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Empowering Indigenous youths with tradition and tech: Q&A with Dawn Martin-Hill

  • Dawn Martin-Hill, a professor at McMaster University, introduced Terrastories, a geo-based storytelling app, to the Haudenosaunee people of the Great Lakes to help them protect their land and water as well as safeguard invaluable knowledge.
  • A main goal of her work is to empower and support Indigenous youths, and she has also helped create a virtual reality app and adapt a mental health app for Indigenous youth to connect with their land and articulate trauma.
  • Martin-Hill advocates for the integration of Indigenous knowledge into Western science and says anyone who is concerned with the climate crisis should support Indigenous people.

To the Haudenosaunee, water is life. In their creation story, deep water covered the Earth, until a woman, known as Sky Woman, fell from an island in the sky. Birds helped her land on a turtle’s back, while other animals brought mud and patted it down until eventually Turtle Island, or North America, was created.

Today, the Haudenosaunee, a confederacy of six Indigenous nations that include the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora, face a water crisis. Most of their water is undrinkable: badly polluted with bacteria and heavy metals, and subject to boil water advisories. Much of the water is polluted from extractive industries, like oil drilling, fracking and logging, including Canada’s tar sands.

And although a water purification facility was installed in 2013, it serves only 12% of the community, says Dawn Martin-Hill, a member of the Mohawk tribe and professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Most don’t have the indoor plumbing and infrastructure to connect to this facility.

Martin-Hill, who also leads Ohneganos, a Global Water Futures research project, brings together Western science and Indigenous knowledge through apps to safeguard invaluable ancestral knowledge, protect land and water, and empower younger generations.

Dawn Martin-Hill, a member of the Mohawk tribe and professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, integrates Western science and Indigenous knowledge to help the Haudenosaunee protect their land and water. Image courtesy of Georgia Kirkos.

“You know the laws of nature and science are pretty compatible with Indigenous laws, and I think our people and non-natives don’t realize that,” she said.

The Haudenosaunee’s ancestral lands once spanned 10 million hectares (nearly 25 million acres) across Ontario and New York state. Today, the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario sits about an hour west of Niagara Falls and represents only 5% of the land granted to the Haudenosaunee by the British colonial government in the late 1700s.

In addition to water woes, the Six Nations face ongoing challenges regarding their land rights. As one way to help protect their land and water, Martin-Hill introduced Terrastories, a place-based storytelling app that decolonizes geography, landscapes and waterscapes. Terrastories integrates data with the Indigenous vision for the land using ancestral land maps, water quality data and oral histories of the land.

“We want people to feel what we feel. So, we want them to know what the land was like before … the settlers arrived, and then how it’s changed over time and what we need to do to fix this,” she said.

Indigenous maps like this teach youths about their culture, history and environment. Empowering Indigenous youths is a major theme of most of Martin-Hill’s work. She also works with a virtual reality app, geared towards younger generations, to show what the land used to look like so they can better connect with it. As part of the Global Water Futures project, Martin-Hill and colleagues are also adapting JoyPop, a mental health app, to make it culturally relevant for Indigenous youths and help them articulate their trauma.

“I think that would be my greatest hope is that Canadians and Americans understand … by supporting us, they’re going to support a future for their grandchildren. If there’s even time left,” she said.

Mongabay’s Caitlin Looby recently talked with Martin-Hill about water insecurity, the challenges that Indigenous youths face, and how integrating Western science and Indigenous knowledge can improve conservation efforts. The interview was lightly edited for clarity.

Mongabay: Can you tell me a little bit about the work that you do and what inspires you to do it?

Dawn Martin-Hill: I am an anthropologist in my field research. I worked in northern Alberta, which was dealing with the oil industry and the logging industry. I spent a lot of time up there and saw the destruction to their land and the impact it was having on the community and how they had no resources whatsoever. But yet they managed to get to the U.N., they managed to get decisions against Canada. I was impressed with the fortitude.

When you see people putting everything on the line for the land, and then you go to university and it’s all very ivory tower and theoretical, it made no sense to me.

My focus is on Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous ways of knowing. And it’s hard because we don’t necessarily package that in Western concepts of environment, water, ecology … Those are very compartmentalized to us. It’s kind of trying to make space, proper space, for Indigenous people and their connection to land, so that was always my inspiration. I think my goal was to find ways to weaponize knowledge and give them tools they need.

Mongabay: Can you talk about water insecurity for the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario and Lubicon Lake Band of Little Buffalo in northern Alberta?

Dawn Martin-Hill: When I first went up to Lubicon back in 1990, you could see the impact [of oil drilling], but there was still pristine water. We would have a ceremony and then we would be able to jump in the lake. And they would drink it, everything was fine. And then, you know today, going up there. It’s just horrific. It looks bad.

So, they [the Lubicon leadership] wanted to test it. And that was the impetus for applying to Global Water Futures because they also believed the water that the government was trucking in [was polluted] because you could smell the chlorine, and the kids’ skin was being affected by it and they would get sores on their mouth and people just really didn’t trust that what was being sent in was safe water.

