9th August 2013 Montreal, Canada

Honouring the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples: Ancestral Knowledge

The health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities is closely linked to connection with the environment – connecting people with place – and from the strength of culture that grows from this connectivity.

For millennia, Indigenous communities read continuously and cumulatively signs of ecological wellness, and for example the health of an animal is considered in doubt if “it does not look normal”. The important interplay of land, language and culture as determinants of Indigenous Health was acknowledged in 2008 by the WHO’s commission on social determinants of health:

“..Indigenous Peoples worldwide are in jeopardy of irrevocable loss of land, language, culture, and livelihood without in most cases their consent or control. Indigenous peoples are unique culturally, historically, ecologically, geographically, and politically by virtue of their ancestors’ original and long-standing nationhood and their use of and occupancy of land..”

In recent years, traditional ecological knowledge (term used to illustrate Indigenous ancient knowledge) has been integrated to modern science to assess the health for example of organisms and ecosystems. I selected two examples from Arctic native communities exemplifying this complementary knowledge: the Arctic marine food contamination and the health benefits of edible wild berries.

Canada’s Ocean strategy refers to “the special holistic relationship and connection” that indigenous people have with the oceans, and suggests that the traditional ecological knowledge can be an important component of increasing the understanding of the marine environment.

The issue of contaminants, a major problem in Arctic ecosystems, has been addressed in many ways by indigenous peoples. The nature of environmental indicators – observations, signs and or signals – used to monitor the “health of the environment” are related to changing seasons, abundance of wild plants and animals, noting unusual condition of animals, abnormal taste and consistency, low body fat content and abnormal behaviour.

For example, a catch of burbot (Lota lota) with discolored liver may mean that something in the environment is causing this or something in the water has changed. There are biochemical and physiological effects that would not be observable to indigenous hunters and fishers. However, such changes may express themselves as behavioural effects that indigenous peoples are experts on reading those.

There are other indicators that are noted by indigenous observers and not normally studied by modern science, including observations of different kinds of fat as an indicator of wellness and observations of a range of different animal behaviours. Hunters and fishers, who are in day-to-day intimate contact with the environment are experts in reading signs and signals of changing seasons, animal movements and abundance patterns.

They have a mental image of what is normal and expected, and are experts in noting environmental conditions that fall outside of the norms. The Canadian Arctic Contaminants Health Assessment Report provides a sample of local indigenous observations on environmental quality changes.

The second case I selected is related to berries, because we just love them! Current scientific research has highlighted the health benefits of many edible wild berries. Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, elderberries and other species may help prevent cardiovascular and metabolic disorders and several neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer.

For indigenous arctic tribes, these health benefits are far from revelatory. They have been using berries in traditional healing for centuries (for example treating wounds, kidney problems, and bacterial infections). These fruits are more than a resource for food and health; they are also a prime source of connection to the environment and to each other.

Jeopardising such connections is the well addressed global climate variability. In particular, the Arctic’s growing climate fluctuations pose serious concerns and uncertainty to the continued availability and potency of the berry populations in this region.

Indigenous observations and signs cannot replace scientific measurements, but these two cases show how multi stakeholder participation helps bring a wider range of integrated knowledge to and a better understanding of ecosystems health. The knowledge held by indigenous experts enables local-scale understanding of impacts and changes in environmental quality, and can certainly be used as a guide for research and application.

Recognising the importance of indigenous knowledge and culture, in 1994 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed August 9 as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. The 2013 theme is “Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honouring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements”.

This year, special activities are organised to honour the 400th anniversary of the first treaty concluded between Dutch immigrants and the Haudenosaunee (also known as Iroquois).

About Mario Rivero-Huguet

Based in Montreal, I cover Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces. My focus is on aerospace & space, as well as life sciences and clean technologies. This year I’ll be working…

Based in Montreal, I cover Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces. My focus is on aerospace & space, as well as life sciences and clean technologies. This year I’ll be working with scientists in the UK and Canada to foster international research in those areas. I’ll also work with UK Trade & Investment to promote commercial opportunities for science & tech companies. In my spare time I enjoy outdoor activities; alternative films and eating (not cooking) French cuisine. Follow me on Twitter @mriverohuguet