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Interviews with Tui Shortland and Jannie Staffansson

The following are excerpts from presentations and interviews conducted at the Rising Voices conference.

Protecting Knowledge

Tui Shortland (Māori), International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, Aotearoa (New Zealand)

Because we’re a part of the community, we can observe changes that are happening. For example, my nana, she was one of the main eel fishers in the corner of the river that we come from. In many areas of our ancestral territories, it was the grandparents that would take the children out to teach us how to fish. Being that it is a very climatic dependent species of eel, women can observe the changes over time and what it was during her day as opposed to what it is during my day.

One of my first jobs for my Tribe was around establishing a sacred sites database. The elders said they wanted them to be recorded appropriately and protected appropriately so that they can be shared with future generations, [so] we established different levels of access to information. Some areas of knowledge can be accessed by everyone; we want the world to know about our stories around sacred places. Other sacred placed are just for the Tribe to know about. And others, the families are the caretakers of that place and the knowledge around that place, so they keep that knowledge. But at the Tribal level we’re aware that there’s a place of significance there, so if there’s any kind of development that may impact it, we have triggers within our organization that ensure that the families are engaged with.

On other levels we’ve established biocultural community protocols. When scientists are coming into our territories to do research, if we support the research, we look at co-authoring, so we share the knowledge. We ensure that the knowledge within the community remains the property of the community, even if it’s publicly paid-for research. New knowledge is shared equally, so if there is any commercial benefit deriving from the new knowledge, then we share that as well.

I understand how people are motivated to say that traditional knowledge is science, but my understanding of what science is, and the basis of modern science, was Sir Francis Bacon, who said that the spirit needed to be separated from the plant. He also said we need to torture nature’s secrets from her. And that was literally when they were torturing women who held nature’s wisdom in England at that time. Our knowledge is based on not only our genealogical link to the environment, but also that the environment is its own spiritual entity, with its own rights, and that it needs to be respected. We look at it like a forest as a whole, as a living entity in a holistic way. To me, there’s no spirit within “science” or the environment [when] you break it down to micro bits to understand it. For me that is quite opposite to Indigenous knowledge.

We Communicate Earth

Jannie Staffansson (Saami), Saami Council, Norway


I come from a reindeer herding family. We are pastoralists. We believe if the reindeer has a good life, then we will have a good life. My knowledge does not come from science, or from the Western systems [but] from my communities.

As a young girl, I started to hear about climate change from the elders and from the community because we constantly talk about weather. I noticed on the news and media that they didn’t really know that much. I asked my father, why don’t they know this? And my father said, well, we don’t have an education in their system, so therefore they don’t believe us. They don’t validate our beliefs and our ways of knowing. So I went into science. I studied environmental chemistry and organic chemistry, and with that I went into politics within the Saami Council.

I work mainly with the Arctic Council, which is an international forum. We collaborate [with scientists] on pollutants, toxins, and atmosphere, and make a lot of assessments. But we also have different groups in the Arctic Council that are working with cultural, language, and social issues that are circulating in the Arctic. And from this, [we found we needed] guidance when it comes to using traditional knowledge within Western science. So we developed these fundamental principles on the use of traditional knowledge, which the colonizers call it; we might call it samu, or Indigenous knowledge, to help guide the work of the Saami in the Arctic Council.

The Swedish state has a lot of history with mining issues, and we have had difficulties with hydropower dams that forced us to leave our homelands. We also have climate change, with unreliable ices and avalanches cresting all the time, and deforestation issues. There is one community that is dealing with huge windmill parks, and they themselves have to go up to court to fight for their rights to the land and for the reindeer’s right to the land. ere’s a huge corporation that is coming in on Indigenous Peoples’ land and we need to defend those rights.

Another good example is Laponian, a World Heritage Site. Today it is an NGO and the Saami communities have members and the majority within that board. The community members are conducting research relating to fishing based on the traditional knowledge that they have.

We also have these kind of movements coming from the local level. This was a mine that was planned on Sámi land called Kallak, and then small leaders from Saami communities started to raise their voices against these huge companies. Up to the COP21 in Paris we had gatherings and made this joik, a song from one of the greatest artists we have in Sápmi called Gulahallat Eatnamiin (“We communicate Earth”). Because speaking is just one way, but communicating is both ways. Together if you lead, then you can create a movement. We are the nature fighting back.


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