Beyond Conservation:
Working Respectfully with Indigenous People and Their Knowledge Systems

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People from Western cultures have long assumed that their own knowledge systems and ways of doing things are either superior to others or simply the only way. In Canada, colonists and settlers have taken away Indigenous Peoples’ lands and territories; banned and criminalized their languages, laws, and customs; and compromised their livelihoods. There are also countless examples of outside researchers harvesting information from Indigenous individuals and communities, at times without consent, and then using it against them or applying it in ways that were neither confirmed nor sanctioned by the original Knowledge Keepers. (See Before You Get Started: Have empathy, be mindful, and be aware of the ongoing effects of colonization for some resources about the history of colonialism in research.)

This exploitation is part of the impetus behind the creation of research ethics boards and policies that now provide rigorous oversight to ensure that research is not exploitative (e.g. Chapter 9 of the Tri-Council Policy Statement). However, research ethics boards still largely function within a Western values framework. Work is ongoing to encourage these ethics boards to be more inclusive of multiple ways of knowing, and Indigenous ethics boards in particular are also being established. Further, Indigenous people are also developing their own research policies and protocols to be used by external interests wishing to conduct research with Indigenous people, nations, or organizations.

It is also important to recognize that Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers often share their knowledge in less formal ways than through official research processes. They may relate stories or wisdom during meetings or other informal communication, and partners need to recognize and acknowledge when this happens. Knowledge is not any less valuable because it was shared in a particular setting, and it is disrespectful to ask someone to repeat the same information, just in a different setting.

Beyond Conservation: A Toolkit for Respectful Collaboration with Indigenous Peoples



Practical Steps and Resources


“The only way to appropriately understand Indigenous Knowledge Systems or  Indigenous Knowledges is to establish meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples on their own terms.” – Deborah McGregor View of Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Environmental Governance in Canada (

Decolonizing collaboration, research, and conservation and stewardship is an ongoing effort that will continue for generations to come. It requires a certain readiness on the part of non-Indigenous people that is rooted in humility, curiosity, a willingness to learn and change, and a clearly expressed intention to embrace other ways of knowing. The other practical sections of this toolkit provide guidance to prepare you for the work of weaving multiple ways of knowing, and of working respectfully with Indigenous Peoples and their Knowledge Systems. This section outlines a very small portion of what is required to decolonize our work to protect and preserve the natural world.

NB: This section is relevant to anyone seeking to collaborate with Indigenous Peoples, not just researchers.

We recognize that every nation, place, and culture has its own knowledge system and ways of knowing, including protocols, laws, or frameworks for sharing and engaging with others. As such, this toolkit is not comprehensive and only offers high-level guidance. As with other sections of the toolkit, we invite you to engage in a conversation with your partners to ensure a place-based understanding of the topics presented below.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems

A knowledge system is a societal system that a particular type of knowledge both supports and is embedded in. You are likely aware that Western knowledge is generated within political, economic, and educational systems and is used in a way that allows these Western systems to thrive. Similarly, Indigenous Knowledges are part of broader political, legal, economic, and cultural systems that enable the continued generation and renewal of Indigenous Peoples to ensure their well-being. Knowledge, whether from an Indigenous or Western system, should not be considered separately from its knowledge system. This is especially important for Indigenous Knowledges, as there is a tendency to extract knowledge from Indigenous communities to consider it solely within a Western framework. This diminishes and disrespects Indigenous Knowledges, and ignores the important connection between the knowledge and the community and place it comes from.

“Indigenous knowledge is inseparable from the people who hold and live this knowledge.” Deborah McGregor, Anishinaabe scholar, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Justice, York University

Photo by Amanda Sheedy

Tools and resources

Photo by Ryan Wilkes

Establish and apply appropriate definition(s) of Indigenous Knowledge

No single formal definition exists for Indigenous Knowledge (IK). Readers can verify how the government, organization, or community they are working with defines or describes IK and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS), in their own terms and in their language of choice, prior to seeking, requesting, accessing, considering, and applying it. Broadly speaking, Indigenous Knowledge is the knowledge held by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. For a more nuanced and detailed definition, please see the glossary.

