The Cass River which flows through Frankenmuth, Michigan

Partnering with Indigenous Communities to Confront Climate Change

A new international center, supported by a $30M NSF award and led by UMass Amherst, seeks to address the urgent and interconnected challenges of climate change, cultural places, and food security.

In Michigan near the Cass River is a rock art site, Ezhibiigadek Asin (Ojibwe for “knowledge written on stone”), with ancient petroglyphs carved by local Native Americans. Archaeologists studying the site have investigated the meaning of these carvings, when they were made, and how the site was used. In an effort to protect this important cultural site from rain and other natural forces, they have covered it up for decades. Meanwhile, climate change has caused the adjacent river to flood with increasing frequency, leading to the growth of more moss and lichen on the rock.

Sonya Atalay, UMass Amherst provost professor of anthropology, is an Indigenous archaeologist who has worked in this region. By studying the site without the full partnership of the Native communities whose ancestors created the petroglyphs, she said, scholars were missing out on an opportunity to learn from the communities’ deep knowledge of their history and to investigate research questions that are critical to their present-day concerns, especially regarding the effects of climate change. Moreover, in putting a cover over the site, the archaeologists had disregarded Native understanding of the rock as an animate being, cutting it off from the living system of which it’s a part. This lack of knowledge about Native American practices of appropriate management and care had negative impacts on the rock art site.  

Elders circle
Sonya Atalay (center, in white) with circle of elders and knowledge carriers at Ezhibiigadek Asin discussing interpretation and care of the site.

Atalay believes there is a better way for scholars to do their work, by developing ongoing partnerships with Indigenous and other communities, spanning every stage of the research process. With regard to the rock art site, this would involve taking into account Native approaches to care, preservation, and management, while learning the oral history of the site from community members and understanding Indigenous knowledge of plant medicines that grow nearby. This requires a holistic view of places that integrates Indigenous knowledge into standard scientific practices. Community members would be involved as co-researchers from the earliest stages to develop research questions, approaches, and ethical considerations with the scientists, and they would determine how the research can be shared with, and used by, communities.

Fortunately, such a shift has been underway in the field of archaeology since the 1990 passage of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Atalay was an undergraduate studying anthropology and classical archaeology at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor when NAGPRA was enacted. Her own interest in archaeology grew from hearing her Native American elders’ stories of museums holding Native American human remains and cultural belongings.

“It bothered me that archaeologists and museums had control of our Native American ancestors,” she said, explaining that Ojibwe beliefs recognize the burial ceremony as a critical part of the ecological cycle involving all living things. Excavation of ancestral remains interrupted that cycle. “While NAGPRA allowed for the return of these remains, the burden was on tribes to provide certain evidence of a connection to the remains. NAGPRA allows for traditional Indigenous knowledge (IK) and oral histories, but it struck me that museums rarely gave IK much credence.

“I wanted to understand what it would look like to carry out scientific research in a way that takes seriously Indigenous ways of knowing and engaging with the world around us.”

If there's something we can learn from Indigenous peoples that can help us all with this existential threat of climate change, I think that’s essential to further explore, understand, and incorporate.

Sonya Atalay, Provost Professor of Anthropology

For the past several decades, Atalay and other archaeologists have been conducting community-based research.

“It’s not as simple as just talking with Native people. It's a fundamentally different approach to research, which requires building long-standing, trusting relationships. Rather than simply following a researcher’s intellectual curiosity, the topics we study are based on what matters to the community,” she said. And while current academic standards prioritize open access to information and publishing in academic journals and books, Atalay added, “When you’re working with Indigenous communities, results of research may be shared in different ways; academic publications aren’t always the priority. Sharing knowledge in accessible ways with communities is essential. For decades scientists extracted information from Native peoples and that must change. We need to engage in science practices that recognize communities have sacred or traditional knowledge that requires specific care and may not be appropriate for publication.” Thus, while traditional archaeology was simply extractive, partnering with communities requires giving careful thought to culturally appropriate care and sharing of data and results, before the research even begins.

Sonya Atalay
Sonya Atalay

According to Atalay, archaeology and other social sciences have made progress over time in working in partnership with communities in ethical ways. She now aims to extend these practices of knowledge co-production to the natural sciences and other academic domains. In collaboration with Laura Valdiviezo in the College of Education, Jonathan Woodruff in the Department of Geosciences, and colleagues at the University of Maine and Northern Arizona University, she has established the new Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science (CBIKS). This international collaboration of dozens of scientists and scholars is supported by a five-year, $30 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Centers (STC) program award, the largest NSF award in UMass history.

