Mountains are defined by their diversity of life forms, geography, peoples and livelihoods. Mountains are part of diverse cultures and spiritual beliefs and practices, and serve as inspiration for art, music and storytelling. December 11th was designated “International Mountain Day” by the United Nations to call attention to the world about the importance of mountains to life, and this year’s theme was mountain biodiversity.
For International Mountain Day 2020, the Canadian Mountain Network (CMN) and the Reconciling Ways of Knowing: Indigenous Knowledge and Science Forum (RWoK) partnered to host, Why Mountains Matter: Bringing Indigenous Knowledge and Science Together for International Mountain Day. The virtual event included two panels of academic scholars and Indigenous leaders, who discussed the need for an approach integrating multiple ways of knowing to sustain biological and cultural diversity, in the spirit of this year’s focus for International Mountain Day on biodiversity.
CMN member Dr. Graham McDowell provided an overview of the extent and importance of mountain systems in Canada. He highlights that Canada is the 4th most mountainous country in the world, with mountains representing 24% of the country’s landmass. Although 3.5% of Canada’s total population (1.3 million people) live in mountain areas, 82% (30.2 million people) live within or adjacent to mountain areas.
He also discussed the launch of the Canadian Mountain Assessment (CMA), a landmark, three-year initiative to improve our understanding of mountain systems across Canada. CMA braids together Indigenous and Western ways of knowing to address three fundamental questions: What do we know, not know, and need to know about Canada’s diverse and rapidly changing mountain systems?
The CMA’s advisory panels include numerous Indigenous leaders and scholars like Ira Provost, who discussed his role in advising the CMA from an Indigenous perspective. Ira is from the Piikani First Nation, whose approach is rooted in complex protocol and ceremony. He underscored the need to communicate this knowledge to the broader community, so that we may understand the value and importance of these practices.
Indigenous peoples have inhabited the mountains of Canada for millennia and have amassed complex traditional knowledge of the life flow of mountain systems, which is sacred to their peoples. Indigenous peoples are experienced stewards of the land and resources, managing resources sustainably for the well-being of all life for countless generations.
Western science has its own distinct system of understanding and managing ecological systems, which is also of great value, but which should also be complemented with Indigenous ways of knowing. The Indigenous approach has historically been devalued throughout academia, but it is essential that they have a seat at table. Reconciling ways of knowledge can also help us better address some of society’s “wicked problems”, which science alone has failed to solve, such as climate change and human disturbances, which are changing our mountains and threatening our fresh water supply, food security, livelihoods, and biological and cultural diversity
Panelists discussed how Indigenous peoples have been removed from their land in the name of conservation when they have been managing the landscape sustainably for millennia. Indigenous-led conservation is an opportunity to correct course, especially as biodiversity loss is accelerating at an unprecedented rate and much of the world’s remaining biodiversity is located on Indigenous land. CMN’s co-Research Director Norma Kassi highlighted the Land Guardians program, which trains Indigenous youth in land stewardship. They are taught how to observe nature, climatic changes and whether animals are healthy based on the teachings from Elders, which are interwoven with their rich culture and spirituality.
Miles Richardson O.C. (RWoK Co-chair, Haida Nation) emphasized a key point in the dialogue: Indigenous peoples understand all creation is connected. Nuu-chah-nulth Canadian political scientist Eli Enns discussed the interconnection of all things, including in the present, past and the future. Indigenous peoples believe that they have a responsibility to manage their inheritance with care, including intellectual wealth and culture, recognizing we are here for a short period of time. This inherited intergenerational accountability is built into their culture, and when they pray together, they gather with past, present and future generations for the well being of all life forms.
As CMN Co-Director Murray Humphries concluded, “The opportunity and challenge are bigger than a mountain”. Indigenous ways of knowing must be meaningfully integrated into ecological research and conservation, stewardship policy and decision-making processes so that our lands, waters and resources to provide for us now and for generations to come.