Indigenous Knowledge has been interchangeably referred to as Traditional Knowledge, Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge, Traditional Environmental Knowledge, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and Ancestral Knowledge,among other terms. In this document, the term Indigenous Knowledge is employed in its broadest possible sense.

  • In the Traditional Ecological Knowledge episode of the Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership’s Virtual Campfire Series, Deborah McGregor explains Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Dr. McGregor and Danika Littlechild discuss Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and why it is important, challenges in incorporating respect for TEK in conservation and environmental sustainability, and opportunities for where we can go from here.
  • Deborah McGregor’s article, Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Environmental Governance in Canada, provides a thorough explanation of Indigenous Knowledge and Indigenous Knowledge Systems.
  • Andrea Reid’s paper, “Two-Eyed Seeing”: An Indigenous framework to transform fisheries research and management explores some of the philosophical assumptions that underpin Indigenous and conventional worldviews (particularly relating to fisheries, but applicable to other scenarios as well).
  • This figure, adapted from Chapin et al 2013, details some of the similarities and differences between Indigenous and Western knowledge.
    • Note that this figure represents one way of understanding Indigenous and Western Knowledge. There are many other approaches, such as the one described in Andrea Reid’s paper above, that see different types of knowledge as less discrete entities.

Figure: Indigenous and Western Knowledge (adapted from Chapin et al, 2013)

Photo by Kristin Clark

Land and Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Indigenous Ways of Knowing are connected to the land and deeply rooted in place. Meeting with Indigenous partners on their own land (if invited to do so) shows respect for this connection and can help you better understand their Ways of Knowing. Being with partners on the land also provides great opportunities for Knowledge Keepers to share their Indigenous Knowledge (see Gathering Indigenous Knowledge below).

Photo by Ben Duffield

Language and Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Indigenous Knowledge Systems are steeped in oral tradition. Indigenous languages and the words and concepts that comprise them contain knowledge that has been gathered and shared since time immemorial. Languages hold and transmit stories, protocols, family histories, values, laws, and connections. The loss of language due to residential schools and other mechanisms of colonization have also led to a loss of knowledge. Your collaboration can actively encourage and support Indigenous language initiatives and prioritize space for Indigenous languages in all events, meetings, documents, etc.

  • Learn about Indigenous languages
    • Learn the basic greetings and how to say “thank you” in the language of the community you are working with. Be mindful that some communities may have multiple languages (e.g. Six Nations of the Grand River). Do not make assumptions: do your homework.
    • Consult the Government of Canada’s Indigenous languages – Learning and teaching resources website.
    • The Mackenzie Valley Review Board has several glossaries of terms related to land and resources in various Indigenous languages.
    • Inuktut Tusaalanga is a website that features thousands of sound files to help you learn Inuktitut quickly and easily.
  • Translate parts of communications using local translators. If no local translators are available, Wintranslation provides written Indigenous language translation services.
  • FirstVoices Keyboard App contains keyboard software for over 100 languages and includes every First Nations language in Canada. It enables communication in Indigenous languages via email, social media, word processing, or other apps.

Photo by Ezra Soiferman

Valuing Indigenous Knowledge

We often expect people to freely share what they know without recognizing the lifetime it took to acquire that knowledge. It has been said that “Elders are the PhDs of the community,” however, they do not reap the rewards of an academic career, salary, or benefits. Compensating IK Keepers and community members for their time and knowledge is a fundamental aspect of acknowledging the value of their IK and of their time. See more on this topic in Building Relationships: Build equity and reconciliation into your partnership.

Tips for working with Indigenous people and their Knowledge Systems

Fundamentally, working with Indigenous Knowledge Systems is rooted in respectful relationships with the people who hold the knowledge. See Building Relationships for Collaboration for more tips.