Led by a team of predominantly Indigenous scholars, CBIKS will emphasize scientific research that is conducted in partnership with Indigenous communities. It will provide new models, practices, methods, and ethical guidelines for braiding IK together with current science practices. Mentoring and training of Indigenous scientists and retraining Western-trained scientists in methods of knowledge co-production with Indigenous communities are important parts of the endeavor. It builds upon the UMass campus commitment that formed the 2017 UMass Native Advisory Council as well as the $2.5M Mellon Foundation grant to the Five College, Incorporated that is strengthening Native American and Indigenous Studies on the UMass campus and the other four colleges.

Braiding Different Knowledge Systems

As its name suggests, the proposed center is about more than developing new research practices to respect the rights of Indigenous communities. It will examine how to effectively and ethically integrate Indigenous Knowledges into science research, education, and practice. The Mi’kmaw peoples refer to this as “two-eyed seeing”: Just as we can see better when we use both eyes at once, our understanding of the natural world will improve, become more rigorous and complete, by integrating two different knowledge systems.

According to Atalay, over the past decade, scientists have increasingly acknowledged the value of IK, including traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), in addressing complex and dire challenges brought on by climate change.

“We all know climate change is a serious threat. The data show that Indigenous people are impacted at much higher rates by climate change, much more rapidly, because they are living closer to the land,” said Atalay. “We also know that lands controlled by Indigenous people maintain much higher levels of biodiversity. We know that Indigenous peoples over millennia have been great stewards of the land and waters. There are very urgent practices and knowledge we can learn from Indigenous peoples about adaptation during the climate crisis, how to care for land and water, and how we maintain biodiversity.

“Indigenous knowledge isn’t about going back to the past. It's about recognizing that Indigenous knowledge systems carry tremendous information and value, and it’s shortsighted to think that current research practices founded on Western knowledge systems are the only or ‘right’ approach. If there's something we can learn from Indigenous peoples that can help us all with this existential threat of climate change, I think that’s essential to further explore, understand, and incorporate.”

CBIKS’ focus areas will include climate change mitigation and adaptation; protection of irreplaceable archaeological sites, sacred places, and cultural heritage; and the challenges of changing food systems. All research will be place-based, with several regional hubs across the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia where scientists will work in partnership with local Indigenous communities to conduct research. According to Atalay, in contrast to the Western approach of academic disciplines existing in their own siloes, Indigenous approaches to research are holistic, with different experts working together in a transdisciplinary way at the intersection of disciplinary boundaries to solve complex problems.

Shifting Perspectives

Co-PI Woodruff is a sedimentologist who studies marshes and co-directs the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center (NE CASC) hosted at UMass—one of nine regional centers across the country managed by the U.S. Geological Survey National Climate Adaptation Science Center. Woodruff has begun to develop partnerships with Indigenous scholars and elders through NE CASC, and in the spring of 2021, he helped organize an online seminar series, Indigenous Knowledge and Climate Adaptation Science, which drew a great deal of interest from students and faculty at UMass Amherst, the Five College consortium, and beyond.

Jon Woodruff doing research in salt marsh
Jonathan Woodruff conducting research in a salt marsh in Hancock, Maine outside Acadia National Park, which has been affected by human interference. (Photo by Iva Resnja '23).

Through both NE CASC and CBIKS, Woodruff aims to build on momentum already underway in the natural sciences to connect more with communities and produce actionable science to support climate change adaptation and mitigation.
“Traditionally, earth scientists have been driven to study really remote, pristine environments that haven’t been muddied by human interference. Now that the need for climate adaptation is urgent, we don’t have this luxury,” he explained.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in funding available for research to study areas that matter to humans, and to understand the interactions between humans and the environment. Applied science is no longer a dirty word; we want to conduct research that informs actual decision-making and mitigation design.”

Including humans as part of the environments they study represents a real shift in thinking for today’s Western earth scientists, yet has long been at the roots of Indigenous science. Describing his own experience, Woodruff likened it to learning a new language and discovering a word that doesn’t translate to one’s native language, yet whose meaning resonates strongly.

“As a Western-trained scientist, I don’t always have the words, but by interacting with tribal scholars and elders, I'm starting to recognize and appreciate a new way of doing science.

“I’m really excited about how the proposed center can help folks like me to adapt to this new way of thinking, and can train up-and-coming scientists to approach research differently,” Woodruff said.

Training the Next Generation

Atalay also sees training younger generations in “braided” science as crucial. The proposed center aims to Indigenize university science curriculum, and will also start long before students enter colleges and universities. It will include programming in Pre-K–12 education, as well as in informal learning environments like camps and after-school programs, and through Indigenous science kits. In keeping with an Indigenous holistic approach to teaching and learning, Atalay said, the education and professional training components of the center’s work will be fully integrated with the research components.

“There's an urgent need for children to cultivate skills to think in a sustainable way about land and water,” she said. “We recognize the best way to do this is through ‘two-eyed seeing.’ Some people feel we need ‘10-eyed seeing,’ integrating many different types of knowledge, to confront this existential challenge of climate change and be good stewards of the Earth many generations into the future.”

This story was originally published in July 2022.