Everyone wants to bring traditional knowledge together with western science, but how do you do that?

Everyone wants to bring traditional knowledge together with western science, but how do you do that?

“With native peoples, we hold this knowledge that we know to be true, and we’re not asking for anybody to prove it.”

Jimmy Arterberry is a tribal historian with the Comanche Nation in Austin, Texas, an Indigenous American tribe of the southern plains region of the United States. He’s also co-author of a study published recently in Science that challenges the long-standing narrative that horses were introduced to Native American culture by European colonisers. 

That study is ground-breaking for several reasons.

Firstly, it combined scientific and archaeological evidence with traditional knowledge and Indigenous oral history to conclude that horses were well integrated into Native American culture long before Europeans arrived.

The second striking feature of the study is a significant number of co-authors are Indigenous, including historians, tribal elders and researchers. Unlike the usual publishing convention where middle names are represented only with an initial, the Indigenous authors have their full tribal names listed in the authorship section. 

The third unusual aspect is that the paper – particularly the methods section – includes traditional knowledge and oral histories from the Lakota and Comanche people, in English and Lakota.

For Arterberry, the study represents a long overdue change for the better in how non-Indigenous scientists interacted with traditional knowledge holders. 

“A lot of times we share stuff and they don’t really take it into consideration, and it really gets omitted from the story,” Arterberry says.

In this case, this traditional knowledge and expertise were integral to the scientific study. “That’s when you really get a lot more accurate data and information, and that’s through that negotiated discussion and process of respect, and not challenging, but being open to learning.”

Jimmy arteberry
Jimmy Arterberry and his mother. Credit: Supplied.

Surprisingly perhaps, Australia is ahead of the United States in its practices and guidelines around research that involves Indigenous people, knowledge and culture.

In 1999, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies published its first ethics guidelines that “repositioned Indigenous peoples from subjects of research to partners in research”. 

The most recent iteration of those guidelines, published in 2020, details four ethical principles that govern this research: 

  1. Recognition of and respect for Indigenous self-determination.
  2. Indigenous leadership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research.
  3. Shared agreement about the benefit, impact and value of such research.
  4. Environmental, cultural, social and economic sustainability and accountability in such research.  

“A lot of times we share stuff and they don’t really take it into consideration, and it really gets omitted from the story”

Jimmy Arterberry

Indigenous inclusion in research has improved, but there’s still a way to go, says Gerry Turpin, Mbabaram Traditional Custodian and senior ethnobotanist at the Tropical Indigenous Ethnobotany Centre at James Cook University in Cairns. 

“The way they did it in the past, there was no information given back – [they] just contacted one or two people and then there’s no inclusion in the projects, no information given back, sacred knowledge exposed and things like that,” Turpin says. 

Today, there’s greater recognition of the importance of collaboration. 

“There’s a focus on Indigenous knowledge and western science working together to solve these current problems that we have, and provide solutions,” he says. 

But avoiding the mistakes of the past means putting in place guidelines to ensure the protection and respect of traditional knowledge and culture. Turpin played a key role in ensuring those protections were built into Queensland’s Biodiversity Act, which governs the collection of native biological material for commercial purposes. 

Avoiding the mistakes of the past means putting in place guidelines to ensure protection and respect of traditional knowledge and culture.

The 2018 revision of that Act includes a Traditional Knowledge Code of Practice, which defines “the minimum measures to be taken before traditional knowledge can be used for biodiscovery”. These measures include requirements to identify the custodians of traditional knowledge, obtain informed consent, and obtain mutual agreement on benefit-sharing. 

But it’s not always smooth sailing, particularly when these practices and principles intersect with the institutions of western science, such as academia, intellectual property and scientific publishing.

To begin with, collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people need more time and care to establish, which can be a challenge for the rigid deadlines of funding bodies and institutions. “To work with traditional custodians it takes extra time to build relationships and negotiate terms and agreements, even before a contract is even signed,” Turpin says. 

Archaeologist Professor Linley Wallis says institutional principles around intellectual property can also be a sticking point when it comes to research involving traditional knowledge. 

The western way of thinking is that intellectual property, such as a patent or copyright, is held by an individual, company or institution such as a university. But that structure can’t be imposed onto traditional knowledge.

“Traditional knowledge is jointly held within a community; if you’re talking about plant use, pretty much everybody in the community will know that plant knowledge,” says Wallis, from Griffith University in Brisbane. This can be a challenging concept for university legal departments to wrap their heads around, she says.

Gerry turpin photo ben menadue edited
Gerry Turpin. Credit: James Cook University

Another tricky area is publishing, given that institutions and research funding bodies expect that all research will eventually be published in some form. “We have clauses in there that none of our research would be published without the explicit written permission of the groups we’re working with,” Wallis says. “This is part of the actual partnership process, is you have to be willing to do what you say and that means giving people a veto.”

Scientific publishers are also on a learning curve. Dr Sacha Vignieri, deputy editor at Science magazine, which published the paper about horse domestication by Indigenous Americans, says that paper was a new experience even for such a veteran and respected scientific publication. 

“I can’t remember another paper where we’ve had a collaboration like this between Indigenous knowledge holders and western scientists,” she says. 

While there has been a lot of talk about and interest in this sort of collaboration, it has posed some challenges, Vignieri says. While the scientific method starts with a hypothesis, then sets up experiments to test that hypothesis, traditional knowledge is something different. “It’s acquired over generations and it’s held by people and it’s not necessarily tested in the same way,” Vignieri says. “Trying to bring those two perspectives together has been challenging to western scientists who expect a certain type of test for their knowledge.”

“Traditional knowledge is jointly held within a community; if you’re talking about plant use, pretty much everybody in the community will know that plant knowledge.”

Professor Linley Wallis, Griffith University

For Science as a publisher, the study led to some changes, both big and small. The easy part was altering author name conventions. A bigger question was how to incorporate the oral histories and traditional knowledge that were so fundamental to the research into the final paper.

“There was included a very long discussion of the traditional knowledge with regards to the history and the beliefs of the tribes, and that’s not something you would normally have in a scientific paper,” Vignieri says. Some of that knowledge and oral history was incorporated into the paper’s discussion section, and some was presented in detail in the methods section.

While it’s a relatively rare collaboration, particularly for the United States, Vignieri hopes to see more of them. “We were really happy to see it come to us,” she says. “We’re really happy that it’s getting attention and might pave the way for new types of inclusion and collaboration.”

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