Professors promote science as a tool for Indigenous governance

By leading an internship and creating a new online course, Kim TallBear and Jessica Kolopenuk are addressing increasing demands for Indigenous governance in STEM.


Kim TallBear says the new online course she created with colleague Jessica Kolopenuk will help students understand how Indigenous peoples have produced science, technology and knowledge throughout history. (Photo: Jeff Allen)

It’s a common misconception, Dr. Kim TallBear says, that while Indigenous peoples have culture and tradition, white people own science and technology.

As TallBear mentions in a video trailer for one of the Faculty of Native Studies’ newest online courses, this myth doesn’t only undermine the myriad ways Indigenous peoples have produced science, technology and knowledge systems throughout history—it also denies them from wielding control over how science is practised in their own communities.

The importance of science in Indigenous peoples’ past and present inspired University of Alberta professors TallBear and Dr. Jessica Kolopenuk to create Indigenous Peoples and Technoscience, one of two new online courses delivered by the Faculty of Native Studies. Launched in the spring 2021 term, the course is just one of the ways TallBear and Kolopenuk are promoting science as a tool towards ensuring Indigenous peoples’ self-determination and sovereignty.

Bridging science, knowledge and culture

The course covers topics like the federal regulations constraining decolonial ethics in research and the ways science continues to intersect with the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples. TallBear said she hopes students taking the course learn that there isn’t a “hard divide” between Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge.

“All peoples do what we can call the scientific method. All peoples have engineered technologies across space and time,” TallBear said. “What tends to be different is the cultural and political contexts in which science and technology get produced.”

That’s why any culture’s approach to science will look much different from others—the way a society views and values the relations between humans, plants and animals, for example, plays a big role in what kinds of outcomes a scientific practice is trying to achieve. Although mainstream science, medicine and engineering are often accepted in Canada without much second thought, the outcomes of these practices may be completely out of step with an Indigenous community’s worldview and wishes.

TallBear witnessed this first-hand while working with a tribe near California’s Bay Area, when an elite group of engineers and architects designed a series of green housing for the community but had to learn to account for the community’s specific needs. Without community input, the homes would have lacked space to accommodate cultural practices, for example, and also assumed that local tradespeople would be able to help in the routine maintenance of the homes. Due to severe anti-Indigenous racism in the town, however, it was hard to find tradespeople to work in the community’s homes. A culturally and socially appropriate design would allow the tribe to maintain their homes themselves.

TallBear said the experience was a learning experience for the non-Indigenous engineers, but also for the tribe’s youth.

“It clicked for them that engineering and science can help our communities survive and thrive. It's not only about becoming a lawyer or a teacher or a medicine person—there’s a role for science and technology,” TallBear said.

But it’s easy to think of STEM fields—even more so than law or education—as naturally objective, Kolopenuk said.

“One of the main kinds of assumptions is that science is neutral and objective, that it’s this pursuit of truth and unveiling of truth rather than actually constructing truths in particular ways,” Kolopenuk said.

In other words, science as it’s commonly practised in Canada isn’t immune from values or interrogation of those values. After all, Kolopenuk said, colonialism has always been used as a tool to impose control over Indigenous peoples and their lands—whether it’s how colonial voyages advanced fields like astronomy, or how experiments conducted on Indigenous children in residential schools informed Canada’s Food Guide.

“So, however we want to articulate the project we're after, whether it's decolonization or anti-colonialism, it’s also going to involve science and technology fields,” Kolopenuk said.

Indigenizing the lab

Science as it’s currently practised is crucial for Indigenous communities to reclaim some of what was lost through colonization. This idea is at the heart of the Summer internship for Indigenous peoples in Genomics Canada (SING Canada). Led by Kolopenuk and TallBear within the Indigenous Science, Technology, and Society research hub, the one-week intensive immerses Indigenous undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students in hands-on genomics, bioinformatics and decolonial bioethics training. Students come away from the program with a greater knowledge of how to use scientifically robust methods while practising ethically within Indigenous communities.

This year’s internship, which began virtually on July 14, is exploring decolonial genomic practices. Past years of the program have focused on chronic wasting disease and genomic approaches to clam restoration.

Jessica Kolopenuk says the SING Canada internship program gives Indigenous students a chance to work in a lab alongside other Indigenous scientists, and a greater knowledge of how to practise science ethically within Indigenous communities. (Photo: Jordan Cook)

Kolopenuk attended the American iteration of the program as a graduate student, an experience she calls “nothing short of transformative.” For many Indigenous students, SING is the first time they can work in a lab alongside other Indigenous scientists.

“It really does change the dynamics of the lab itself and Indigenizes the lab in the process,” Kolopenuk said. “You can be in there doing science and not sacrifice who you are as an Indigenous person.”

Kolopenuk and TallBear have already begun to see a positive shift and potential for what’s to come from programs like SING Canada. When the SING program was first founded in the United States in 2011, for example, all of the scientific faculty supervising the program were non-Indigenous. A decade later, most of the scientific faculty in the American program are Indigenous.

TallBear noted more Indigenous researchers are becoming primary investigators with their own labs than ever before and, thanks to programs like SING, there is a greater global movement toward things like Indigenous data sovereignty. It all tracks toward a future Kolopenuk and TallBear feel hopeful about. 

“Blowing down the walls of the lab is really important in breaking down the barriers between academia and the rest of society,” Kolopenuk said.

NS 115: Indigenous Peoples and Technoscience is open to students currently enrolled in a college or university program anywhere in the world. Learn more about the course.