Exploring the Intersection of Indigenous Worldviews and Engineering

You don’t often see “engineering” and” “Indigenous worldviews” in the same sentence – but you should!

Engineering is more than just the construction of buildings and bridges – it’s about the process of designing, building and maintaining technologies, each which can have significant environmental, social and economic impacts. Indigenous worldviews, by comparison, are rooted in local traditional knowledges with rich insights into cultural traditions and natural surroundings. Indigenous knowledges and worldviews can play an important role in engineering processes and design practices, providing insights about ecological and social processes, causes, predictions and possible adaptations.

We live in an increasingly complex world and face challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and food security. Engineering and the development of new technologies can help solve these problems. Similarly, Indigenous worldviews have contributed, and continue to contribute, innovative solutions in the face of pressing environmental and social challenges.

For example, the Siku(sea ice, in Inuktitut) Atlas is a collaborative project co-created by Inuit experts and community and university researchers to document specialized Inuit knowledge about sea ice[1].  Faced with growing concerns about changes observed in seasonal sea ice conditions, and recognizing that youth are both travelling less on the land and ice and relying more on GPS for navigation, there was a need to make sure youth are aware of these changes through online technology such as multi-media educational tools, so that they are able to identify signs of danger when travelling.

How can Indigenous worldviews be woven together with the professional practice of engineering?

This was the guiding question of a recent workshop Stratos attended[2], offered by Trent University’s Indigenous Environmental Institute (IEI) and the Engineering Change Lab (ECL). The workshop focused on the concept of technological stewardship: “behaviour that ensures technology is used to make the world a better place for all – more equitable, inclusive, just, and sustainable.”[3] Participants explored how elements of Indigenous knowledges and modern engineering can help to ensure this stewardship, given the rate at which technology is used to solve problems and the fact that technology is changing is more rapidly than ever before.

The workshop featured land-based teachings, sharing circles, and medicine walks that encouraged healthy introspection, leading to deeper discussions and more meaningful learnings, both personally and professionally. To highlight the diversity of Indigenous cultures and perspectives, teachings were offered from two distinct Peoples present within Trent’s School of Indigenous Studies: Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee.

Key takeaways

Two-Eyed seeing, a concept used to frame the workshop experience, was developed by Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall and refers to “learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye to see the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and learning to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.”[4] In the context of the engineering profession, practicing Two-Eyed Seeing involves learning to weave together Indigenous knowledge and worldviews with engineering practices to solve the world’s toughest challenges.

 

Iconic visual developed to represent Two-Eyed Seeing. In the words of Elder Marshall, “the two jigsaw puzzle pieces help remind us that, with respect to Aboriginal Traditional Knowledges [Indigenous knowledges], no one person ever has more than one small piece of the knowledge.”[5]

 

During the workshop, participants explored how Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee perspectives inform the concept of technological stewardship and beyond. The discussions and presentations yielded a number of additional ideas to consider, including the following: 

  • Indigenous peoples have been the traditional caretakers of the lands and waters of Turtle Island (North America) for millenia. Assuming this responsibility naturally fosters a deeply personal and empathetic relationship with living things. For settlers and Indigenous peoples alike, thinking about how to encourage both personal and professional values to reflect deeper and more reciprocal relationships with nature can be a key driver to more sustainable practices.
     
  • Holding space for ceremony allows for healing and learning to intersect[6], and may be one of the greatest ways to enable problem solving. For example, through a sharing circle at the start of the gathering, several leaders in the engineering community spoke about what brought them to this gathering including how Indigenous knowledges could transform their own work as well as what having this conversation meant to them on a personal level. This combination of healing and learning can lead to better relationship-building based on trust and connection, which in turn enables better collaboration and ultimately more successful problem solving.
  • There are many knowledge systems in the world, Western science being just one of them, and they are often complex and varied. It is important to be mindful of where we are coming from and to reflect on the source of our knowledge: how do we know what we know? What are some of our inherent biases? How can we recognize and suspend them? It is equally important to be open to recognizing and respecting ways of knowing that are not our own in terms of how data is gathered, collected and processed. For example, Indigenous knowledges are often transmitted orally from generation to generation, in contrast to the written tradition that characterizes most Western data management practices. Although Indigenous knowledges and western science are based on different ways of knowing and understanding the world, both fields can learn from each other. The more diverse the knowledge systems that we can access, the more perspectives we are able to bring to bear on a problem and thus (hopefully) the more innovative the solution.

Integrating Indigenous knowledges into our work at Stratos

Mine remediation and reclamation

Stratos has many years of experience working with clients in developing, supporting and implementing mine remediation and reclamation processes. We recently led an engagement process with Indigenous communities and other interested parties to inform and integrate Indigenous knowledges into a quantitative risk assessment (QRA) being performed by Wood Group in relation to the Giant Mine Remediation Project.  

QRAs are necessary to identify appropriate improvements and management responses to avoid or reduce the severity of predicted unacceptable risks including those associated with a reclaimed mine. Although local communities rarely have the chance to participate or provide input into QRAs, Stratos had the opportunity to collaborate with partners and local Indigenous communities to plan and implement a meaningful engagement strategy.

Adjustments made to conventional risk assessment tools and methods allowed for qualitative Indigenous knowledges to be woven into the QRA process. This innovative approach has fostered stronger relationships, built greater awareness and comfort around the overall project, and allowed for different risk tolerances and values to be considered in the process, which ultimately has led to a better risk assessment.

Implementing impact-benefit agreements (IBAs)

Stratos provides ongoing support to several private sector clients on the implementation of their agreements with Indigenous peoples. Agreements are legally enforceable contracts between Indigenous communities and industry proponents. Typically, agreements seek to:

  • Address the potential for adverse effects of development activities on Indigenous communities by taking steps to prevent or mitigate them; and
  • Ensure that Indigenous communities benefit from any development activities occurring on their traditional territories.

Our approach for the successful implementation of IBAs is to ensure that the views of both the proponent and Indigenous communities – western science and Indigenous knowledges – are meaningfully heard and included throughout an agreement's life-cycle (pre-negotiation, negotiation, implementation and monitoring).

This often starts with a collaborative process to identify what each party values, and how they define success. It continues through the articulation of how each party will communicate together, with a focus on maintaining and strengthening their relationship. A critical component at all stages of an agreement’s life-cycle is the creation of data and knowledge together, and conversations about the meaning of this information to then inform decision-making processes.  

In our experience, proponents that take Indigenous knowledges seriously at all phases of an agreement’s life-cycle have a healthier, more resilient relationship that is more likely to withstand the inevitable ups and downs that all relationships experience. 

Michael Shoesmith is a Technical Consultant and Professional Engineer at Stratos who specializes in solving cross-disciplinary problems that require technical and policy expertise. For more information about Stratos’ work at the intersection of Indigenous Knowledges and engineering practices, please contact Michael Shoesmith.

 

Sources

[1] (Inuit Siku Atlas, s.d.)

[2] This workshop took place in the traditional territory of the Mississauga Anishinaabeg, a group of Indigenous people comprised of the Ojibwa, Odawa, Potawatami, Chippewa, Mississauga, Algonquin, and Delaware communities. Before it became known as Peterborough (Ontario), the area was called Nogojiwanong, Ojibwa for “place at the end of rapids”.

[3] (Engineering Change Lab, 2018)

[4] (Bartlett, Marshall, & Marshall, 2012)

[5] (Institute for Integrative Science & Health, s.d.)

[6] (Longboat, Dan, 2019)