Leading on-the-land science camps with Indigenous youth: towards reciprocity in research


Nisga’a youth from the Village of Gingolx, BC, searching for plant and animal forms and functions across ecosystem types as part of a “biodiversity bingo”. Credit: Andrew Stewart.

On a chilly day in mid-March 2019 in Ottawa, Canada, we attended the ‘Ottawa-Carleton Student Northern Research Symposium’ and sat in on a session entitled “Indigenous Knowledge and Community-based Research”. We knew the topic would appeal to us, but we did not expect to find a coupled research and outreach program in Willow Lake, Northwest Territories (NWT), which mirrored our own in Northern British Columbia (BC) despite the 1,200 kilometers distance between them.

“We” refers here to one Indigenous graduate student in fisheries biology at Carleton University (Andrea Reid of the Nisga’a First Nation; lead author) and Parks Canada Heritage Interpreter and Carleton graduate student in conservation science (John-Francis Lane; co-author). Since 2016, we have been co-leading Nisga’a Youth Eco-Science Camps in the Nass River Valley, on BC’s North Coast and home of the Nisga’a Nation. These camps share Andrea’s PhD research on Pacific salmon migrations with youth in her nation, to get them excited and prepared to learn science in Nisga’a Territory. These camps are a chance for Andrea to give back to her community who supports her studies and are partners in her research, and for Andrea and John-Francis to do something they love – get youth curious about the natural world and equip them with the skills needed to explore and protect it.

When we heard University of Ottawa graduate student in geography, Stephanie Woodworth (co-author), describe her work helping facilitate the Dehcho Youth Ecology and Traditional Knowledge Camps – we could not believe the similarities. Her presentation and the conversation that ensued regarding shared approaches, challenges, successes, and lessons learned was so fruitful, it later precipitated this article. Here, we discuss these shared elements to serve as a guide for other researchers (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) looking to engage Indigenous communities. But first, we will share why on-the-land outreach is important, and introduce these two distinct and distant, though highly parallel, camps.

 

A 1200-kilometre distance between BC’s Nass River Valley and Willow Lake in the NWT. Credit: Google 2019

 

Importance of on-the-land community outreach:
In Canada and globally, natural science researchers wishing to engage Indigenous communities now face a new reality that requires a respectful approach to trust- and relationship-building.1 Natural science research has a long history of being exclusionary and characterized by so-called “parachute researchers” who drop into communities or traditional territories, collect data, and then disappear to analyze and publish ‘their’ data, never to be heard from again by community members, local governments, or the like (similar issues pertain to many of the sciences).2

Fortunately, the tide is beginning to turn as Indigenous communities assert their rights over data ownership, control, access, and possession (i.e. OCAP),3 and as ecologists begin to see scientific value in adopting a “Two-Eyed Seeing” approach that brings together the strengths of Indigenous and mainstream knowledges.4-5 In addition to adopting a collaborative approach to research, it is critical that researchers engage in activities that demonstrate mutual obligations, respect, and reciprocity.6

Land-based education (LBE) forms the foundation for many Indigenous education systems in Canada and worldwide. However, colonial power systems embedded in educational institutions, schools, and disciplines in Canada have historically worked to disconnect Indigenous youth and families from the lands and waters.7 Hence, for many Indigenous communities, there is distrust in the education system and an ongoing movement towards self-determination in education.8

Alongside these colonial legacies, rapid environmental changes are impacting Indigenous communities.9-11 Changes in the landscape alter local knowledge and disrupts generational knowledge transfer. There is great concern that youth are not learning the skills and knowledge for the continuation and well-being of both the culture and natural world.11-12

Over the long term, a generational decline of knowledge transfer decreases food and water security and weakens food-sharing networks.11-12 It is thus imperative that youth are educated about ongoing changes, through both Indigenous and mainstream knowledge systems, to be empowered to measure, monitor, and respond to ongoing impacts for the continuity of Indigenous cultures and knowledges.

There is now a large movement for the resurgence of Indigenous LBE, whereby the central concern is reconnecting people to the land and water. Indigenous communities must have the agency to choose how cultural maintenance and revitalization will be addressed through education.7 LBE embodies and sustains Indigenous ways of living and knowing and acts in direct contestation to settler colonists’ drive to eliminate Indigenous life and land claims.13 Through Indigenous sovereignty, LBE programs are overturning unjust power relations and addressing ongoing changes impacting Indigenous lands and peoples.

