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Conference Notes: International Congress of Ethnobiology
June 2nd, 2010 - Posted by Natasha Varner

Last month, First Peoples attended the 12th International Congress of Ethnobiology, held in Tofino, British Columbia. Amidst the incredible land- and sea-scape of Vancouver Island, members of the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE) from around the world met to discuss pertinent issues facing Indigenous communities, threats to the world’s diverse ecosystems, and the interrelation between the two. Session topics ranged from building community resilience for coping with climate change to language loss and revitalization – along with many other compelling and timely topics.

The Congress opened with a keynote by Dr. Richard Atleo, a Nuu-chah-nulth hereditary chief and the founder of Vancouver Island University’s First Nations Studies Department, as well as welcome speeches and dances by local Nuu-chah-nulth and Tla-o-qui-aht tribal members. The week-long congress was packed full of activities: multiple sessions and Indigenous forums occupied the majority of the daylight hours while the evenings featured a community exchange event, an Indigenous film festival, several plenary sessions, and a Code of Ethics meeting. The organizers of the Congress encouraged participants to get to know the area by scheduling a day for field trips ranging from guided ethnobotanical and interpretive walks to sea kayaking and whale watching.

Throughout the week, presenters and Congress participants grappled with some of the major challenges posed by climate change, language and culture loss, and environmental degradation while trying to ensure that the ethics and methods driving work in this field are appropriate and respectful of the communities where research is conducted. Some Indigenous participants at this meeting voiced the concern that Indigenous researchers are not currently engaged in the ISE on the same level as non-Indigenous or Western-trained academics. One participant pointed out that this disparity was especially evident in the wording of the Code of Ethics, which assumes that Indigenous communities are always being researched rather than having active roles in conducting research. Another Indigenous attendee voiced concern about the amount of pressure the field places on Indigenous communities to share cultural knowledge to remedy environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change, while also returning to traditional lifeways that may or may not be feasible or desirable for modern Indigenous communities. Importantly, members of the ISE governing board listened to these concerns and demonstrated respectable efforts to address them. Among other efforts, ISE revisited their Code of Ethics in a special session, officially adopted the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into their constitution, and is actively recruiting and supporting Indigenous scholars from around the world.

There were  many valuable sessions at this conference; a few of those with the greatest attendance and most lively conversation included:

The Forgotten Dimension of Climate Change, hosted by Liz Hosken of the Gaia Foundation. This session brought together grassroots organizers from the Colombian Amazon, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Russia to discuss their efforts to work with Indigenous communities to help make them and their environs more resilient to climate change.

Food Systems: Building Partnerships to Document and Maintain Local Foods to Promote Health John Rampanen (Ahouset and Tla-o-qui-aht) spoke of local initiatives to revive hunting and other traditional food gathering practices and to raise awareness about the benefits of returning to more traditional foods. Among these initiatives is an “Indigenous foods challenge” in which people eat only Native foods for a set amount of time and are asked to monitor the impacts on their health and energy levels.

There were numerous papers on community language revitalization efforts and ways that new media can be used in these efforts. In the session, Cedar Stripping: The Role of New Media in Language Revitalization and Biocultural Resurgence, Jon Corbett (University of British Columbia) and Tim Kulkyski (Cowichan Tribe) spoke of their collaboration to use new media to revitalize Hul’q’umi num’ language. They work with tribal elders to record teachings on important cultural lessons and plant harvesting procedures in the Hul’q’umi num’ language, then distribute these videos to community members. They talked about some of the privacy and access issues they face in creating new media and some of the measures they’re taking to ensure that important cultural information is not lost, but also not distributed too widely.

In The Application of Novel Information and Communications Technologies in Addressing the Global Loss of Biocultural Diversity, members of Living Cultural Storybases presented their work to record stories and oral histories in Native languages. The organization has worked with communities around the world but, at the Congress, spoke of their work with 20 Quechua communities in Peru. There, they gave students devices for recording stories from elders in the community. The stories were then broadcast on community radio stations with invitations for community members to call in and comment – thus enabling community interaction and making the stories seem more living, rather than just recorded. They also used barcode recognition software to embed the stories in physical objects so that the stories had a tactile element to them (photos above). More about this project and other work being done by the organization can be found on their website.

Photo Captions: Above left: 1. Congress participants await the opening ceremonies in the Tin Wis Hall; 2. Barcodes and Quechua stole – the barcodes are embedded with a video of a 102-year-old Quechua woman explaining the meaning of the symbols on the stole; 3. Nicolas Villaume of Living Cultural Storybases shows Jessie Bartlett of the Central Land Council in Alice Springs, Australia how to photograph and  then access the story embedded in the barcode; 4. The coat rack at the opening night ceremonies gives an indication of the diverse make-up of the Congress; 5. Participants in the ethnoornithology session listen as Bobo Kadiri Serge of the the University of Dschang, Cameroon speaks about cultural interpretations of various birds among the Banso of Northwestern Cameroon. Above center: Photos taken around Tofino and of Congress participants during the sea kayaking field trip. All photos by Natasha Varner.

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