Keepers of the Water, Keepers of the Fire: Building Bridges between Indigenous and Academic Knowledges in Environmental Health Research

By Regna Darnell and Christianne V. Stephens.

Published by The Humanities Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This paper reports on the work of a research team involving faculty and students from Anthropology, First Nations Studies and Ecosystem Health (medicine) working with the Walpole Island First Nation on environmental health issues in the region. We are attempting to calibrate the knowledge systems of the academy with those of the First Nations healers and knowledge holders. Narrative ethnography is used to explore the divergent underlying epistemological assumptions about human persons, other living beings, and the natural environment. Community collaborators work between English and their traditional language (Ojibwe). Practical implications include a broadening of the basis on which health practitioners approach patients with fundamentally different conceptualizations of individual, community, and nature. Collaboration of local experts with academics is providing an increasingly explicit theory of how these matters are interrelated and how balance or well-being can be sustained in a world where it is highly endangered.

Keywords: Environmental Health, First Nations and Indigenous Peoples (Canada), Indigenous Knowledge, Multidisciplinary Research

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 10, pp.105-114. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 530.018KB).

Dr. Regna Darnell

Distinguished University Professor, Departments of Anthropology and First Nations Studies (UWO), The Centre for Theory and Criticism (UWO), Schulich School of Medicine, The University of Western Ontario, London, Canada

Dr. Darnell’s research with the First Nations (Algonquian and Iroquoian-speaking peoples) of Southwestern Ontario, Canada focuses on building bridges between Indigenous knowledges concerning human health, the natural world and the spiritual relations of human persons within it to the usually discrete academic disciplines consolidating Western knowledge of similar phenomena. Qualitative methods of life history, narrative and discourse analysis are used to establish a common theoretical discourse within which participatory action research in collaboration with First Nations communities can proceed effectively and provide generalizable models for cross-cultural communication. Dr. Darnell was the founding director of the First Nations Studies program at The University of Western Ontario and has worked with Algonquian and Iroquoian languages and cultures for nearly four decades.

Christianne V. Stephens

Doctoral Candidate, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

Ms. Stephens is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at McMaster University and Research Associate in Ecosystem Health (Department of Pathology) in the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at The University of Western Ontario. Her areas of expertise include medical and environmental anthropology, historical epidemiology, and Aboriginal health issues in Canada. Ms. Stephens’ doctoral research deploys ethnographic data to investigate water quality issues at the Walpole Island First Nation, a Southwestern Ontario Native community located downstream from one of Canada’s largest petrochemical centres. Her study illuminates how contaminants discourses derived from interviews with different sub-groups in the Walpole Island community reveal cultural constructions and understandings of nature, ecological stewardship, environmental risks and health and well-being.


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