Dr. Ellen Bielawski believes that if scientists understand Indigenous Knowledge they will produce stronger analyses and interpretations of the North than if they restrict themselves only to western scientific methods.
“Science doesn’t have all the answers. Closing our minds to other forms of knowledge is not a good way to seek solutions to our problems. The world is complicated, and knowledge is like any other resource – the greater diversity in the different ways of knowing, the more we are enriched by it,” said Bielawski.
The Yukon College-based University of Alberta professor teaches in the Northern Environmental and Conservation Sciences (ENCS) degree program with the aim of encouraging future scientists to consider Indigenous Knowledge and the social context of their work.
“These students need to have a working knowledge of self-government agreements, they need to respect the knowledge held by the Indigenous communities, and they need to partner with Indigenous communities to achieve their research goals. Scientists can no longer simply bypass and objectify the people and communities they are studying as they did for generations – they must engage with them.”
Bielawski never bought into the colonial attitudes of western science. Born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and coming of age in the 1970s when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement was being negotiated, the notion of self-determination North of 60 was not new to her when she began doctoral studies in Arctic archaeology.
Wherever her work took her, through seeking out Indigenous people on or connected to the land, Bielawski involved local people in research, work that soon became shared with northern people rather than driven by external research agendas.
This led to her working with a sub-arctic Dene community in NWT to weave their perceptions of climate change with western science to achieve a deeper understanding of the impacts happening in their environment.
Then, as the 1990’s diamond mining boom took place all around them, the community asked Bielawski to help them apply their Indigenous Knowledge to the Impact Benefit Agreements and traditional treaties being negotiated with Canada.
After a lifetime of working and living with First Nations people, Inuit, and Métis in Alaska, Nunavut, NWT, Alberta, and Yukon, Bielawski now shares her experiences and perspective with her students – and they seem to be getting it.
“Most of the students do understand they need to learn this, and want to. What they find hard to understand is how scientists are viewed by Aboriginal peoples and the damage done by those who have gone before them.”
Bielawski is proud that the Northern Environmental and Conservation Sciences (ENCS) degree is unique for being one of the first Bachelor of Science degrees to include Indigenous Studies. “Graduates of the northern ENCS program will be better equipped to navigate this world of modern treaties and engage with the communities and indigenous people they are encountering. Only by bringing different knowledges together can we do a better job, and cause less harm.”