Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous knowledge in science diplomacy and governance (Noor Johnson, Ph.D.)

Science diplomacy supports the development and exchange of the best available knowledge and information for decision-making. Addressing environmental and health challenges increasingly requires diplomatic interaction at different scales, from local to global. Science diplomacy across scales often involves diverse actors who bring different kinds of knowledge into negotiating spaces, including scientific, local, and Indigenous knowledge. Each knowledge tradition draws on different sets of situated practices, and each brings different perspectives to inform decision-making.

Former Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, speaks at a side event at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2009.

This area of research examines the role of Indigenous actors and Indigenous knowledge in environmental decision-making, with a regional focus on the Arctic. Indigenous peoples are active in science diplomacy in diverse venues, from national political arenas to international organizations. For example, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization of Canada, recently released a “National Inuit Strategy on Research,” which was developed in conversation with the government of Canada and in response to national level research planning. Arctic Indigenous peoples are involved in Arctic science diplomacy through their status as “Permanent Participants” of the Arctic Council, and have been actively involved in scientific assessments as well as diplomatic negotiations to address persistent organic pollutants, mercury, and climate change.

Inuit youth from Canada perform a drum dance at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2009.

Indigenous knowledge offers a rich, contextual understanding of change at the local-to-regional scale based on first-hand observation and interaction with the environment. Indigenous knowledge is experiential, situated, and holistic; it not only observation but also ethical orientations that guide relationship with animals, plants, rocks, rivers, streams, etc. Indigenous representatives involved in diplomacy often share perspectives rooted not only in Indigenous knowledge as observation of change, but also based on ethical and affective relationships that reflect a deep commitment and sense of caring for their homelands and waters.

This research examines the ways that Indigenous knowledge enters into specific decision-making and diplomatic contexts, such as climate change policy or national research priority setting, as well as the difference it makes in those spaces. We consider diplomacy to occur in the context of structured but asymmetrical power relations and material conditions that limit access and create challenges for Indigenous peoples to participate. We examine how Indigenous knowledge is articulated in these encounters across difference, and the role that these encounters have in reinforcing the civic importance of science.

Read more on the topic from the following papers:

Johnson, N. 2014. Thinking through affect: Inuit knowledge on the tundra and in global environmental politics. Journal of Political Ecology 21: 161-177. PDF

Johnson, N. and Rojas, D. 2016. “Contrasting values of forests and ice at United Nations climate change conferences.” In Palaces of Hope: The Anthropology of Global Organizations. Ronald Niezen and Maria Sapignoli, eds. Pp. 219 – 244. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, N., C. Behe, F. Danielsen, E.M. Krümmel, S. Nickels, and P.L. Pulsifer 2016. Community-based monitoring and Indigenous knowledge in a changing Arctic: A review for the Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks. Final report to Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks of Task #9. March 2016. Ottawa, ON: Inuit Circumpolar Council. Link to report.