A clear-eyed view of the value of Two-Eyed Seeing in environmental management

by Stan Hirst

Canada has bequeathed a host of memes to the world. Most have to do with snow, cold, hockey or national institutions such as Tim Horton’s. Some are barbs at our American neighbours, others are subtle boosts to our own fragile egos. Now a new one has been appearing more frequently in the social and scientific media – “Two-Eyed Seeing”.


According to indigenous sources, that which is defined as “knowledge” is deeply steeped in social and cultural traditions and reflects the worldviews of the definers. By contrast, “Western Science” traces to the 17th century when Renaissance natural philosophers established a knowledge system that was largely based on empirical evidence, as opposed to the authority of the church and royalty, and used mathematics as a defining application of such knowledge.

Application of Western Science assumes independence of the observer and rests on the premise that nature is “knowable”. A key objective is to eradicate mystery and discover how the universe (or “nature”) works. In indigenous worldviews, on the other hand, knowledge and the knowers (or learners) are intimately connected. Because of this connection, indigenous knowledge is sometimes termed “indigenous ways of living in nature”; these are strongly place-based and the ultimate goal of indigenous knowledge (or “indigenous science”) is to become one with the natural world with all of one’s senses, body and spirit. The self-identities of indigenous people are thus inextricably tied to a specific place.

There are many examples of the cited superiority of western science over indigenous knowledge, especially in those fields reliant on technology to uncover and measure states and relationships in disciplines such as physics, chemistry, earth sciences, molecular biology, etc. The converse may be true in situations where the subject area is remote, extensive and complex (e.g. much of Canada), and where human observers with long experience are better suited for observations and for deriving information.

An example of the latter is cited for a scientific study in Canadian arctic and boreal ecosystems, where accounts related by indigenous knowledge holders provide extensive insights into terrestrial and marine wildlife biology, health, and disease ecology. Northern indigenous people, living in close intimacy with their environment, have a comprehensive understanding of animals and can predict an impending population decline long before detection by conventional population surveys. Such early detection is essential to respond effectively to conserve wildlife populations and to protect human and domestic animal health, food security, and livelihoods. National and regional conservation organizations all recognize that local indigenous knowledge is essential for resource management and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Despite these advances, application of Indigenous knowledge for wildlife health assessment and conservation is still in its infancy, and there remains uncertainty, and at times scepticism, among non-indigenous decision-makers on how to combine local perspectives with scientific insights for evidence-based decision-making. Fundamental barriers include the “need to meet scientific credibility” to produce reliable accounts and the difficulty of “translating user perceptions into categories/criteria that rely on numbers”. Addressing these barriers does not necessarily mean that Indigenous knowledge must be co-opted into a scientific knowledge system or to be validated by science. Rather, it requires engagement in meaningful dialogues to ensure that the different knowledges can effectively interface.


Two-Eyed Seeing was initially described in the teachings of Chief Charles Labrador of Acadia First Nation. Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall of the Eskasoni First Nation, Cape Breton, applied the concept within a Western setting more than two decades ago as a collaborative concept in the arena of natural science education and integrative science at Cape Breton University (CBU), Nova Scotia. Professor Cheryl Bartlett (Canada Research Chair in Integrative Science) collaborated with elders of the Mi’kmaq Nation to develop an understanding of the relationships between mainstream (or “western”) natural sciences and the worldviews, paradigms and cultural beliefs held by Indigenous peoples .

The term TES referred initially to the ability to see the strengths of indigenous ways with one eye while simultaneously seeing the strengths of Western ways with the other eye. Subsequent inter- and cross-cultural collaborations focused on “working together” of Indigenous and non- Indigenous peoples on mainstream knowledges and on “ways of knowing“.

Initial emphases in TES development centred on education, with a focus on indigenous students. Key areas of focus were on the identification of meaningful feature of TES as a feature of Mi’kmaw culture. These were captured in a set of eight “Lessons Learned” regarding TES .

1. Acknowledge a need to know and understand each other and a willingness to engage in a co-learning journey.

2. Be guided by Two-Eyed Seeing as the basis for a co-learning journey.

3. View “science” in an inclusive way.

4. Do things (rather than “just talk”) in a creative, grow forward way.

5. Become able to put our values and actions and knowledges in front of us, like objects, for examination and discussion.

6. Use visuals.

7. Weave back and forth between worldviews.

8. Develop an advisory council of willing, knowledgeable stakeholders, drawing upon individuals both from within the educational institution(s) and within Aboriginal communities.

The CBU group acknowledge that Two-Eyed Seeing is not easy to convey to academics (nor to the general public – author’s note) as it does not fit into any particular subject area or discipline. It is essentially about what is done, what kind of responsibilities are taken on, and how live is lived while on Earth, in short a set of principles intended as guidance to all aspects of life, including ecological, social and economic. The essential point of Two-Eyed Seeing is that the mind is always being fine tuned – “You are always looking for another perspective and better ways of doing things.”

