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Two-eyed seeing: Embracing the power of Indigenous knowledge for a healthy and sustainable Ocean
A pathway towards empowering Indigenous coastal leadership and comprehensive ocean observation
December 14, 2022

One of the richest sources of information that Indigenous People bring to knowledge-pairing partnerships are the direct, year-round observations made by people out on the land and on the sea, over many generations.

A “two-edged seeing” approach that combines Indigenous and western knowledge systems is crucial for protecting the ocean, according to co-authors behind a new PLOS Biology Perspectives piece. The article, supported by Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), acknowledges the marginalization and exploitation of Indigenous marine ocean knowledge acquired through millennia of lived experience and observation. It also identifies a path forward for pursuing genuine ocean science partnerships.

“Two-eyed seeing: Embracing the power of Indigenous knowledge for a healthy and sustainable Ocean”, was published in fall 2022 in PLOS Biology. It was the result of panel discussions held during sessions at the Partnership for the Observation of the Global Ocean (POGO) in January 2021 and 2022.

The international group of co-authors are panelists Kelsey Leonard, assistant professor, University of Waterloo; Pier Luigi Buttigeig, digital knowledge steward & senior data scientist at GEOMAR; Maui Hudson, associate professor, University of Waikato; Ken Paul, Wolastoqey Nation; Jay Pearlman, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE); and Kim Juniper, chief scientist at ONC.

The co-authors say that even well-intentioned scientific research has caused hardship for Indigenous Peoples when they have not been involved in its design and application. For example, creating a census of marine life—vital to biodiversity conservation or tracking the effects of climate change—is incomplete if it ignores Indigenous knowledge, and potentially harmful if it results in uniform regulatory controls on Indigenous Peoples’ access to ceremonial, cultural, and subsistence fisheries.

Instead, they say a better path forward is to require and resource genuine co-creation between western science and Indigenous coastal communities from projects’ outset - including respect for the Indigenous ethics frameworks, such as two-eyed seeing, and for their decision-making status as Ocean rightsholders.

Since 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has recognized that respect for Indigenous knowledge, cultures, and traditional practices contributes to sustainable and equitable protection of the environment.

Lead author Kelsey Leonard says there is a global shift underway from a colonial, extractive way of thinking to a more inclusive approach, but those commitments need to ripple out. She says engagement with Indigenous communities should be from start-to-finish, not fly in, and fly out.

“The best partnerships are not a hierarchy as we all have something to bring to the table,” she says. "This is an opportunity for people to reflect on their own commitment to including Indigenous knowledge in ocean science activities, and to shape a better inclusive future for Indigenous communities and for a sustainable ocean.”

So how does this look in practice? The authors say that when designing an ocean research, observation, or monitoring project, scientists must engage Indigenous communities at an early stage to co-create project goals and methods, and throughout. Questions can be as simple as: ““How do we work together to make sure it is a reciprocal relationship?”; and, of equal importance, “How does this benefit the ocean?"

The article also shares personal insights from POGO-22 panelist Austin Ahmasuk from the Kawerak Marine Program in Alaska, about how Indigenous communities sounded an alarm about the climate change impacts they were seeing in the Arctic ocean and landscapes, decades before most of the world took notice.

“There is a race to the Arctic to understand change ... how it impacts communities,” Ahmusuk said. “Unfortunately, though, Arctic communities are not always involved in how the research is designed, how it’s planned or how that research can benefit our communities.”

ONC chief scientist and co-author Kim Juniper says ONC is committed to empowering Indigenous and coastal community leadership through partnerships that support community-led ocean observatories on all three coasts of Canada, and by sharing multiple ways of knowing in the development and delivery of ocean science education and outreach.

Hero image: Totem poles on the coastline, Sechelt, British Columbia.

In Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, studying sea-ice processes is a key aspect of understanding climate change and its impacts in the Arctic. Inuit elders in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, share their knowledge with ONC on how the ice has been freezing up later each year.

Research partners ONC and the Gitga'at First Nation guardians together identified the best location for the Hartley Bay Observatory in British Columbia which launched in 2020. This community-led observatory monitors shipping and other coastal impacts. (L-to-R): Maia Hoeberechts (ONC), George Fisher, Roger Sterritt, Eddie Robinson.

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