Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge and Assessment of Species at Risk: A Case Study from Northern Canada

Project Contributor: Nathan Cardinal

In Canada, both the inherent value and the lawful recognition of Aboriginal people’s traditional knowledge (ATK) are written into the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is the organization responsible for evaluating the status of species in Canada and is now required by legislation to base their species assessments on the best available knowledge, including both science and traditional or local knowledge. Such information has rarely been used in species conservation and the assessment of wildlife. A 2002 study of 190 reports that summarize the status of a given species at risk revealed that only one report referenced Aboriginal use, and none incorporated ATK (Ellis, 2001). COSEWIC works closely with Aboriginal Peoples to decide how ATK will be incorporated into the process of assessing species at risk through the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Subcommittee. Incorporating ATK into the assessment of species at risk improves the process, and therefore the quality of designations made by COSEWIC, by bringing information and perspectives on wildlife species that are not available in published scientific literature. While extremely beneficial for species, the inclusion of ATK can more importantly signal meaningful involvement of Aboriginal people in species conservation, which may ultimately improve local-level acceptance of a species’ status and associated recovery programs.

The focus of the project “The Use of Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge in Species Assessment: A Case Study of Northern Canada Wolverines”  is on the importance of understanding ATK to assist the scientific community in protecting species, in this case, the threatened wolverine, Gulo gulo, one of the least studied of the large carnivores. This project was completed as part of a Masters’ thesis, and is a research case study that investigated how ATK can be documented, described, and utilized in COSEWIC’s species assessment process. The study provided recommendations to COSEWIC regarding how such traditional knowledge can be gathered and utilized for future species assessments.

Wolverines are considered very important by local people, from both a cultural and a subsistence standpoint. The research found that ATK contributes invaluable information regarding the status of wolverines in northern Canada, including the special significance of the wolverine to Aboriginal people, the biological characteristics of the species, relative trends in abundance, and information regarding any significant threats. ATK proved to be very beneficial for improving the validity and acceptability of species assessments. ATK from the study continue reading–>

Working with Traditional Knowledge in Land Use Planning: Gwich’in Place Names, Land Uses, and Heritage Sites in the Northern Territories of Canada

Credit: Ingrid Kritsch, GSC

Project Contributor: Ingrid Kritsch

Hills at Tl’oondih where summer and winter trails led to traditional Gwich’in hunting grounds in the Yukon, and a clearing where one Gwich’in elder had his camp. Credit: Ingrid Kritsch, GSC

The Gwich’in are one of the most northerly aboriginal peoples on the North American continent, living at the northwestern limits of the boreal forest. Many families still maintain summer and winter camps outside their communities. Hunting, fishing and trapping remain important both culturally and economically, with caribou, moose and whitefish being staples of the local diet. The Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute (GSCI) was established in 1992 because the Gwich’in were concerned about the loss of their culture and language and the impact this was having on their families. The Dinjii Zhu’ Ginjik (Gwich’in language) is one of the most endangered Aboriginal languages in Canada. Due to the encroachment of English into all aspects of daily life, only a small number of elders and a few determined individuals continue to use the language on a regular basis, and it is rare to hear children speak the language. Government statistics in 1998 revealed that only 2% of all the Gwich’in spoke the language in their home, and only 13% reported they could speak the language at all. The last generation of elders who lived on the land and consequently have an in-depth knowledge of it, is passing away very quickly and there is great pressure to record their knowledge before it is too late.

The “Gwich’in Place Names and Traditional Land Use” project  is carried out by the GSCI, the cultural and heritage arm of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, in collaboration with Gwich’in communities in the land claim area. The project is based in the Northwest Territories, Canada and promotes sustainable land use among the Gwich’in First Nation through the application of their traditional knowledge to land use planning. Project research documented Gwich’in traditional knowledge and land use through the study of place names, traditional land use, ethnobotany, ethnoarchaeology, elders’ biographies, genealogy, a Gwich’in language dictionary, the replication of 19th century caribou skin clothing, and the identification of National Historic Sites in the Gwich’in Settlement Region (GSR). Gwich’in place names and the associated stories along with trails, traditional camp sites, graves, historic sites, harvesting locales and sacred or legendary places are windows into Gwich’in culture and history. The project has also successfully brought elders continue reading–>