Knowledge keepers: How Western science and Indigenous knowledge intertwine

As part of a CBC Radio holiday special, co-hosts Rosanna Deerchild and Torah Kachur explore the stories that combine "mainstream" Western science and Indigenous knowledge.

These two approaches to learning intersect in many ways

The aurora borealis appears over Great Bear Lake, N.W.T. (Pat Kane/REUTERS)

While Indigenous science is largely based in traditional knowledge and storytelling, Western science relies on an established set of rules and empirical study. But does this make these two approaches incompatible?

As part of a CBC Radio holiday special, Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild and science columnist Torah Kachur explore areas where traditional knowledge and Western science converge to explain various phenomena.

The stars 

Indigenous knowledge keepers and Western scientists don't necessarily agree on the origin of the stars in our sky — but they do rely on one another's theories.

For instance, threads of Western science can be seen in Indigenous theories regarding the night sky. Polaris, the North Star, is prominent in Western astronomy. It is often used as an anchor point when orienting oneself with the stars because it appears to remain static above the North Pole while the rest of the sky shifts around it.

Polaris, or the North Star, isn't actually the brightest star in the sky, as you may have heard. But it's special because it's located on the Earth's axis, so it stays in its spot in the north all year long. (Tyler Hulett/Shutterstock)

Polaris is also present in Indigenous astronomy, except it's known as Keewatin.

"It's referred to as the Going Home Star. Another name that it's gone by is Ekakatchet Atchakos … It means 'standing still'. The Standing Still Star. That's the only star it doesn't move in the sky," explained Wilfred Buck.

Buck is from the the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, where he works as a science facilitator with the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre. Listen to the full conversation with him below.

Wilfred Buck is from the the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, where he works as a science facilitator. 6:13

The Western scientific community also relies on the narrative-based perspective of Indigenous knowledge when locating and differentiating among the stars.

"We actually use (traditional constellations) as signposts. We use those stories to help us understand which stars are which, and to remember them," said Sharon Morsink, a physicist who also runs the Observatory at the University of Alberta. 

Listen to the full interview below.

Sharon Morsink is a physicist who also runs the Observatory at the University of Alberta. 7:36

From climate change to child-rearing

Indigenous knowledge and Western science intertwine to offer explanations around plant life, climate change, medicine, obstetrics, food harvesting and more. Listen to the full special where Deerchild and Kachur explore it all below.

As part of a CBC Radio holiday special, co-hosts Rosanna Deerchild and Torah Kachur explore the stories that combine "mainstream" Western science and Indigenous knowledge. 48:43