Photo by Amanda Sheedy

Use translation and interpretation services while recognizing that you will still have imperfect communication due to different worldviews.

  • Some concepts do not easily transfer from one language to another. Deeper conversation is needed to “interpret” meaning.
  • Seek advice from Indigenous partners as to whether an interpreter is required.
  • A skilled interpreter can translate concepts, expressed verbally or in sign language, across knowledge systems, helping prevent miscommunication and a breach of  knowledge protocols.
  • Providing interpretation relieves the pressure on Indigenous people to express their ideas clearly in English, which may not be their first language.
  • Ideally, any language interpreter/translator employed for a project should be a member of the nation or organization with whom you are partnering.

Include youth in projects where Elders will be speaking in their language.

  • Bringing Elders and youth together can help preserve the language, and therefore the knowledge system, by transferring it to the next generation.

Use Indigenous place names (if given permission to do so).

  • Using Indigenous place names recognizes that the Indigenous name was established first, and helps reaffirm Indigenous languages and keep the cultural landscape alive.

Compensate community members for their contributions.

  • Hire community members if they are going to be consistently contributing their time and knowledge to a project.
  • If not hiring them, pay honoraria to Elders, Knowledge Keepers, guides, and others for sharing their time and knowledge.
  • If your institution’s rules prevent you from paying honoraria, consider setting up a contract with an Indigenous/local organization to pay honoraria (an administrative fee is generally applicable).

Acknowledge and respect Indigenous Knowledge and Western knowledge as equally valid sources of information, insight, and wisdom.

  • Have a conversation about this between partners at the outset, and detail steps that can be taken to ensure this respect.
  • Include a statement and the steps to accomplish this goal in your relationships agreement (See Building Relationships for Collaboration).
  • Position Indigenous knowledge Keepers as teachers and outsiders as learners (for example, by setting up a workshop led by Knowledge Keepers).
  • Display Indigenous names and terms alongside English and French names in documents and presentations.

Frameworks for working with multiple knowledge systems

There are many frameworks for understanding the relationship between Indigenous and Western knowledge systems. While three well-known frameworks for working with Indigenous Knowledge Systems are shared below, the nation or organization you are working with may have a preferred approach and should be the one to decide which is right for them. If not done conscientiously, working across knowledge systems can include inherent risks, including weakening Indigenous Knowledge by taking it out of context, denying cultural differences in an attempt to find commonality, and integrating or assimilating Indigenous Knowledge so that it is no longer visible. The bottom line: careful consideration is required to prevent repeating the mistakes of the past.

Tools and Resources

A group of people riding snowmobiles on a wintery day

Photo by Torngat Secretariat

Ethical Space

Ethical Space enables people with different worldviews and values to interact with mutual respect and curiosity. All collaborating parties must agree to the principles of Ethical Space in order for it to be cultivated. At minimum, Ethical Space involves acting with a shared understanding that all knowledge, legal, and governance systems are legitimate and contain gifts, and that no single system has more weight or legitimacy than another. It is rooted in the understanding of colonial history and a nation-to-nation approach to relationship building. Understanding treaties, and familiarity with and adherence to the principles and recommendations of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Calls to Action and others (see Before You Get Started) form the foundation of working in an Ethical Space.

Photo by Ezra Soiferman

Braiding or weaving ways of knowing

Braiding ways of knowing is a communication framework that Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer articulated in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants. In short, braiding or weaving ways of knowing maintains the uniqueness or wholeness of each knowledge system when working across knowledge systems. This is quite different from “integrating” knowledge systems, or attempting to meld them into one, which often subsumes Indigenous Knowledges or forces them to fit within Western knowledge systems.