In sum, engaging and partnering in LBE provides natural science researchers an opportunity to engage with Indigenous communities and their youth, to share knowledge and work to build a bridge between historically disparate knowledges that are, in essence, both fundamentally land based.

 

Nisga’a Youth camp participants jump for a funny photo on the banks of the Nass River after having spent the day counting and measuring salmon with Nisga’a Fish and Wildlife Department. Credit: Andrew Stewart.

 

Two camp contexts:

  • Nisga’a Youth Eco-Science Camps:

Hugging the base of the Alaska Panhandle is the mouth of the Nass River and the entry into Nisga’a Territory. The river’s name means “intestines” or “guts” due to the large food capacity in its fish. It is home to five species of Pacific salmon and other important fish species that have supported the Nisga’a way of life since time immemorial. Andrea’s PhD work adopts a Two-Eyed Seeing approach to fisheries research by combining Indigenous knowledge systems and practices with dominant approaches to fisheries research (e.g. fish radio telemetry, genomics).

 

Biodiversity Bingo game to guide youth in a scavenger to explore and document biodiversity in their own backyards! Credit: John-Francis Lane and Andrea Reid.

 

Between 2016 and 2019, Andrea and John-Francis led three LBE camps in partnership with the local government, school, and community members in the Nisga’a Village of Gingolx, from where Andrea’s family hails. Renee Garner (co-author) is the Gingolx Village Government’s Education Manager and she has played a critical role in the realization of these camps and has secured substantial funding. With support through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) Indigenous Student Ambassador Program as well as the First Nation Education Steering Committee (FNESC) Skills Link Program, the camp coordinating team has engaged youth ages 7–17 through a series of science-based and Indigenous Knowledge-based activities, games, and teachings.

  • Dehcho Youth Ecology and Traditional Knowledge Camps: 

In the Canadian subarctic sits the Dehcho region of the NWT, home to the new Edéhzhíe Protected Area of 14,218 km² of boreal forest and wetlands. It is a place of great ecological and cultural significance to Dehcho First Nations (DFN) – a regional Indigenous government comprised of Dene and Métis peoples. Stephanie, a non-Indigenous scholar, found her way there through a research assistantship with Northern Water Futures (NWF; a multi-institutional project based at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) that aims to find shared solutions with communities) as well as a collaboration between her PhD supervisors, Dr. Andrew Spring (WLU; co-author) and Dr. Sonia Wesche (University of Ottawa). Stephanie’s PhD work centers around the facilitation and evaluation of LBE camps for Indigenous youth and builds on her past experience with Waterlution (a non-governmental organization that focuses on building young water leaders).

The Dehcho Youth Ecology and Traditional Knowledge Camps have been led by DFN annually for many years with various partners (Aboriginal Aquatic Resource and Oceans Management Program (AAROM), Dehcho Land Use Planning Committee). Dahti Tsetso (DFN) led the camp for numerous years, until Kristen Tanche (co-author) began as Acting Resource Management Coordinator. In 2018, DFN sought WLU as a partner to financially offset costs and bring graduate students to deliver scientific sessions.

Camp programming and planning is conducted jointly through partnerships with several organizations. This ensures that there is a mixture of science-based language and Dene cultural programming. During camps, youth are engaged through a series of Elder-led and science-based activities, games, and teachings. Historically, DFN and AAROM partnered on science-based activites, however, through the newer relationship with WLU Stephanie helped facilitate and coordinate the WLU science-based learning as well as water leadership activities adapted specifically for Dehcho youth. These camps help researchers develop relationships with the community, and for Stephanie, this is a critical step in building her research on the foundations of trust, respect, responsibility, and reciprocity.

Shared approaches:
Both camp initiatives involve a combination of programming strategies (Fig. 1), which include activities that are: (i) led by Elders and cultural knowledge holders to promote intergenerational transmission of ecological, cultural and spiritual knowledge; (ii) scientific, involving hands-on tutorials in both aquatic and terrestrial contexts; (iii) based around exploration, curiosity and discovery in different ecosystem types; (iv) fun and active, to get youth moving and maintain their enthusiasm for camp participation; and (v) focused on group-building, to promote cohesion and relationality among the youth. In both cases, all programming is designed to be accessible to a variety of ages and fitness levels, and we have found it effective to alternate between activity types that maintain interest, curiosity, and enthusiasm. The subsequent sections identify shared challenges, successes, and lessons learned.

