From climate change research in the arctic to pharmaceutical research in South and Central America, indigenous peoples have become essential collaborators in the study of American environments. With an intimate knowledge of population dynamics, medicinal plants, seasonal cycles and climate shifts, the traditional ecological knowledge of aboriginal peoples can bring a unique insight and skill set to contemporary conservation biology and ecology. Recent large scale projects such as the International Polar Year have sought not only to involve aboriginal communities in the collection of scientific data, but to make sure that these communities profit from their participation and are enriched by the project’s results. Ecologists such as Terry Chapin and organizations such as UNESCO have recently argued that from the boreal forests of Ontario to the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, cultural diversity and biodiversity are intimately linked. Studies of native environments in North America and plans for their conservation are incomplete and inadequate without a consideration of the indigenous communities that call them home.
Efforts to twin the study of American ecosystems and indigenous cultures might seem novel. Yet, as I travelled to libraries and archives throughout Canada, the United States and in Paris, I found evidence that the participation of aboriginal communities has been an essential facet of “environmental science” in North America since the sixteenth century. My doctoral research, “Plants and Peoples: French and Indigenous ecological knowledge in colonial North America” argues that, whether it was colonists, missionaries or naturalists, the investigation of American flora began with efforts to translate indigenous ecological knowledge and to transport it to Europe in printed texts and manuscripts, as medical commodities such as ginseng, or as botanical and zoological specimens. The history of the expansion of Western Science in early Canada and colonial North America was less a story of universities and royal gardens than it was about the incorporation of new peoples and new knowledges.
Yet as indigenous knowledge arrived in Québec, Paris or Versailles, the participation of indigenous communities in French enlightenment science was effaced. French naturalists in North America and Europe claimed that scientific knowledge could only be made by those that had been adequately trained (many botanists and zoologists were in fact also trained as physicians) and who had been endorsed by institutions such as the Académie Royale des Sciences and the Jardin du Roi. French naturalists sought to make Paris a scientific capital of the world, making itself the centre and marginalizing the Iroquoian and Algonquian peoples of North America who had been indispensable to their research. The result was that indigenous ecological knowledge, while making the scientific study of North America possible, was not only silenced but was deemed illegitimate.
Indigenous environmentalists such as Winona LaDuke have been rightly wary as a new generation of ecologists turns to their communities for help in developing land management strategies. With fresh memories of their encounters with international pharmaceutical and agricultural companies and still fighting the effects of their encounter with institutions such as the Académie Royale des Sciences, ecological research can hardly be considered innocent. Yet, understanding that North American aboriginal peoples have been central to the study of American ecosystems for over four centuries, we can continue to work to develop cooperative and collaborative research programs that not only involve indigenous communities at every stage but acknowledge those contributions.
Featured image: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Portrait, 1914. Photo by William Alexander Drennan.