  • Reconciling Ways of Knowing has a library of resources on bringing together multiple knowledge systems.
  • Dr. Wall Kimmerer discusses this framework in Dialogue 3: Braiding Ways of Knowing with other renowned thinkers in this field.
  • An inspiring example of weaving Indigenous and Western ways of knowing and respectful collaboration, the WISE Lab looks into the causes and consequences of wildlife population fluctuations.

Photo by Ben Duffield

Etuaptmumk: Two-Eyed Seeing

Put forward by Elder Alber Marshall, Two-Eyed Seeing is the Mi’kmaw framework for seeing from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous Ways of Knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western ways of knowing. When you see through both eyes together, you benefit from the gift of multiple perspectives.

Gathering Indigenous Knowledge

Once you have established a good relationship with an Indigenous government, organization, or community, they may be open to sharing their Indigenous Knowledge. Each community will have a written or oral protocol about the right way to share their knowledge. Ask your partners first. Most, if not all protocols will require 1) the permission of leadership to work with Knowledge Keepers and 2) that interpretations of their knowledge be verified before being shared outside the community. 

Ask your partners first. Discuss with your partners 1) how they would like IK to be a part of the project; 2) if an IK protocol exists and/or how the project will be overseen by a governing body or ethics board; 3) what methods will be used to gather, store, and share IK; and 4) how decisions will be made and by whom. Record all of this in your data sharing agreement and/or relationship agreement

NB: A specific nation’s or organization’s IK protocols and processes should take precedence over any guidance provided here.

Tools and Resources

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Free, Prior, and Informed Consent

References to “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC) are found throughout the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration emphasizes the importance of recognizing and upholding the rights of Indigenous peoples and ensuring that Indigenous Peoples effectively and meaningfully participate in decisions that affect them, their communities and territories. Likewise, any knowledge gathering done with Indigenous Peoples must be done with their full consent.

Photo by Melanie Mullin

Methods for gathering Indigenous Knowledge

Once you have permission to work with the local Indigenous Knowledge System and Knowledge Keepers, you will need to determine which methods are most appropriate. This will depend on the kind of knowledge you are seeking, and the methods the community and Knowledge Keepers are comfortable with. Indigenous Peoples have their own methodologies that may not resemble what you think of as a methodology. For example, community feasts, hunting or fishing, and trips to explore different areas of a community’s territory can provide venues for gathering knowledge and can motivate people to share knowledge when they can do it in familiar ways and in familiar surroundings.

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Indigenous Ways of Knowing or methodologies

Work with your Indigenous partners to agree upon the methods you will apply in your collaborative project. The following suggestions provide a starting point for learning about Indigenous research methods.

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Methods and frameworks for working with multiple knowledge systems

If your partner(s) or the project will be drawing on Western as well as Indigenous ways of knowing, then you may find inspiration in the following resources.

Tips for gathering Indigenous Knowledge

N.B. A government, organization, or community’s IK protocol should take precedence over any of the advice provided below.

Determine how best to record Indigenous Knowledge.

  • Using cameras and recording devices to capture images and voices can be a sensitive issue; seek permission first.
  • The people sharing their knowledge should understand clearly what you plan to do with the images or recordings.
  • Refer to OCAP (see below) for guidance on where to store data and recordings, immediately after and in the future.
  • Assume that ceremonies should not be recorded.
  • Do not assume that methods that are culturally appropriate in one community or setting are appropriate in another.

Given the diversity of Indigenous Knowledges, be prepared to interact with diverse Knowledge Keepers.

  • Be open to the possibility that some knowledge filters into the partnership via community members or staff who are not Indigenous Knowledge Keepers.

Remember that Indigenous Knowledges held by women may differ from those held by men.

  • Determine whether your research methods and engagement approaches provide opportunities for both women and men to share their knowledge.
  • Women and men may have:
    • different knowledge of similar things,
    • different knowledge of different things,
    • different ways of organizing knowledge, and
    • different ways of preserving and transferring knowledge.
  • Consider applying a gendered lens to your analysis to capture these distinctions.
  • Two-spirit individuals may have different knowledge, and different ways of organizing, preserving, and transferring it too.

