Two-eyed seeing: Weaving western science with Indigenous ways of knowing

How WISE Lab partnerships work to preserve biodiversity and Indigenous culture

Date published: 2022-06-20 10:00:00 PM

Wolf in north-central Ontario

Photo: Jesse Popp, WISE Lab

Locating and placing radio tracking collars on a pack of eastern wolves to monitor its movement in the Ontario wilderness isn’t an easy thing to do. But when a team of researchers took to the skies above Point Grondine in helicopters, they knew exactly where to go—thanks to the insights shared by Knowledge Holders from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory.

Jesse Popp, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Science at the University of Guelph, coordinates this weaving of western science with Indigenous ways of knowing through the NSERC-funded Wildlife Indigenous Science Ecology (WISE) Lab. She believes a “two-eyed seeing” approach can lead to deeper investigations into the causes and consequences of wildlife population fluctuations, which affect both Canada’s ecosystems and Indigenous Peoples’ ways of life.

“In a world where unprecedented environmental change has resulted in wildlife population declines across the globe, multidisciplinary research that embraces multiple ways of knowing is critical to fostering the preservation of biodiversity and Indigenous cultures,” Popp says.

Changing the “old boys club”

Popp, a member of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, has been interested in wildlife ecology from a young age, when her mother would take her into forests and teach her about the land. But when she was older, she saw that the academic world lacked diversity. During her undergraduate studies, Popp attended a conference her supervisor called the “old boys club”—and she knew then that she wanted to help bring Indigenous knowledge systems into the scientific world.

Jesse Popp, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Science

Photo: Jesse Popp, WISE Lab

To do so, Popp founded the WISE Lab in 2018. Partnering with Indigenous communities, conservation organizations, universities and governments, the WISE Lab conducts collaborative, community-led research projects to address important environmental and ecological issues, such as the monitoring of species at risk. The WISE Lab is interdisciplinary, bringing together experts in fields including ecology, environmental science, ethnobiology, wildlife management and Indigenous environmental justice.

The gift of knowledge

The project to collar wolves speaks to the success of the WISE Lab’s approach. Officials from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory wanted to learn more about the spatial ecology and pack composition of eastern wolves in the territory. But to do that, they first had to find the wolves. Popp and her colleagues talked with Wiikwemkoong community members to learn generally where wolves had been seen. An Elder then joined the helicopter survey to help guide the crew where to look. It wasn’t long before the wolves were spotted—and the Elder’s insight saved the province time and money compared to its usual methods for trapping and collaring wolves.

“It was so cool to receive that gift of knowledge and apply it to our work,” Popp says. “Now we’re tracking the wolves to better understand changes in their movements and behaviour.”

Other WISE Lab projects include using a smartphone app to track moose populations and looking at how railways affect turtle populations. While studying these animals is important from an ecological standpoint, it’s also important because Indigenous Peoples see animals as kin who deserve respect and reciprocity. And in many cases, the “discoveries” being made are not new to the Indigenous communities Popp works with—they’re just being documented by western science for the first time.

From local work to international collaborations

In all of its projects, the WISE Lab puts an emphasis on the communities it works with: talking with Knowledge Holders to identify projects and using the outcomes to guide next steps in a highly cyclical, collaborative process. A growing number of First Nations are taking notice and want to become involved. And internationally, the WISE Lab recently joined the Ărramăt Project, a venture involving environmental groups in 24 countries who are working to strengthen health and well-being through Indigenous-led conservation efforts.

“The most exciting thing about this work is the partnerships we’re creating,” Popp says. “It’s important for reconciliation because we are building meaningful relationships, not just doing extractive consultations, so we can collectively tackle the environmental issues facing us all today.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Jesse Popp’s work, visit the websites of the WISE Lab and the Ărramăt Project.