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September 24, 2018 | by  | in Super Science Trends |
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Super Science Trends

Indigenous Knowledge Is Lit 

In the Northern Territories of Australia, birds of prey such as the black kite, the whistling kite, and the brown falcon have been observed catching small mammals and insects that flee from brush fires. In a study published last year in The Journal of Ethnobiology, a team of researchers recorded how these “firehawks” take this hunting strategy one step further by carrying flaming sticks and grasses from existing brushfires to start new fires and flush out more prey elsewhere.
The Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, where the bulk of the study was conducted, were already well aware of firehawk behaviour, which has been represented in certain sacred ceremonies.
Notably, the team from the firehawk study made the point to incorporate the local community’s knowledge of the birds into their research. The team plans to continue working with Aboriginal ranger groups to further study the behaviour of the firehawks, and incorporate indigenous knowledge into local fire management initiatives.
This is just one example of a ongoing push to acknowledge indigenous knowledge, or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Encouraging scientists to work alongside indigenous peoples of colonised regions and incorporate their TEK into research is becoming a vital part of ecology and the earth sciences. While institutions have been getting better at employing indigenous people in science roles through policy initiatives, Western science has been slow to acknowledge indigenous people’s perspectives, especially in regions with a history of colonialism such as Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas.
The main hurdle to collaboration is that Western scientists often do not perceive indigenous knowledge as scientifically valid, because it doesn’t derive from a recognised scientific method of observation. Western thought tends to delegitimize indigenous speakers by arguing their traditional definitions are stagnant and resist innovation (which is patently untrue*). But looking at the firehawk example, when you break it down, it’s recording an observation (birds setting fires) and preserving it (through ceremony) as important enough to be disseminated to a community. Indigenous Australians and Māori transmit knowledge down the generational line through oral tradition, but without additional resources or infrastructure to preserve that knowledge, those kinds of insights into a region’s natural history will continue to be overlooked. This is where scientists and indigenous communities stand to benefit the most from one another, as incorporating TEK in this way adds another knowledge base to a body of research, and better preserves indigenous knowledge as important to the natural record of a region.
However, it’s not enough to just use indigenous knowledge as a springboard for a research grant. The World Conservation Society estimates that a quarter of the Earth’s land surface is owned or maintained by indigenous peoples, and according to a recent UN report, over half of government climate change plans from 86 countries fail to account for indigenous people. Intensifying natural disasters and rising sea levels stand to impact indigenous communities the most, as they often lack the resources or institutional support to recover in the wake of a crisis. Scientists and custodians of indigenous knowledge now have to take a far more dynamic role in preserving climate records and influencing policy.
Representing indigenous knowledge will only strengthen science’s importance to the global community, and vice versa, provided we learn how to question our biases and broaden our understanding of how different global communities preserve and share information.
*As an etymology geek, I find it super interesting how te reo Māori, for instance, creates words for scientific practices and devices. Did you know that pūrere whakawaho is the Maori word for centrifuge? It roughly translates as “outward spinning machine”.

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