Ensure proper support is available to community members engaged in a project or research.

  • Asking questions, even seemingly benign questions, can re-traumatize people.
  • Ensure that there is always a plan to support people who need it. This can be as simple as identifying a person in the community who plays this support role and ensuring that they are present or available during conversations.

Tips for relaying (outward sharing of) Indigenous Knowledge

Keep in mind that protocols for sharing internally versus sharing with others outside the community are likely different.

  • Obtain permission for any outward sharing (i.e. relaying) of Indigenous Knowledge, including academic publication, reports, etc. 
  • Follow the guidelines provided by the community or individual(s) who shared their IK and their existing IK protocol when relaying that knowledge.

Keep Indigenous Knowledge in context.

  • Provide a descriptive and culturally appropriate setting for the IK.
  • Consider presenting the IK in the same format it was given to you.
  • Involve Indigenous Knowledge Keepers or others appointed by the community in presenting the IK findings to ensure that they are kept in context.

Use culturally appropriate ways of sharing the Indigenous Knowledge.

  • Some methods to consider include artwork, sharing circles, storytelling, digital databases, seasonal calendars, illustrated books, and graphic recordings of meetings.

Demonstrate accountability.

  • Share how Indigenous Knowledge informed, altered, or influenced a process, decision, or program and how sensitive information was protected.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate instances when either Indigenous Knowledge or Western knowledge informed the other or led to a particular outcome.
  • Account for sharing your data with the community/communities in your budget and timeline (e.g. meetings and events to report and share data).

Identify limitations and strengths in knowledge systems and be forthright about how  knowledge from different systems will be interwoven.

  • Clarify how, where, why, when, and by whom each knowledge system is applied.
  • In many cases, it is not appropriate to place Indigenous Knowledge alongside a Western scientific framework: each knowledge system is “enough” in its own right and with its own system of checks, balances, approaches, and conclusions. 
  • Disclose processes where full and equitable consideration of Indigenous Knowledge is not possible or appropriate. Sometimes, it is important to simply acknowledge that certain scenarios call for Indigenous Knowledge while others are better served through Western knowledge.
  • Conflict or disagreement between knowledge systems does not mean that a relationship should be severed or a project ended, but can be addressed using agreed-upon dispute resolution tools.

Knowledge Mobilization: Be aware of who needs to know the outcomes or findings and how you should communicate with them.

  • Consider using knowledge brokers who have been approved by Knowledge Keepers and partners. Knowledge brokers have an ability to connect research to action and shift the transfer of knowledge from a purely technical exercise to one that integrates the social with the technical.

Consider the ethics review processes of the various organizations in the collaboration, and ensure that any conflicts between these processes are discussed and resolved.

  • IK should be acknowledged and attributed to the Indigenous Peoples and preserved according to their wishes, despite ethics boards’ requirements for anonymity and the destruction of records . (Refer to OCAP below.)
  • Ensure that all parties are aware of how the information is recorded and where it will be stored in the long term. Ideally it should be returned to the community.
  • Keep in mind that the Privacy Act, the Access to Information Act, and the Library and Archives Act apply to records under the control of federal government departments and institutions. These acts can require information collected by federal government employees to be shared more broadly than Indigenous individuals or communities might wish. Learn more by taking OCAP training (and see the Agreements and protocols below).

Agreements and protocols for working with Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Reconciliation and decolonization require us to relinquish our old ways of doing things in order to establish new ways that are rooted in mutual respect and equity. Abiding by existing protocols is a simple place to start, and if needed, try to support a community as they record their protocols. Any project dealing with IKS should establish a “data agreement” between the partners at the outset of a project, to include decisions and set out the processes for how Indigenous Knowledge will be gathered, analyzed, stored, shared, etc. This can be embedded in or referred to in a broader relationship agreement (see Building Relationships: Develop a partnership or relationship agreement).

