How an Indigenous academic is harnessing local knowledge to fight for land sovereignty
In Hartley Bay, on British Columbia's northwest coast in the Great Bear Rainforest, local Indigenous knowledge and environmental stewardship is being paired with Western science and academics to document the history of land use in the Gitga'at First Nation.
"There's this human connection of spirit, of culture, of identity," said Spencer Greening, a former councillor for his home community of the Gitga'at First Nation.
Greening's work is part of an effort to illustrate the long-standing relationship of the Gitga'at First Nation and a particular watershed – or drainage area – in the Great Bear Rainforest.
"As the Gitga'at First Nation and our people ... it's one of our ancestral homes that really make us who we are," said Greening, who is an archaeology student on paper, but whose work incorporates history, archaeology, ethnography and linguistics, as well as scientific data gathered by local landscape guardians.
Much of his study happens out on the land, with elders and knowledge keepers, learning about the ways the Gitga'at had been environmental stewards of the area long before colonization.
"Whether it's talking about the language and watching the fish, the salmon come up the river to spawn and listening and writing down how we express those actions in our language all the way up to hunting with the elders, trapping with the elders … that's all a part of it," said Greening.
In his work, he collaborates with other academics, his advisor, as well as community members. There are a couple of goals in his work, Greening said. One is making sure knowledge is being passed from older to middle and younger generations. The other goal is more political.
"To be able to … really have evidence of use, occupancy, history – because that's really helpful in political settings," said Greening.
"Even with the knowledge that we've existed … in this place for millennia, we still have to prove that in a Western setting," he said. That means using Western ways of communication that "often that results in reports and academic papers and these sorts of things."
Having vast amounts of research and data in addition to the local knowledge and history will help fight off threats of development, said Greening.
"They're being threatened by … colonial policy and law and ways of engaging with these landscapes that aren't true to our people."
Ultimately, the political goal is to have the sovereignty over a landscape that existed for years and that his community has living knowledge of.
"Ideally, as stewards, we're given that responsibility to manage that area as we always have, because we have the tools to manage it," said Greening.