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How science and First Nations oral tradition are converging

The long history of First Nations people isn’t one that can be found in books. Instead, it is a rich documentation detailed throughout time — a collective enterprise carried on by tradition and culture.

Oral tradition has often been discounted as just stories —  but science is proving that the facts behind those stories certainly shouldn’t be discounted.

Earlier this week, a study published in the journal Nature Communications linked the genomes of 25 Indigenous people who lived 1,000 to 6,000 years ago with 25 descendants in the Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla First Nation in British Columbia.

The ancient DNA was taken from archeological sites in the Prince Rupert area of B.C. that contain human remains. The researchers concluded that the genomes of the descendants were altered as a result of European colonization, making them more resistant to western viruses.

However, the other outcome of the DNA study was confirmation that the Metlakatla First Nation has been in the region for thousands of years — something the Metlakatla have long asserted through oral tradition.

“Science is starting to be used to basically corroborate what we’ve been saying all along,” said Barbara Petzelt, an archaeologist with the Metlakatla First Nation, one of the researchers in the study.

A collaborative effort 

According to the University of British Columbia, First Nations historical accounts are likely to change slightly with each retelling over time. However, the base facts would face a “peer review” by members. The slight changes occur as a method for the storyteller to bring his or her own context to the story. This helps bring a wider feel to the story with multiple perspectives.

“The nuances evident in distinct versions of a specific history represent a broader understanding of the events and the various ways people have internalized them,” Erin Hanson writes. 

There are more stories of science and First Nations oral accounts meeting. In 2014, another study published in the journal Science concluded that the Inuit weren’t the first people to settle in the Arctic. Instead, it was the Paleo-Eskimos, called the Tunit, who travelled from Siberia. This “discovery” wasn’t new to the Inuit: their oral tradition told of a shy people who would flee when approached.

‘It’s nice to have it explained in a way western culture can understand’
– Barbara PetzeltMetlakatla First Nation archaeologist

“I would certainly in the future pay much more attention to oral traditions among Indigenous people because they could really guide us into understanding where are the interesting problems to be investigated scientifically,” Eske Willerslev, one of the study’s authors told CBC at the time.

First Nations oral traditions have also helped in corroborating natural disasters.

An example is an earthquake that rocked the west coast in 1700. The story is shared by First Nations — of a nighttime earthquake that destroyed homes, killing many — all along the west coast of Canada and the United States. Scientists used oral accounts as evidence and a method to categorize the massive quake, that was estimated between magnitude 8.7 and 9.2. Evidence of a tsunami associated with the quake has been known for more than 25 years.

Room for improvement

While the convergence of science and oral history is important, Kimberley TallBear, associate professor at the University of Alberta’s Native Studies, says that it’s important that such investigations be a collaborative effort. She’s concerned that Western culture has always dominated that of First Nations and that it could do so again.

“I think it’s good, and I think it’s progress,” TallBear said. “But Western knowledge … [is] privileged over Indigenous knowledge.”

What’s needed, TallBear said, is more Indigenous people working as scientists.

“Most scientists are taught that those who are best suited to ask scientific questions are those who are least invested,” TallBear said. “But nobody is least invested. Nobody is asking those questions in a cultural vacuum.”

Petzelt said that it’s good to have the history of the First Nations people shared widely and she hopes to see it continue.

“It’s nice to have it explained in a way Western culture can understand,” said Petzelt.