design or the interpretation of data. Let them educate you while you educate them.

We as southern scientists must communicate and co-operate. We must involve aboriginal people in our research. And we must ensure that aboriginal culture is not adversely affected by our science even though native people must be, and indeed want to be, involved. We must always remember that native people have a deep interest in scientific research. As part of the communication process each and every scientist should be an ambassador to the public explaining his work and sharing his knowledge. It is part of the Eskimo culture to share, and that is what a scientist must do. It is just good basic policy.

Traditional knowledge is science, and the sooner southern scientists make use of that traditional knowledge, the better it will be for their research. Aboriginal people wish to be involved in science and they will be involved in research whether through legislation, the permit process, or voluntary action. Partnerships are a vital part of the strategy we must adopt in together seeking imaginative, innovative, and perhaps unexpected, solutions.

 George Hobson served as Director of the Polar Continental Shelf Project from 1972 to 1988. In 1991, he received the Northern Science Award for his outstanding contribution to arctic research.


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