New land-based educational program combines Western science and Indigenous culture
'We are immersing them in a variety of STEM-based learning activities as well as cultural activities'
Far from his home in northern Ontario, Moxy Manitowabi recently joined 16 other Indigenous youth in rural Nova Scotia to meld traditional knowledge with Western science in a program called Melkiknuawti — Mi'kmaw for 'which gives you strength.'
"I moved here from Ontario, just me and my mom and I felt really disconnected from the land and the culture around here… I felt like I needed to be more connected. So, yeah, it's been very fun," said Manitowabi, a member of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron.
"It's important to stay connected and not forget our culture, our language, and our land." The week-long program is hosted at a former farm now called Windhorse on Nova Scotia's South Shore. It's developed by Ulnooweg Education Centre, an Indigenous registered charity, and SuperNOVA , an initiative from Dalhousie University promoting STEM — which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
It's free and provides accommodations, meals and transportation for participants.
"We are immersing them in a variety of STEM-based learning activities as well as cultural activities," said Caitlin MacPhail, development co-ordinator with SuperNOVA at Dalhousie University.
"We're really giving them the opportunity to blend Indigenous science and Western science and just see how those two can come together in a really collaborative way," said MacPhail, who is also one of the lead organizers for Melkiknuawti and a member of the Siksika First Nation in southern Alberta.
Melkiknuawti describes the idea that knowledge of nature can be a path toward strength. The program itself was inspired by similar ones created by Actua, a national organization that supports STEM learning for youth through its members at universities and colleges across Canada.
Participant Dawson Smith from the Acadia First Nations in Nova Scotia says his mother is ecstatic to see him getting back to his roots and that it's important to keep the culture alive.
"Our elders, they lost all their culture and their language and I figure it would be great [for me] to learn it again."
Holly Griffiths, director of science and innovation with Ulnooweg Education Centre, says the point of the week-long program is to not only get Indigenous youth interested in STEM but also encouraging the idea of etuaptmumk.
Etuaptmumk is a Mi'kmaw word meaning two-eyed seeing, a perspective that combines both western and Indigenous teachings rather than separating the two.
"It [Indigenous science] was kind of separated and not treated or characterized as scientific knowledge, when it has a history like thousands of years," said Griffiths.
"So bringing that back full circle, and just introducing science and STEM concepts in a more meaningful way, by observation, and by fully immersing yourself in nature and all your five senses, it's super important if you want to create those meaningful connections."
According to Nancy Turner, a researcher who has studied Indigenous knowledge of plants and environments in northwestern North America for over 40 years, Indigenous peoples have identified more than 400 different species of medicinal plants, lichens, fungi and algae.
Indigenous people make up roughly four per cent of adults in Canada, but less than two per cent of people working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics occupations are Indigenous, according to the Conference Board of Canada, an independent research organization.
Jonny Hird, one of the content instructors, says he hopes programs like these can make STEM more accessible and help change participants' minds when it comes to how they personally think about STEM concepts.
"I find for the indigenous youth, there's so many barriers for getting into STEM, but there's no barriers for going outside and just learning about the world around you and experiencing STEM in a more in person way."
MacPhail said they'd love to expand Melkiknuawti to the rest of the province, maybe even across the country.
"We would love to see this be able to be offered not just one week, in the summer, we would love for this to become something that we are able to offer year round in a variety of communities across Mi'kma'ki."