PREPARING OUR HOME
CREATING SPACE FOR TRADITIONAL AND TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE TO COEXIST
Preparing our Home is a community-based resilience planning program that empowers Indigenous youth to reach their potential as disaster risk reduction leaders (DRR) leaders in their communities. Founded in 2014, this award-winning program has brought together participants from over 70 communities at annual gatherings to ‘train the trainers’. In the first three years alone, trained youth leaders delivered in-person programs to over 870 Indigenous youth in First Nations communities. Over the past two pandemic years, more than 1,000 participants have joined virtual events through online sharing circles and peer-led training.
This Q&A was developed by Lilia Yumagulova, a Bashkir woman, and Preparing Our Home Program Director, in conversations with Darlene Yellow Old Woman-Munro (Elder, Siksika Nation), Casey Gabriel (Youth worker, Lil’wat Nation), kazútas Sandy Bernice Henry (Language teacher, Lil’wat Nation) and Devin Naveau (Elected councillor, Mattagami First Nation).
How is Traditional Knowledge different from scientific and other knowledge?
Traditional Indigenous Knowledge is place-based – connected to the land, water, fire, sky, plants, and animals from which it emerged. It is also relational. Used for millennia to sustain generations and adapt to change, it is based on people’s relationships with place and non-human life forms.
Traditional Indigenous Knowledge is intergenerational, as it has been passed down from one generation to another through life skills, stories, teachings and ceremonies. It is also based on reciprocity, offering the long view of relationships and interdependence across human and natural systems.
Another defining aspect of Indigenous Knowledge is that it is not static. It evolves by being shared though generations and adapting to the changes faced by the land, waters and peoples.
How does Traditional Knowledge benefit DRR?
One of the key contributions of Indigenous Knowledge to DRR is the fundamentally different value system that underpins it. Based on principles of respect, relationships, and reciprocity, Indigenous Knowledge augments standard DRR processes such as floodplain mapping or risk assessment.
For example, in Mattagami First Nation in Northern Ontario, Indigenous value mapping of traditional land uses – based on the stories of elders and community members – was combined with satellite images and GIS. The resultant database and map can be used in negotiations with industry over protecting sacred sites, medicines, habitats and critical Indigenous infrastructure such as traplines.
Indigenous Value Mapping in Mattagami First Nation – Photo credit: Bizhiw nindizhinikaaz (Devin Naveau)
What is the significance of language for DRR?
Indigenous languages are fundamental to people’s identities, cultures, spirituality, relationships to the land and waters, world views and their self-determination. For example, in the Preparing Our Home workshop in Siksika Nation, elders shared teaching in Blackfoot language. Elder Darlene Yellow Old Woman-Munro explained how the word Ispommitta (“to help out, assist our family, friends and neighbours”) embodies the traditional Siksika way of life. Similarly, the word Sopoksistotsi speaks to the importance of experiential learning and means “to have knowledge about an activity through one’s experience”.
How else does Indigenous Knowledge contribute to DRR readiness?
Indigenous knowledge provides a fundamentally different learning and teaching process. For example, in Lil’wat Nation, Casey Gabriel and kazútas Sandy Bernice Henry of Xeťólacw Community School worked with a group of dedicated students and key community members to design the Preparing Our Home curriculum. Líl̓wat use the same word to describe friends and relatives: nsnek̓wnulk̓wa7, based on the root nukw, which means “to help”. Other Liľwat principles of learning are central to community resilience. a7xexkcál means “To admit that you have done wrong, being honest. We can learn from our mistakes, we can apologize, make peace and be friends again.” Kamúcwkalha means “the positive energy felt in a group” and the emergence of a common purpose. Everybody has a role to play in preparedness.
What obstacles prevent Traditional Knowledge from playing a more prominent role in DRR? And how can they be overcome?
The main obstacle is colonial structure. Current emergency management systems are deeply colonial by design. Based on top-down, ‘command and control’, they are not designed with capacities and communities in mind. This often results in ongoing marginalization and disregard for knowledge held within communities. Many face being forced to subscribe to that methodology or be excluded.
One of the most successful elements in our program is the power of collective voice. For example, each year (except for the pandemic years), a group of Indigenous youth, elders, and professionals across Turtle Island have come together for a gathering to share, learn, and inspire each other. This gathering is “good medicine,” as Ashiele Thomas of Ahousaht First Nation put it. It builds understanding that youth are not alone in facing in their communities’ challenges, which often go beyond natural hazards and include social problems such as drug and substance use, violence and suicide.
Preparing Our Home gathering – Photo credit: Melody Charlie
How do women contribute to the DRR program?
Their role is crucial. We’ve found over the years that the majority of the program’s participants are women. The gathering elevates the role women play in reducing disaster risk. Indigenous women are foundational to family, community, governance, and societal wellbeing as life givers, water carriers, knowledge keepers, professionals, and leaders. Indigenous women are the connection between family, community, and land and waters. In some communities, traditional matriarchal systems have been replaced by patriarchal and exclusionary systems. By coming together, young women are reclaiming their power and roles in community safety and well-being by pursing professions such as emergency management, community safety and firefighting.
and Nuu-chah-nulth youth Ashiele Thomas, Water Safety Leader, at the Preparing Our Home gathering
on the lands of Osoyoos Indian Band. Image © Lilia Yumagulova
Why do traditional and scientific/technical knowledge need to co-exist? And how do we ensure this?
For centuries, colonization has attempted to erase Indigenous Knowledge around the world by removing Indigenous Peoples from the land and waters, removing children from parents, and prohibiting their languages. Amid the climate emergency, there is global recognition that Western scientific knowledge alone is insufficient. Other forms of knowledge – Indigenous and local – must be given space. This means sharing power in various ways: giving land back to its original stewards, involving Indigenous Peoples in decision-making, and giving them back control over education in their communities. This shared power is particularly important in disasters where external response systems often come in and take over communities.
Oil Spill training in Ahousaht First Nation. Image © Timur Reynolds and Lilia Yumagulova
How does Preparing Our Homes promote this co-existence?
We have a unique approach to the co-existence of Indigenous science and technical knowledge, which are complementary.
- Land-based learning: Learning from textbooks in classrooms is insufficient. Knowledge is action-oriented – it needs to be experienced through stories, observation, and practices.
- Youth leadership: Youth are often forgotten or sidelined in DRR, yet they are the ones that will inherit this world of increasing extremes. Creating spaces where youth are listened to, heard and can lead is critical for building the next generations of DRR practitioners.
- Intergenerational planning: Youth, elders, and seasoned professionals come together for mutual learning and developing joint solutions.
- Capacity building and peer-led learning: Capacity building is essential in communities, especially where they are marginalized socially and economically, so they don’t have to rely on external systems.
How does the program help communities share their knowledge?
The program’s success is based on peer-to-peer learning and knowledge transfer at the community level, according to these principles:
- Learning should be peer-to-peer (among youth) and youth-to-elders/other members in communities. Training must be a two-way street. As equal partners, all parties can learn from each other.
- Training and education must be inclusive, respect Traditional Knowledge, and begin early –before disaster strikes.
- Learning between communities is facilitated through regular sharing circles, peer-to-peer exchange, and participation in regional and national forums.
- In communities, youth develop/share information to encourage chiefs, elders, and the wider community to engage in disaster risk reduction.
- Technical training about DRR and emergency management works best when it is hands-on, engaging, and connects with elders’ stories and the experiences of youth and families so it becomes a memorable learning experience.