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Academics Discuss Indigenous Knowledge and Climate Adaptation at Mahindra Humanities Center

The Mahindra Humanities Center is housed at the Barker Center, located at 12 Quincy St.
The Mahindra Humanities Center is housed at the Barker Center, located at 12 Quincy St. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Adelaide E. Parker and Tilly R. Robinson, Contributing Writers

University of Washington Bothell Earth Sciences professor Margaret H. Redsteer discussed the role of Indigenous knowledge in climate adaptation during a lecture hosted by the Mahindra Humanities Center on Thursday.

Thursday’s talk was the second of two Redsteer delivered last week for the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, a series of lectures administered by the University of Utah that invites scholars from numerous disciplines to discuss human behavior and ethics.

Redsteer’s lecture was followed by a talk by University of Arizona Law professor Rebecca Tsosie. Afterward, Redsteer and Tsosie participated in a question-and-answer session about Indigenous knowledge and United States climate policy.

Redsteer began by discussing current American climate policy, describing the majority of U.S. climate initiatives as focused on “the mainstreaming of climate action,” or adding climate change considerations to existing federal programs.

Redsteer said this approach to climate policy has the drawback of creating a one-sided view of climate impacts.

“Whatever the agency goals are, those are the goals that are being examined,” she said. “This favors those with privileges and connections and ignores the different ways that climate could be experienced.”

Incorporating Indigenous knowledge into climate work provides researchers with a more nuanced understanding of climate change, Redsteer said.

Because Indigenous language and culture are “based on the need to have detailed knowledge about local environments in order to survive,” she said, “Indigenous communities are tuned in to their local changes” in a way that other knowledge systems are not.

Redsteer said the “co-production of knowledge,” where scientists rely on and credit Indigenous knowledge to inform their analysis, has become widespread. She added, though, that scientists often see Indigenous knowledge as just another tool to gather data and plug it into models, instead of considering the unique context of that knowledge.

“I argue these practices, removed from their cultural context, are not traditional knowledge, because the end goal has radically changed to extracting reductionist information for uniform applications,” she said.

Redsteer also said the ways scientists currently gather information may de-emphasize the agency of Indigenous people.

She added that scientists may also perpetuate the “romanticization of Native people” by treating them as “points of data collection” rather than giving them a role in asking scientific questions.

Redsteer said, for example, that climate researchers may collect meteorological data from leased Indigenous lands and fail to provide the data to Native landholders.

In her talk, Tsosie said these issues represent a loss of “data sovereignty,” where external groups commission studies and extract information from Indigenous lands to further their own aims.

To fully augment climate policy, Redsteer said Indigenous knowledge should be used in collaboration with scientific projections, not only as a scientific tool.

Redsteer said climate research in general focuses on “projections of what might happen 30, 50, or 100 years from now” or data from “hundreds of thousands of years ago” — information that is not “easily relatable to current human experiences.”

In contrast, Redsteer said, Indigenous knowledge provides a view of climate change that is much easier to relate to and understand and is more reflective of Indigenous peoples’ experiences.

“Observations from Indigenous peoples’ lands and resources show a vast array of climate impacts and living conditions,” Redsteer said, adding that Indigenous findings can make climate research more accessible.

Redsteer closed by reiterating the importance of traditional knowledge.

“These observations are a significant contribution to understanding our world today,” she said.

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