TES is but one of a number of indigenous conceptual frameworks developed in various countries for promoting knowledge coexistence between indigenous and colonial/settler groups. It is a specific application of a much broader area, generally termed “Indigenous Knowledge” (IK) or “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK) in North America. Related areas of more specific application have been described for historic eastern Canada (“Two Row Wampum” or Kaswentha in the Haudenosaunee culture), for aboriginal culture in Yolngu, Australia (“Two Ways” or Ganma), and for the Māori culture in New Zealand (“Double-Canoe” or Waka-Taurua). TES differs from other Indigenous frameworks in its explicit action imperative, i.e. the notion that knowledge transforms the holder and that the holder bears a responsibility to act on that knowledge.

As developed at Cape Breton University, TES was intended as a means of integrating TEK with western science in educational curricula aimed mainly at indigenous students . It has since expanded in use and application to include groups and institutions. In the Canadian national context it has been taken up by institutions, government agencies and others as a foundation for facilitating natural resource and socio-economic programmes which involve both indigenous and non-indigenous participants operating at a variety of levels. This review of TES focuses on the latter applications, i.e. natural resources and environmental management.


The use of TES within teams carries the implicit assumption that team membership is defined by ethnicity, e.g. indigenous custodianship or ownership of land, water, and other resources which are the target of the endeavour. Teams may work alone or in concert with non-indigenous groups or government agencies. Two approaches have been described in the TES literature.

Delegation to Indigenous Groups

Assigning overall responsibility and management of specific resources and areas to indigenous agencies has been successfully accomplished in a few instances. The modus operandi here would be for an agency (federal, provincial or local) to define the objectives of a resource management programme and then turn it over for implementation to an indigenous-controlled group for implementation. This perhaps stretches the concept of TES since overall responsibility for an outcome and day-to-day operations to reach that outcome are divided between indigenous and non-indigenous operators.

One Canadian example is the 5,297-hectare Old_Man_on_His_Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area in Treaty 4 Territory in southwest Saskatchewan . The area is of spiritual importance for the Anishinaabe, Dakota, Lakota, Nakoda, Nêhiyawak and Niitsitapi peoples in the area. In 2003 the Natural Resources Council of Canada introduced a herd of 50 plains bison to the area as part of its management goals of rehabilitating natural grasslands. The 10-year Bison Management Plan guides the implementation and integrates indigenous perspectives into herd management through an Indigenous Advisory Group made up of representatives of various linguistic and cultural groups with a diversity of knowledge.

Knowledge Pluralism

An alternative approach to resource management delegation is Knowledge Pluralism. This implies the merging of an indigenous worldview and traditional practices on one hand with scientific knowledge on the other hand, the process being coordinated and assisted by government agency inputs to decision making, monitoring, and management efforts.

A good example of knowledge pluralism is the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s management of rivers and coho salmon on the west coast of Vancouver Island . This reflects a coupling of indigenous and scientific ways of knowing within a strategic management program. Tla-o-qui-aht managers and Guardians—often the same persons – play multiple roles, using different ways of knowing and communicating, enacting and guiding the ontological pluralities that shape indigenous river and fishery management practices.

Multidisciplinary Teams

Multidisciplinary teams lend themselves well to TES integrative approaches to resource and ecosystem planning due to their temporary and short-term status, focus on intensive cooperation in planning and evaluation over a short period, and multiple opportunities for co-learning. The drawbacks are their lack of authority in ensuring or enforcing specific actions and recommendations, and their transient nature. Multiple multidisciplinary workshops on the same subject are rare.

Two examples of multidisciplinary teams representing the integration of indigenous and non-indigenous concerns and expertise in a Canadian context relate to systems analyses of the very extensive Slave and Saskatchewan river deltas in northern Canada.

Slave River and Delta Partnership, North-West Territories

Large-scale upstream resource development (e.g. oil sands extraction, hydro-electric construction and operation) is having profound impacts on ecosystem health and societal well-being downstream In the Slave River Delta. Hunting and fishing comprise large-scale and vital parts of Indigenous life.

In direct response to community concerns about the declining status of fish stocks, the main “actors” in the region (three First Nations, three Métis organizations, two towns, a college and research institute, and various territorial and federal government agencies) formed the Slave River and Delta Partnership (SRDP) in 2010. The main goal was to develop community-based monitoring activities throughout the region. Multiple academic partners participated and utilized a workshop planning process to identify and prioritize risks and concerns. In aquatic ecosystem workshops the SRDP and associated academics co-developed three key central questions ((a) Is the water safe to drink?; (b) are the fish and wildlife safe to eat?; and (c) Is the ecosystem healthy?). Workshop participants, indigenous and non-indigenous, identified key indicators of aquatic ecosystem health along within two distinct yet complementary lines of inquiry – western science and Indigenous knowledge.