 

Fig 1: Camp activity ideas shared between Nisga’a Youth Eco-Science Camps in British Columbia and Dehcho Youth Ecology and Traditional Knowledge Camps in the Northwest Territories. Created by Andrea Reid.

 

Shared challenges:
Working in remote Indigenous communities and locations with youth can pose a variety of challenges. First, it is critical to be of aware and sensitive to the long and complex history Indigenous peoples have with researchers and colonial institutions, as described above. Residential schools, broken promises, and other colonial legacies all contribute to distrust between many Indigenous peoples and dominant institutions – trust should neither be assumed, nor taken for granted. For Andrea and John-Francis working in Nisga’a territory, Andrea’s PhD research and willingness to share her methods and findings, as well as her family ties to the region, facilitate the trust-building process. For Stephanie, her relationships with the Elders and camp coordinators are the foundation for a reciprocal and mutually beneficial partnership and collaborative project with DFN, informing her research, now and into the future.

Given their remoteness, travel to these communities is by no means cheap or easy. A significant portion of project budgets must be dedicated to transportation costs (e.g., flights, rental cars, float planes). Often, this travel requires at least a full day on either side of camps and can be delayed up to several days. Transporting equipment and supplies is also challenging, requiring flexibility and willingness to adapt on short notice. Similar to natural science field work, supplies and equipment can be purchased locally, though specialized equipment must be transported to the camp or shipped in advance.

 

The Nisga’a Village of Gingolx, BC, in the foreground with the base of the Alaska Panhandle visible in the distant mountains. Credit: Andrea Reid.

 

A rewarding yet challenging aspect of these camps is working with the youth themselves. Curious, energetic and ready to learn new things, the youth’s energy levels range from disinterested to enthusiastic to chaotic. Having many varied activities on-the-ready allows us to take a trial-and-error approach to planning for the day. When activities do not go as planned or fail to capture attention, we can quickly pivot to the next. Having a variety of activities allows us to moderate energy during the camp – active games increase energy levels rapidly, while more focused and educational activities help to slow the pace and allow for reflective learning. Early-career researchers play an interesting role in this regard, being closer in age to the youth camp participants allows them to more easily relate to one another, which helps build relationships and mentorship opportunities.

Given that our camps are centered on the land and water; we prepare participants for inclement weather but there are times where even the best prepared just need a break from the cold or wet. Having an indoor setting to dry off or warm up and do activities indoors is an asset. Andrea and John-Francis arrange to use a community hall with enough room for active games, whereas Stephanie, her team, and the other facilitators use the communal kitchen and dining area as well as canvas sleeping tents.

 

Andrea Reid tracking sockeye salmon from a bridge above their spawning grounds. Credit: Collin Middleton.

 

Shared successes:
LBE is important for the continuity of local culture and knowledge, as discussed above. By educating Indigenous youth about ongoing socio-ecological changes, youth become empowered to measure, monitor, and respond to the impacts of such changes. By providing two knowledge perspectives, the youth camp participants are exposed to two ways of learning, which help to make them “strong like two people” according to Tlicho Chief Jimmy Bruneau.1

These camps are also spaces for skill- and knowledge-sharing by Elders and knowledge holders who promote local worldviews, cultural practices, language training, and activities. Being on the land with Elders is critical to instilling an ethic of care and responsibility in the next generation.15-16 These camps can provide experiential opportunities to learn traditional ways of hunting, trapping, gathering, and preparing foods and medicines, which is key to the survival of the local knowledge of the land in rapidly changing contexts.17 By listening to Elders’ stories about the sacredness of the place for their people, the connections between the youth and the land grow and expand.

There is a special bond created amongst all camp participants, which extends far beyond the camps themselves. The camps build respectful and reciprocal relationships among and between Elders, youth, and researchers through open, honest, and meaningful dialogues.

