Indigenous Research

Bridging the worlds of Traditional Indigenous Knowledge and academia

As a young man, Kacey Yellowbird gleaned Traditional Knowledge and cultural practices from Elders in his community, including his grandfathers. Now, as a grown adult and father himself, it’s been his turn to pass that experience along to younger generations.

“They're learning everything that I was taught. I try to pass it all down to our Youth,” he says.

Through his work with the Samson Cree Nation’s Youth and Sport Development department, he created the community freezer program, enabling Maskwacis Youth to learn traditional hunting practices while providing food for the community. At least twice a month from September to February, Yellowbird takes a young group, aged 18 and up, hunting for elk, moose or deer. The meat from any animals harvested is then made available to members of the community for consumption as well as ceremonial purposes.

A moose in a field
Moose and other ungulates are studied for the presence of CWD, thanks to the Youth hunts Kacey leads through his program.

“We've been using it as a teaching tool, to teach our Youth the importance of sharing and caring for your community members who don't have the financials, or who don't have the physical ability to go and hunt,” he says. 

The program was born from teachings Yellowbird gained from his late grandfathers, who had both been Chiefs of the community. While they were Chiefs, they had completed similar hunting trips to pass on Traditional Knowledge. One of his grandfathers encouraged him to continue to develop his hunting skills, and share that Knowledge.

“He said, not just for the sake of food security, but for reconnecting back to our traditions and our values of Cree people, we need to learn how to live off the land,” he says.

In 2019, after running the community freezer program for several years, Yellowbird was approached by Dr. Brenda Parlee, a professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, to collaborate on research regarding chronic wasting disease (CWD). The fatal neurological illness affects deer, moose, elk and other game in Alberta, and testing for it in the animals hunted through the community freezer program could help to build understanding of the disease, something which was not necessarily well understood through Traditional Knowledge. 

“Our Elders have always heard about this chronic wasting disease, and they always heard that the animals were sick. But that's all they knew,” he says, adding that as a recent graduate from the university, he saw the collaboration with researchers as a chance to add an additional layer of Knowledge transfer to the community freezer program.

"It eases the minds of many to know that at least we're getting ahead of the curve here and trying to understand and create awareness about chronic wasting disease," he says.

Now, as part of the research project, the young hunters submit the head and glands of harvested animals to the university to have them checked for CWD. The partnership allows community members to know the meat harvested came from healthy animals, while the university gains valuable insight into the presence and spread of the disease across the province.

I'm really big on the reconciliation of Western science and Indigenous Knowledge. I really feel that it's important that both sides of the equation understand each other.

Kacey Yellowbird

Kacey Yellowbird

Another key aspect of the program is its commitment to conserving land and natural resources through traditional practices that honour the environment, aligning seamlessly with a broader initiative known as the Ărramăt Project. This project, which will help fund the community freezer program, aims to actively engage Indigenous Peoples in land conservation and governance around the world. By amplifying Indigenous-led research projects, the Ărramăt Project majorly contributes to the outcomes of biodiversity conservation. From a local to global scale, a big part of that work involves strengthening traditional food systems and re-establishing relationships with wild species based on Traditional Knowledge. 

To help transfer that knowledge, the community freezer program also connects Youth with Elders in Maskwacis. The Elders provide them with insight, but Yellowbird credits them with teaching him a great deal about his own role in the community as well.

“Our Elders are our library of knowledge and information, and it's important that we have that Knowledge to be able to pass it down,” he says. 

While the community freezer program has seen significant growth since the first hunting trips in 2012, Yellowbird notes the program has potential to expand to an even bigger audience. Based on feedback from the community, he hopes to one day include even younger populations in the hunt, once additional safety protocols are in place. In doing so, he hopes to continue to strengthen the bonds between tradition, family and community. 

“We've had our practices since time immemorial and I think we know as Indigenous People what's best in terms of conservation and environmental impacts,” says Yellowbird. 

Kacey Yellowbird, lead of the community freezer program.

Kacey Yellowbird

Kacey Yellowbird, Samson Cree Nation member and 2023 University of Alberta graduate, is deeply dedicated to preserving Indigenous heritage and fostering community resilience. Inspired by his late grandfathers' vision to sustain food security and cultural legacy, Yellowbird leads the community freezer program — which provides healthy wild game to his community while supporting critical research surrounding chronic wasting disease (CWD). Through partnerships with institutions like the U of A, he weaves together traditional knowledge with modern solutions. Yellowbird received the Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee medal in 2022, for reconnecting youth to their roots through traditional hunting. Driven by his belief in the potential of future generations, Yellowbird also leads Samson’s Youth and Sport Development department. He prepares Indigenous youth for top-level sports by ensuring the necessary facilities, programs and services are in place for their success.

Edler Flora Northwest, respected Elder of the Samson Cree Nation.

Elder Flora Northwest

Elder Flora Northwest, a respected member of the Samson Cree Nation and dedicated community support worker, leads by example in her pursuit to preserve Indigenous traditions and knowledge. With a profound connection to the land and wildlife, she spearheads the community freezer program alongside Kacey Yellowbird, pictured above, as well as regular hands-on outreach education. Her teachings share invaluable wisdom with students, nurturing a deep bond with ancestral practices and fostering pride in Indigenous heritage and nēhiyawēwin traditions. In a documentary featuring a camp that reconnects youth with their Indigenous heritage, Elder Flora Northwest emphasized the importance of youth walking two paths: one with their language and identities, and the other into post secondary institutions while being proud of who they are.

Alsu Kuznetsova, Research Associate of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences  - Renewable Resources Department.

Alsu Kuznetsova

University of Alberta researcher Alsu Kuznetsova specializes in environmental sciences, focusing on water, soil and sediment chemistry, along with environmental microbiology. Her current research delves into oil sand tailings reclamation and the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Western Canada. Notably, Kuznetsova's work extends beyond ungulates — studying how CWD contaminates soils that can serve as an environmental reservoir of prions. Collaborating with colleagues, she investigates the transmission dynamics of CWD and identifies soil compounds, like humic acids, that have potential to mitigate the disease’s infectivity. Their laboratory also studies how CWD affects other wildlife, particularly beavers. Built upon an interdisciplinary approach, Kuznetsova's research advances scientific understanding while integrating Indigenous knowledge for holistic environmental management. To learn more about her lab’s work in mitigating the transmission of this prion disease among wildlife populations, visit the Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases.

Arramat logo

About Ărramăt

Samson Cree Nation is a valued Partner of the ⴰⵔⵔⴰⵎⴰⵜ. Ărramăt Project, which aims to strengthen health and well-being through Indigenous-led conservation and sustainable relationships with biodiversity. This impactful project brings together over 150 Indigenous organizations, governments, university researchers, and other resource people working together on research and action. We want to strengthen Indigenous voices and capacities to document their knowledge about the importance of the whole environment (including biodiversity) to the health and well-being of their communities. The outcomes of the research will support Indigenous leaders who want to be heard by local-national-global governments and organizations and address current problems of environment and human health. Together, we are working to develop a strong voice for protecting the environment in ways that benefit Indigenous Peoples.

Ărramăt is a concept in Tamasheq, the Indigenous language spoken by the Tuareg People whose ancestral land encompasses the current territories of Algeria, Burkina-Faso, Libya, Mali, and Niger, that describes a state of well-being shared by the environment, animals, and humans. It is written in Tifinagh, the Tuareg alphabet, as ⴰⵔⵔⴰⵎⴰⵜ.