Ways of Knowing
I’ve just returned home from the first annual gathering of researchers and community members engaged in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) “Pathways to Health Equity for Aboriginal Peoples” signature initiative. I’m feeling uplifted by the wisdom, commitment and trust that was evident in the conversations in the room, and those that have been happening in communities as part of the various funded research projects. See the CIHR website for more information.
One of the central conversations throughout the gathering was about different ways of knowing and how this is critical to doing research and knowledge translation that is meaningful to the Indigenous peoples (First Nations, Inuit, Metis) of Canada.
We heard from a researcher who shared her experience doing survey data collection in a First Nations community. When asked about what kept her healthy, one grandmother responded with a beautiful description of the plants and animals and wind and rain and spirits. This was later coded by the research team as “environment”. But this didn’t feel right to the principle investigator who was herself an Indigenous person. She went back to the local people who had collected the data and asked them what this grandmother meant by her answer. “Oh, she is speaking of a traditional medicine ceremony. She performs this to connect her to the living world and her ancestors. This is what helps to keep her healthy.” Interpreting this as “environment” clearly missed the meaning of what was told.
Understanding indigeneity as a social determinant of health is about recognizing that there are many ways of knowing. We need to recognize in public health that our most commonly used methods and tools in research and knowledge translation are not to up to this challenge. But there is good work being done to help us do a better job in considering both mainstream and Indigenous was of knowing, or “two-eyed seeing” as Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall has described.
The National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health (NCCAH) has recently released a paper on Indigenous knowledge and knowledge synthesis, translation and exchange which explores this further. The Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres has developed a model for community driven research to guide their member associations in working with research allies. And the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research is about to release a guide and checklist to help communities and researchers do “good health research”.
Some work done at the University of Victoria describing an “Indigenous Equity Framework of Relational Environments”, uses an Indigenous approach to framing the social determinants of health and adds a layer of richness to our understanding of systems and context. We can all be strengthened by remembering to look at the world through both our eyes.