Canadian Mountain Podcast: Mountain research through Indigenous and Western knowledge systems
How do we gain knowledge about mountain systems? Historically, our understanding of mountains has predominantly been studied using Western scientific methods of research. However, Indigenous knowledge and ways of thinking have often been underappreciated, and in some cases, even excluded from mountain research, which leaves an important part of mountain heritage and knowledge unlearned. This is beginning to shift as more scientists and researchers working in mountains embrace and engage with traditional forms of knowledge and learning.
On the latest Canadian Mountain Podcast episode, Canadian Mountain Network (CMN) investigators Leon Andrew and Glen MacKay discussed the benefits of using both Indigenous and Western approaches, and how their respective methods of understanding work together. Leon is a Shúhtagot’įnę Elder with the Tulít’a Dene Band, who has been helping Glen MacKay integrate traditional knowledge into their collaborative research in the Mackenzie Mountains, Northwest Territories. Glen MacKay is a territorial archeologist with the Culture and Heritage Division of the Department of Education, Culture and Employment of the Government of the Northwest Territories, as well as a Research Associate at Aurora College. Andrew leads the Canadian Mountain Network project, Nı́o Nę P’ęnę́ – Trails of the Mountain Caribou: Renewing Indigenous Relationships in Conservation and MacKay leads the CMN-funded Shútagot’ıne Cultural Landscape Project.
Andrew’s knowledge is based in the Mackenzie mountain range, where his father and grandfather and countless generations before him have learned from the land, water, air and nature to survive and live in these mountains. Andrew and MacKay are incorporating traditional knowledge, archaeology and dendrochronology to investigate Shútagot’ıne land use by studying wooden game drive fences and ice patches – specialized hunting sites of high cultural significance that are at risk of climate change impacts.
Andrew’s ancestors used natural topography and formations like alpine ice patches and built wood game fences to help hunt large quantities of caribou and other game animals. Andrew and MacKay are interpreting how these hunting sites functioned to shed light on how northern Indigenous communities lived thousands of years ago. This knowledge will enrich our understanding of Shútagot’ıne land and resource use through time and help conserve cultural values in their homeland in the central Mackenzie Mountains.
Before starting this project, MacKay had little experience with the land, animals, weather, travel routes in the Mackenzie Mountains. Andrew’s knowledge comes from countless observations on the land shared over many generations, which helped MacKay and colleagues conduct research in a safe way, travel safely and understand the weather. MacKay also says that Andrew taught him how to conduct research on the land in a respectful way, for example leaving offerings when removing samples from archeological sites.
One puzzling feature of these ancestral hunting sites for MacKay was the lack of evidence of animal bones or butchering when these sites were designed to be used repeatedly and hunt many animals at once. Andrew’s traditional knowledge was of great value to clarify the importance of keeping kill sites clean, moving the bodies away from the hunting sites before they were butchered and not leaving any blood behind, which would deter other animals from coming back.
Working together helped Andrew and MacKay better understand the function and rich cultural significance of these archeological sites. The integration of Indigenous and Western knowledge has been truly mutually beneficial in this collaborative research partnership. However, much more work is needed to value and integrate Indigenous ways of knowing into modern scientific research.