New course at University of Alberta combines science with Indigenous knowledge

Indigenous Peoples and Technoscience was introduced by Kim TallBear, an associate professor in the faculty of Native studies, in the Winter 2021 semester.

Indigenous Peoples and Technoscience now a regular offering at U of A

Kim TallBear, an associate professor in the faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, created the course. (Submitted by Kim TallBear)

From working on science technology issues in Indigenous communities, Kim TallBear is aware of the perception that Western science and Indigenous knowledge are separate things.

TallBear, an associate professor in the University of Alberta's faculty of Native studies, created a course called Indigenous Peoples and Technoscience.

The goal of the course is not only to dismantle the myth that science and Indigenous knowledge are separate, but also to include Indigenous voices in science-based decision-making.

"We also look at the way that mainstream science has excluded Indigenous people or has used our communities and lands and cultures as the objects of their research without really considering that the questions they might be asking or the methods they might be using, they might be unethical for us," TallBear told CBC's Edmonton AM on Tuesday.

The new course follows the huge response to Indigenous Canada, a free online history course offered by the university that saw a spike in enrolment following the discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential schools.

TallBear — a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment — said it was important to have the course available, as Indigenous communities don't often trust Western scientists and engineers to do the best work for them.

She cited the current discussion around forest fires as one way of how Indigenous practices were previously ignored. But now, many scientists — allies to Indigenous communities — are pointing out faults in that approach. 

"Indigenous people knew how to manage these lands for thousands of years … we haven't listened so look at all this out of control burning," TallBear said.

In her own field of human genetic research, Indigenous people have been made subjects of experiments without their knowledge or consent, she said.

"We're really fighting that fight now in the genome sciences, where you've got a lot of Indigenous genome scientists being trained now, who are trying to figure out how to sort of take control of that research in a way that will benefit Indigenous communities."

Inclusion vs. reconciliation vs. decolonization

Through the new course, TallBear also touches on reconciliation by assigning students to write on the difference between inclusion, reconciliation and actual decolonization.

She said these words are often used interchangeably without truly understanding their meaning.

"It is not simply, 'Can't we all just get along?'" she said.

"Reconciliation is non-Indigenous Canadians learning things about Indigenous peoples, changing the way that they think about and behave toward Indigenous people."

The course was introduced during the Winter 2021 semester and will be offered every term at the University of Alberta.