Valuing Indigenous Knowledge Systems: Learning and Reflecting on Knowledge Exchange Practices

Posted on Friday, August 19th, 2022

Written by Haleakala Angus

In June 2022, CESI and the Waterloo Wellington Knowledge Mobilization Community invited local knowledge mobilization practitioners and community engaged researchers to join them at the University of Guelph Arboretum to reflect on knowledge exchange practices and approaches to engaging with Indigenous communities. The event, “Sharing Knowledge with Indigenous Communities”, was part of the 2022 Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum.

This event provided space to reflect on and learn about projects and partnerships that integrate Indigenous and Western understandings of knowledge creation and exchange. The discussions were designed to advance our understanding and practice of decolonization and reconciliation. They highlighted our collective responsibility to reflect on our own assumptions and to commit to a process of ongoing learning when engaging with Indigenous communities.

Structure of the Event

The event began with a creative approach to a land acknowledgement. Our ice-breaker activity invited attendees to reflect on the meaning of land acknowledgements in their own lives. Participants were given a question about their relationship to the community or the land (such as how the community positively impacts them or how they feel connected to the land) and discussed their responses in small groups.

Participants then went on a guided tour of the Mtigwaaki: Among the Trees interpretive walk led by Indigenous educator Brad Howie. As a grad student, Howie had led the creation of the Mtigwaaki trail, which introduces visitors to the Anishinaabe understanding of the forest and invites them to reflect on how we can better treat the land and nature. Howie guided us through the forest and showed us the four interpretive signs that are part of the trail. Each sign poses a question about our relationship to the land, the forest, and nature. From the Anishinaabe perspective, humans are a part of the forest and one of many beings there, all of equal importance. This differs from the Western worldview, which holds that humans are separate from natural ecosystems. The signs encouraged participants to consider a new way of thinking about their relationship with the land and to recognize their responsibility to steward the land.

The event also provided time for participants to discuss topics related to engagement with Indigenous populations. In small groups, they reflected on the need to unlearn colonization, deepened their understanding of Indigenous approaches to knowledge sharing, shared ideas of good practices for working with Indigenous communities, and identified ways for individuals and institutions to move beyond land acknowledgements and into action. Some of the key themes coming out of those conversations are described below.

Unlearning Colonization          

One common theme that was identified was the process of unlearning colonization and moving away from colonial ways of knowing. Participants emphasized that a deep understanding of historical and systemic harms and their continued effects on Indigenous communities is crucial to reconciliation. We must be aware of how our own engagement with Indigenous communities can reproduce or recreate colonial patterns.

Participants also acknowledged that it is our responsibility to engage in critical reflection and self-examination of our worldviews and privilege in society. This can be challenging because it requires dismantling colonial assumptions of the superiority of Western knowledge systems, and making efforts to value and incorporate Indigenous knowledge. Unlearning colonization is a long, continuous learning process that will produce feelings of discomfort and not-knowing, but one that is necessary to fulfill our collective responsibility to repair the harm caused by colonialism.

Valuing Diverse Forms of Knowledge

Another theme that emerged was the importance of recognizing the value of multiple forms of knowledge. This was central to discussions regarding Indigenous ways of sharing. Participants reflected on the way knowledge is conceptualized in Western science and in Indigenous knowledge systems, and how this impacts our understandings of knowledge creation and exchange. They noted that Indigenous communities are heterogeneous and that different nations have unique knowledge systems that do not extend to all Indigenous people.

In terms of good practices, some brought up the idea of Two-Eyed Seeing. Two-Eyed Seeing was created by Mi’kmaw Elder Dr. Albert Marshall and involves learning to “see” with the strengths of Indigenous knowledge through one eye and with those of Western knowledge through the other. By using both eyes together, we can create a more holistic understanding of the world. Participants noted that multiple perspectives can be a gift and that better outcomes can occur through collaboration and open-mindedness.

Importance of Reciprocal Relationships

To understand how knowledge mobilization practitioners can work better with Indigenous communities, participants talked about the importance of long-lasting, meaningful relationships that embody reciprocity. Indigenous-focused research has a long history of being exploitative, where knowledge is extracted from Indigenous communities but results aren’t shared back or used to support the community being studied. Instead, participants emphasized the need for research to be conducted for (based on priorities identified by), in (located in), and with (in collaboration with) Indigenous communities.

When working with Indigenous communities, there needs to be mutual respect and reciprocity between researchers and the community. Partnerships must be mutually beneficial and the knowledge generated should be used to improve the lives of the community members. Participants discussed the importance of listening to Indigenous communities, and of ensuring that the process of knowledge creation and sharing is done in a way that is appropriate, accessible, and culturally relevant.

Moving Forward

As the event came to a close, organizers encouraged attendees to consider how they can turn the day’s reflection and learning into tangible action. Some of the commitments made by participants include:

  • Listen to people’s experiences deeply
  • Look for opportunities to attend public events hosted by Indigenous communities
  • Be humble; recognize that I/we don’t know much about working with Indigenous communities
  • Learn about and engage with a variety of Indigenous worldviews, research approaches, conceptualizations of knowledge and expertise
  • Bring my colleagues and family to walk the Mtigwaaki trail

The “Sharing Knowledge with Indigenous Communities” event provided an opportunity to come together to reflect and learn about Indigenous knowledge systems and approaches to engagement with Indigenous communities. For CESI and the Waterloo Wellington KMb Community, it was a key step in our effort to create a community conversation on these tough but important topics. We will build on the ideas, questions, and resources shared by participants and work to integrate more opportunities for learning and knowledge exchange on these topics in upcoming sessions of the community of practice.

For more information, read the summary of the event and the take-aways from table discussions document.


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