Tools and Resources

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Apply protocols for Indigenous Knowledge

Many Indigenous governments, organizations, and communities have developed protocols for working with collaborators hoping to access their Indigenous Knowledge. These oral or written guidelines or processes ensure that collaborators respect the ownership of, control over, access to, and possession of Indigenous Knowledge, and make sure that knowledge is shared respectfully and appropriately.

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Write a data agreement to guide work involving Indigenous Knowledge

Work with your Indigenous partners to establish an agreement to guide the gathering, use, storage, sharing, etc. of Indigenous Knowledge. This agreement should encompass the values and procedures in the community’s or organization’s Indigenous Knowledge protocol, but also be specific to the work you are undertaking together. A data agreement can be presented as a section of a broader relationship agreement (see Building Relationships: Develop a partnership or relationship agreement).

  • Considerations and Templates for Ethical Research Practices from the First Nations Centre of the National Aboriginal Health Organization explains the importance of establishing a code of research ethics, a collaborative research agreement, and a data-sharing protocol, and includes templates in its appendices.
  • Templates for and examples of Indigenous Knowledge protocols, research agreements, and data-sharing agreements are available through Ethics Hub.
  • The Alberta First Nations Information Governance Centre provides a template for a data-sharing agreement.
  • The Indigenous Guardians Toolkit has a template for a data-sharing agreement and information (including a worksheet) on developing a research protocol.
  • The federal government has also published a Guidance Document to assist Indigenous Peoples in Canada in developing agreements and tools to clarify rights, responsibilities, and processes regarding sharing their Indigenous Knowledge and related community information and data for environmental research and long-term environmental monitoring.

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Include a conflict resolution mechanism in your agreement

Your data-sharing agreement should include (amongst other things) specific mechanisms for dealing with conflicting interpretations or inappropriate use of data.

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Support Indigenous data sovereignty

Your project or research can support and enable Indigenous governments to manage and govern their own data, or to build their capacity to do so. The resources listed below can help you develop a data-sharing agreement that includes those priorities.

  • Local Contexts aims to enhance and legitimize locally based decision-making and Indigenous governance frameworks for determining ownership, access, and culturally appropriate conditions for sharing their data. They offer digital strategies for Indigenous communities, cultural institutions, and researchers through the TK (Traditional Knowledge) & BC (Biocultural) Labels and Notices.
  • The Data Governance and Management Toolkit supports Indigenous governments’ efforts around data sovereignty and their ability to use and manage data (including socioeconomic data) to improve life for their people in ways that reflect their cultural traditions.
  • SIKU is a mobile app and web platform by and for Inuit which provides tools and services for ice safety, language preservation and weather. Intellectual property ownership is maintained through an informed data stewardship framework.

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Draw on the OCAP® principles

The First Nations principles of Ownership of, Control over, Access to, and Possession of (OCAP®) IK is a useful framework to guide your discussions about your agreement. Although this framework was developed by and for First Nations, many Métis and Inuit organizations and governments also use it. The guidance provided by OCAP training will lead to effective, community-driven collaboration.

  • The First Nations Information Governance Centre can provide:
    • Suggested OCAP® standards
    • Data-sharing agreement templates
    • Examples of First Nations privacy laws
    • Suggested First Nations privacy and security procedures
    • Assistance in developing First Nations organizations as data stewards
  • The First Nations Information Governance Centre provides OCAP training that is useful for both First Nations groups and those wanting to collaborate with them.
  • Read this OCAP guide published by the First Nations Information Governance Centre.

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The Tri-Council Policy Statement (TCPS)

If your research project is seeking funding from the Tri-Council (CIHR, NSERC, or SSHRC), you will need to adhere to Chapter 9 of the TCPS, which provides ethical guidelines for research with Indigenous communities or individuals. The TCPS is followed by Canada’s three federal research agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). It can also be used to inspire the elements that will be included in your agreement or protocol.


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