“Learning Together” Benefits Caribou Conservation in the Northwest Territories
By Kelly Fowler
Caribou are vital to the economies, cultures, and livelihoods of northern indigenous communities. In the Sahtú region of Northwest Territories, Dene people recognize three types of caribou – the tǫdzı (boreal woodland), ɂekwę́ (barren-ground), and shúhta ɂepę́ (mountain) – each with a different history, behaviour, and conservation status. To learn more about these animals and develop appropriate conservation strategies, researchers need to look closely at the population structure and characteristics of each type of caribou (for example, survival rates). Indigenous peoples, with their unique cultural perspectives and connections to the land, can provide great benefit to scientific inquiries by contributing their traditional knowledge and forming collaborative research partnerships.
To better understand northern caribou populations, a team of researchers committed to Łeghágots’enetę, meaning “learning together,” with five northern communities, by incorporating both science-based and traditional knowledge. Community members, government researchers, local elders and academic investigators contributed in different areas and languages. The research team met extensively with communities in a series of public meetings and focus groups to develop a collaborative research plan for gathering and analyzing caribou data.
This study demonstrates the significant impact traditional knowledge can have on project design and outcomes. For instance, a profound knowledge of caribou behaviour and habitat preference was uncovered through their relationship with the Dene people. The key to unlocking this information was rooted deeply in linguistics, as the ongoing dialogue began to reveal ecological connections that would not have been obvious through investigations in only one language. Through a multicultural approach, the team found that linguistics, traditional knowledge, and genetic patterns verified one another and successfully supported the identification of caribou and differentiation between groups for biodiversity conservation.
This is a summary article authored by Kelly Fowler and edited by Charlie Loewen. For further information, please see the original published research:
Jean L. Polfus, Micheline Manseau, Deborah Simmons, Michael Nevelle, Walter Bayha, Frederick Andrew, Leon Andrew, Cornelya F. C. Klütsch, Keren Rice and Paul Wilson (2016) Łeghágots’enetę (learning together): the importance of indigenous perspectives in the identification of biological variation. Ecology and Society, 21(2):18 (doi:10.5751/ES-08284-210218).