So, that was when I applied to Global Water Futures to figure out how to help them know what’s in their water, when it’s safe to drink or bathe in. And then Six Nations, of course, is my community and I really thought they were in a much better position than they were.

But, you know, it didn’t take too long to find out in fact they were in a pretty bad situation with the source water. They do have a water treatment plant. It is state of the art, the community used its own funds to help build it with some government funding. But they didn’t give the community any money to pipe in that water to homes. So, while they have a water treatment plant, it’s only serving 12% today of the community.

Most of the water that our community relies on is well water, or the trucked-in water. We found a lot of heavy metals in the tap water, as well as E. coli and so on. We were not prepared for Six Nations’ [water] to be as bad as it was.

Those are the areas that I focused on: how do we make sure that the community is mobilized, aware of what’s happening to our water. And then give them tools to continue to do this without the Global Water Futures grant.

Dawn Martin-Hill introduces the Ohneganos Ohnegahdę:gyo Indigenous mapping project at the Kawenní:io/Gawęní:yo Private School in Six Nations Reserve, Ontario, Canada. Image courtesy of Rudo Kemper.

Mongabay: It’s my understanding that you are helping the Haudenosaunee use Terrastories, a place-based storytelling app, to protect their land and water. How did you learn about Terrastories and can you tell me about how you are using it?

Dawn Martin-Hill: I’ve worked with the Amazon Conservation Team for about 15 years. We’ve gone to the Amazon, we’ve had exchanges of knowledge with the Waurá and the Xingu [Indigenous communities] in Mato Grosso in Brazil. And they’re learning what happens when colonialism is on top of you. We were learning what are the priorities. We really got a lot out of those exchanges.

I knew they were doing mapping, and I thought that’s something that our community would benefit from. Our traditional leadership, who really possesses all the traditional knowledge of the land, really took to it.

I show [the tribes] things, I expose them to things, and they’re either not interested, or they take to it. That’s how we focus our priorities, because if they’re not inspired or interested in it, it’s not going to work.

So, Terrastories is a living archive that we’ll be able to use. And again, I work with the STEAM Academy, Six Nations and then the other schools to train them on how to collect information, how to do GIS [geographic information system mapping] and so forth, so they can continue to populate this platform.

And that’s just one piece of technology we’re using. We’re building a mental health app, which has been really interesting from my Haudenosaunee position, and that’s because we realize our young people already have a lot of historical trauma from residential schools, and then climate change and water insecurity.

Once we did workshops with young people, we found out how distressed they are, and how hopeless they’re feeling, so I brought in clinical psychologists because I thought, “How am I going to deliver more bad news to the community and not give them something to help?”

Mongabay: How are you hoping that Terrastories will help the Haudenosaunee?

Dawn Martin-Hill: It’s about decolonizing, by using our language and our thousands of years of being in these areas and the amount of ecological knowledge we have. All of those stories are part of an ethnography, part of a living storytelling piece that they need to know and have access to.

But also, I think if you go towards land claims, it helps people understand because they don’t know even when we have a conflict with Caledonia, like we did in 2006. [In 2006, the Six Nations reactivated litigation against Canada from 1995. This stemmed from property developer Henco Industries starting to build a housing subdivision in the Caledonia community on land granted in perpetuity to the Six Nations. This land, along the Grand River, is known as the Haldimand Tract. The Six Nations turned down money from the government to buy the land. Today, the land is still in dispute.]

Half of the community really didn’t know if we were in the right even though we knew the history and we had the all the documentations. These are the things that are easily accessible now to the average citizen in our community. But it’s also a living archive that can be used for conservation.

I think it’s trying to not only educate Haudenosaunee and give them tools to keep the land safe, but also to help non-natives understand that when you push those boundaries you will get pushback, so I think education is a key to helping everybody be less racist.

Mongabay: Terrastories is being used by Indigenous communities in the Amazon and now the Great Lakes. What are some commonalities that exist between these communities?

Dawn Martin-Hill: I think just the commonalities are the history of the land, it goes right back to the creation story, or why we call the Earth female. I know these concepts have kind of been appropriated by non-Indigenous people; they’re starting to realize, “Yeah, everything’s interconnected everything’s interdependent.” In fact, human beings are the weakest of all the species. We rely on the water. We rely on the animals. We rely on the medicines. We understand that. But when you go into non-native paradigms, they [non-natives] think man is central.

So, I think fundamentally Indigenous people — whether it’s here, New Zealand, the Amazon — they all understand these kinship relationships. Traditionally, all of our teachings and belief systems are the same, they’re just expressed differently in a different language based on your region, your geography. For example, they [Indigenous peoples in the Amazon] know a lot about the anaconda, they know their medicines. The Haudenosaunee know a lot about cold climate. Our knowledge is specific to our land.