 

Nisga’a youth from the Village of Gingolx, BC, at the mouth of the Nass River in August 2018. Credit: Andrew Stewart.

 

Lessons learned:
One of the central goals of both camps is to provide an educational opportunity for Indigenous youth living in remote communities. While this has and continues to be achieved, we as educators also learn many valuable lessons, such as the integral nature of community leadership. From logistics and planning to stimulating interest and participation, building trust and relationships with the community allows for long-term connections to form, camps to evolve, and helps to meet the needs of both the community and researchers. Connections with communities and researchers must occur well in advance of camps to establish expectations, protocols, rules, and mutual respect. The Nisga’a Youth Eco-Science Camps also include local high school summer student workers who act as young leaders and mentors during camps. This model works well, engaging a larger number of youth, promoting peer-to-peer learning, and providing extra sets of hands to help. Part of the planning process for future camps involves collecting feedback from camp participants. This not only allows us to gauge the levels of learning but also helps in identifying the activities and themes youth enjoy most and least. Additionally, noted from feedback forms and through observation, having a surplus of food and snacks is essential, as one cannot assume all participants were able to eat a healthy breakfast, for instance.

As graduate students, we have many different skillsets, but planning, developing, and delivering educational camp activities to youth may not be among them. Working with people or organizations with experience and seeking out training is extremely helpful. DFN leads the Dehcho Youth Ecology and Traditional Knowledge Camps and coordinates all partners to ensure continual success. The collective action of a partnership of organizations offers a diverse suite of programming that one could not offer alone. Furthermore, covering the camp expenses would not be possible without the partners’ combined financial contributions. Community partners manage expectations, provide feedback on activities and programming, and mentor graduate students, which provides them insights into community perspectives, knowledge, research questions, and needs. These experiences, in turn, inform better research and collaboration moving forward, which is a win for all partners involved.

A final lesson that emerges from these collective experiences is that Indigenous communities have a desire and acknowledge the need for Indigenous-led and youth-focused LBE that integrates science education. In a rapidly changing world, youth will need a variety of skills and knowledges to make the best decisions for their communities. By providing active, engaging, hands-on science-based activities, we endeavour to ignite a curiosity and interest in science and care for the environment.

 

See the camps in action!
Nisga’a Youth Eco-Science Camps: https://youtu.be/AIFGO1__yf0
Dehcho Youth Ecology and Traditional Knowledge Camps: https://youtu.be/qx3ZFO-Cojs

 

Acknowledgements:
These LBE camps with Indigenous youth would not have been possible without the support, dedication, and hard work of many groups and individuals. In British Columbia, t’ooyaksiy ńisim (thank you all) to the Gingolx Village Government and their entire Education Department, the staff at the Nathan Barton Elementary School, the Nisga’a Fisheries and Wildlife Department, Lavinia’s Bed & Breakfast (Lavinia and Nadine Clayton), Northern Sunrise Charters (Mary-lee Watts and George Alexcee), Inlet Express (John Turpin), Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge (Jamie Hahn and Megan Baker), and with special thanks also to Roberta Stewart, photographer Andrew Stewart, Elder Larry Derrick, and the whole of the Village of Gingolx, the Nisga’a Nation, and Lisims (the Nass River) and all of its inhabitants. Funding and equipment for BC camps were provided by the Gingolx Village Government (through the First Nations Education Steering Committee), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Indigenous Student Ambassador program), and Dr. Steven Cooke’s Fish Ecology and Conservation Physiology Laboratory at Carleton University. In the Northwest Territories, mahsi cho (big thank you) to Dehcho First Nations, Dehgah Gotie Dene Band, Aboriginal Aquatic Resources and Oceans Management (Mike & George Low, Bruce Townsend), Dehcho Land Use Planning Committee (Joachim Bonnetrouge and team), the Government of Northwest Territories – Municipal and Community Affairs, Dehcho First Nations local camp staff (Martha, Elsie, Joe, and all others) and the Wilfrid Laurier University team (Meghan Brockington, Cory Wallace, Izabela Jasiak and Carolyn Gibson). Finally, we would like to collectively thank the many inspiring youth as well their families for making these experiences successful and enjoyable for everyone, as well as all participating Elders and cultural knowledge holders who are guiding these youth into the future.

 


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