PhD research looks to make traditional knowledge accessible

Paul Mayne // Western News

Geography PhD student Erin Huner’s research looks to create a framework for an indigenized traditional knowledge database containing archival elder interviews with the Bkejwanong First Nation (Walpole Island). That idea recently earned her the 2014 Canadian Institutes of Health (CIHR) Institute for Aboriginal Peoples’ Health Scientific Director’s Award for PhD work on Aboriginal Health.

Erin Huner wants to make the past accessible for one southwestern Ontario community.

The Geography PhD student has long been intrigued by the idea of nation-building – giving autonomy back to communities from which it had been taken away. And through a collaborative project with Bkejwanong First Nation (Walpole Island), she is helping the nation access at least one small piece of its past.

Huner’s work looks to create a framework for an indigenized traditional knowledge database containing archival elder interviews. That idea recently earned her the 2014 Canadian Institutes of Health (CIHR) Institute for Aboriginal Peoples’ Health Scientific Director’s Award for PhD work on Aboriginal Health.

“The reason, say Walpole, is in the condition they’re in is because of enforced colonialism,” Huner said. “We’re hoping instead of doing this under sort of the guise of decolonization, what we’re really looking at is the idea of nation-building. We recognize you can’t just wipe the slate clean and say, ‘Now you’re on your own, make a nation,’ because that is a dangerous proposition.

“We’re hoping, if we can have small grassroots interventions, you start to build autonomy and that builds again and again. At its root, planning is a generative process, if you engage in it with autonomy. And that’s what really what Walpole is interested in doing, having the autonomy.”

Partnering with Clint Jacobs, director of the Walpole Island Heritage Centre, Huner sought a solution to an ongoing problem.

The centre had been engaged in research for quite a while – collecting interviews with elders over the last 30 years, with the last round of interviews, around traditional land-based practice, occurring in 2010. But these interviews, literally and figuratively, have remained on the shelf.

Understandably, the elders felt they weren’t being heard and didn’t want to do any more interviews until what’s already been shared has been acted upon.

“They wanted it to be used in the community in some way. So, when Clint and I started working together, there was interest in using land-use plans that were reflective of traditional knowledge, and not Western ideas you and I would use. How could they, in some ways, indigenize a plan for Walpole Island that would be reflective of traditional land use-based practice?

“We know from research, and from talking to elders, there is such an intimate connection between language, land and practice,” said Huner, who’ll conduct additional interviews with Walpole elders later this fall. “Those three things can’t be taken apart if you truly want to be immersed in an Anishinaabe culture. It’s not the paradigm I come from, or have grown up on, so that’s why when this research started we had to articulate what it meant to have Anishinaabe knoweldge and what it looks like.”

The idea for such a project came about through the ideas of community members.

“We hope to see a lot more work and research stemming from this project and hope to continue with it, in some way, beyond her (Huner) PhD,” Jacobs said.

Along with the searchable Anishinaabe database, an indigenized land-use framework will be created to integrate land use across the traditional territories, not just reserve lands.

“What keeps happening in these interviews, when elders talk about engaging in land-based practice, they mostly end up off reserve, which to me is a really strong signal that says traditonal land use can’t be corraled into reserve boundaries,” Huner said. “And what we’re really talking about is to allow people to pratice their traditional ways outside of what we have said, ‘This is the land you now have.’”

She added a system of best practice for engaging in research will grow from this project to ensure the research doesn’t end when her PhD is completed in two years. Her philosophy is “capacity has to be built in the community I’m working with,” which is why she has engaged the youth in the community to be part of the project.

“This project, in a way, has been about my own decolonization,” she said. “When we put all this pressure on indegenious communities to decolonize, we stand outside, as privileged people, saying good luck. Actually, we need to started look at Canada, and start decolonizing the rest of the country.”