So there really is no difference, except they have more pristine land — well, they did — so they can move freely. This is different. We’re caged, we’ve got fences all around us. But we can’t actually move on our land and tell these stories because our land is New York City, it’s Toronto.

So that’s the biggest difference, is they have the freedom of their lands being intact and largely undeveloped. We’ve got cities all around us, factories and industries that have destroyed those medicines we relied on completely. When you lose that medicine over generations, you lose that knowledge.

Students from the Kawenní:io/Gawęní:yo Private School participate in a group sketch mapping exercise where they draw out their knowledge of the Grand River. Image courtesy of Rudo Kemper.

Mongabay: How does integrating Western science and Indigenous knowledge, such as with the mental health and virtual reality apps, improve how we can use technology for conservation?

Dawn Martin-Hill: I think this is something that the traditional leadership really took to. We want people to feel what we feel. So, we want them to know what the land was like before the settlers arrived, and then how it’s changed over time and what we need to do to fix this. And so, they [the traditional leadership] really liked the idea of a virtual reality because they thought about the kids.

This generation has a burden that no generation in history has ever had looking at the dire situation [with climate change], so they really want as much information to get out to the public as possible.

And so, they chose the virtual reality, they chose the mapping. And I said, “Well, with all this technology we have to create some synergy and package it together,” whether it’s the mental health app, or the sensor app, or the virtual reality, that has a knowledge center built in it and it’s got a gaming aspect. They use the creation story, which is about water and how the Earth was water. They start with [Sky Woman] falling from the Sky World and how a turtle came up and that’s why they call North and South America Turtle Island.

So, people begin to understand our language, our concepts and what water knowledge from our Haudenosaunee position is and how it synergizes really well with science. You know the laws of nature and science are pretty compatible with Indigenous laws, and I think our people and non-natives don’t realize that.

I think scientists who have worked with native people really get it. And I like working with them because I don’t have to explain much, they get it. So that’s where the relationship is really strong. We understand the logic of nature and the laws from a different point, but we agree with the way science is saying if you do this, this is going to be the outcome. There’s an agreement there I think that’s stronger even than social sciences, because they created labels and concepts, they’re part of the colonizing force that labeled us and dehumanized us in a way.

There’s this tension between those sciences. But with conservation, there’s like no kind of tension other than conservationists can be arrogant in their ways of thinking, and they have not really engaged Indigenous people in a constructive way. Some have, but by and large, it’s left us out of the picture — they were more interested in the birds than they were in the humans that protect those birds. I think biologists and engineers, they kind of get us, and in a way that I find fascinating because I didn’t think that would be the case.

The Terrastories interface highlighting the Haldimand Tract surrounding the Grand River. Image courtesy of Colin Gibson.

Mongabay: What are some of the challenges in using technology and different tools that combine Western science and Indigenous knowledge?

Dawn Martin-Hill: Number one is the people we’re working with they don’t realize that any data that you’re collecting belongs to the community and usually that gets rid of half my team right off the bat. And then the ones who stick it out, they’re the right people because they’re more passionate about the actual environment than they are about their careers and who owns the data, and if they have a good relationship with the community, they’re going to be able to use any data they want.

I think data sovereignty is the biggest challenge. Most of the information that’s been collected on Indigenous people by any institution, government, academia, never belongs to us. So, I went to look for baseline data, whether it was the sensors of the river, whether it was the health of people over time, and it’s a nightmare. That was a challenge, not realizing our people couldn’t access data that’s been collected by the government on that was an eye-opener.

Mongabay: Empowering youths is a theme in the work that you do. What do you hope for the future for Indigenous youths in these areas?

Dawn Martin-Hill: Any research we do has to include young people because they’re going to bear the burden of the mistakes we make. They’re also going be the leaders in the future, so you want to have good leadership. You need to raise that leadership together as a community. I think it’s just an Indigenous knowledge practice.

That would be good if the rest of the world could understand that these people are really important at all ages because what they see and hear is going to influence how they behave as leaders in various capacities. It’s pretty central to Indigenous knowledge.

Mongabay: If there was one piece of information that you want people to walk away with regarding the work that you do, what would that be?

Dawn Martin-Hill: I think it has to benefit Indigenous people in some way. Even the U.N. study that was done in 2018 by biologists … They did a global assessment. What they found was any lands that were managed and controlled by Indigenous people, the water and land was in the best condition on the planet.

So, any person concerned with the climate crisis should support Indigenous people. I think that would be my greatest hope is that Canadians and Americans understand that by supporting us, they’re going to support a future for their grandchildren. If there’s even time left.

Caitlin Looby is the 2021 Sue Palminteri WildTech Reporting Fellow, which honors the memory of Mongabay Wildtech editor Sue Palminteri by providing opportunities for students to gain experience in conservation technology and writing. You can support this program here.

Editor’s note: This story was supported by XPRIZE Rainforest as part of their five-year competition to enhance understanding of the rainforest ecosystem. In respect to Mongabay’s policy on editorial independence, XPRIZE Rainforest does not have any right to assign, review, or edit any content published with their support.