How a new generation of Indigenous researchers are bringing traditional knowledge to academia

The Learning with Head and Heart summer program at Western University pairs Indigenous students with faculty members to conduct research using Western and Indigenous ways of knowing.

A summer program at Western University is pairing Indigenous undergrads with faculty members

Western University student Natalie Hill took part in the pilot year of the Learning with Head and Heart program, which pairs Indigenous students with faculty. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Twenty-three-year old Natalie Hill is wrapping up her undergraduate degree in First Nations and social justice and peace studies, but spent last summer studying something completely different: physics and astronomy.

Hill, who is from Oneida Nation of the Thames, found her way to astronomy through a new Western University program called Learning with Head and Heart, that aims to develop Indigenous research talent and marry academic research methods with Indigenous ways of knowing.

The program began as a pilot project last year, and is now back for a second year.

"I was a little surprised at at first," Hill said of her placement. "But still my project is Indigenous, but it has a flair of the scientific behind it as well."

Over the course of her research, Hill produced a wampum belt, which she said is used by Haudenosaunee people to transmit knowledge between generations. Using glass beads and artificial sinew, the belt depicts both the big dipper and what's known in Haudenosaunee culture as the celestial bear.

"It's both the same constellation, but two different stories that are both valid and complete in their own right," Hill said, who plans to go on to a master's degree in public health or education.

Hill said wampum belts and oral history are ways that people in Haudenosaunee culture traditionally transfer knowledge. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Fellow program alumnus Paul Porter, 24, said the program helped him see parallels between Indigenous and scientific knowledge. As he spent the summer researching algae, Porter said he saw a similarity between the way that cells transfer energy and how elders transfer knowledge to the next generation. 

In the lab, Porter said he also found himself singing to his cells, the way he and his grandmother would sing to plants in her garden when he was growing up.

"It's kind of to give that good medicine," said Porter, who is from Six Nations of the Grand River and is in his second year at Western. "It helped me get into the process, wrap my head around the process a lot easier."

The experience has already had an impact on Porter's academic path. He's continued on as a research assistant during the school year, and will soon see data and photographs from his research published in a textbook. 

"It's pretty amazing, I'm pretty excited," said Porter, who plans to apply for a master's in biology after he wraps up his undergrad.

Teaching the next generation

Erin Huner, who coordinates Learning with Head and Heart as the director of research, assessment and planning for Western's student experience portfolio, said another aim of the program is to develop Indigenous research.

That goal was accomplished by Donna Noah, 32, who developed the curriculum for an undergraduate-level Indigenous music class during her time with the program. As a result, Noah, of Munsee Delaware Nation, said she discovered her own aptitude for teaching.

"I think it really helped me see my abilities and my passions," said Noah, who now plans to continue to teacher's college with a focus on Indigenous education. 

Donna Noah developed a music curriculum during her time with the program, and plans to earn an education degree. She said she wants to teach students about language revitalization, theatre and art. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Noah, who dropped out of school at 16 before returning at 20, said teaching the next generation holds a special importance for her. Reflecting on her teenage years, Noah said she would've had an easier time in high school if she'd had earlier exposure to Indigenous educators.

"I went to a school with all non-Indigenous students. Half the time I was the only native kid, so I think it would've been really great to see someone like me teaching me stuff. It would've made me feel more confident to know I'm being taught by someone that's Indigenous," she said, adding that she hopes to focus on language revitalization, theatre and art.

All in all, of the 17 students who participated last year, five—including Noah—are now en route to grad school, according to Huner.

Huner said that number shows the program is working.

"I think we can see that as evidence that, if we give students opportunities to immerse themselves in research, then it sparks in them the idea that they too could go on and be researchers," Huner said.

The university is accepting applications for this year's cohort until April 5.