Through a Western scientific lens water quality and fish health were described in terms of “turbidity” (in Nephelometric Turbidity Units) and “fish external anomalies” (number of cysts, tumours, lesions and malformations) respectively. The Indigenous lens, on the other hand, focused on changes in water visibility or movement over time, as well as changes in the frequency of lesions or deformities over time.

By bringing together interview transcripts, field data, existing models and expert judgement via participatory modelling, the study team was able to provide a set of answers to a co-developed set of questions. Together, they determined there was a low probability that the social– ecological system in the delta was as healthy as it once was. Furthermore, they found that where multiple western scientific indicators were graded as “moderate” compared with the past, indigenous knowledge indicators were graded as “low”. This suggested that either western science is less able to detect incremental change over short timescales, or that there was an unsubstantiated perception of change by the indigenous knowledge holders. Both situations occurring simultaneously was also a possibility.

Saskatchewan River Delta, south-central Canada

The Saskatchewan River Delta is the largest fresh water delta in North America and faces similar issues to the Slave River Delta related to upstream anthropogenic activities, in this case primarily large dams. The E.B. Campbell, Gardiner and Nipawin Dams have profoundly reshaped system hydrology and fish and wildlife populations, provoking both community concern and the 2012 formation of a collaborative community/academic partnership to seek solutions. One of the main goals of the partnership centres on finding ways for Indigenous communities and academic researchers to work together as equals, where both Indigenous knowledge and western science are equally valued and unified to improve collective understanding of ecosystem change in the delta.

Acknowledging that TES practitioners need each other and best engage in a co-learning journey, academic partners from the University of Saskatchewan identified three main questions: (a) how to learn about long-term social-ecological change from diverse knowledge holders?; (b) how to provide for the coexistence of plural forms of knowledge while engaging in respectful critique?; and (c) how to document the relative contribution each knowledge system provides and explain how each helps to fill in the gaps of the other? TES was selected as the guiding framework towards addressing the first two questions.

The first line of evidence was Indigenous knowledge drawn from interviews with key informants, i.e. elders, fishers, hunters and trappers. Preliminary results were presented to the community for review and approval. A second evidence base was archival records from provincial archives on key historical events and past system changes, as well as information on resource-related policies (permits, quotas, regulations, etc) and government correspondence (e.g. letters, petitions). The third form of evidence was instrumental observations (e.g. water levels) and field records (e.g. fish-landing data).

All three evidence bases included both quantitative and qualitative types of information that were brought together to address the guiding questions on changes in three categories (a) hydrology; (b) fish and wildlife; and (c) vegetation, using a simple but elegant means of examining knowledge congruence. Knowledge systems were indexed as either consistent (in agreement), inconsistent (in disagreement), or an evidence type was lacking for comparison.

A high degree of convergence across western and indigenous knowledge systems was documented for changes in hydrology (83% congruent indicators), fish and wildlife (94%), and vegetation (100%). Overall, the study team expressed confidence about understanding ecological phenomena through more than a strictly western science lens. There were some notable incongruent indicators, e.g. indigenous knowledge signalling currently poor water quality while instrumental observations showed it as “safe”, and indigenous sources revealing a high abundance of northern pike in areas where instrumental observations found pike numbers to be near zero.


TES is a praiseworthy effort to recognize and promote the merits of traditional indigenous knowledge(s) by integrating them, in a fashion, with the prevailing and dominant western scientific (and global) knowledge system. The best examples of TES from the Canadian perspective have been highlighted above. However, considering that western knowledge systems are the accepted and prevailing basis for planning, managing and understanding the economy and financial systems in modern countries such as Canada, it was inevitable that TES would sooner or later be seen in some educational, financial and political quarters as an intrusion and an unnecessary impediment to efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

The major concern of TES relates to the lack of clarity on what exactly “traditional knowledge” is, and how exactly it can complement western science. Critics point out that traditional knowledge observations are actually protoscientific, i.e. they lack specificity and are not recorded, thus preventing them from being compared accurately across space and time and used purposefully in hypothesis testing. Moreover, the designation of certain individuals as “traditional knowledge holders” shields them from scrutiny and undermines sceptical ethos of scientific research.


  1. I am confused as to what the claim of two-eyed seeing is.
    “Addressing these barriers does not necessarily mean that Indigenous knowledge must be co-opted into a scientific knowledge system or to be validated by science. Rather, it requires engagement in meaningful dialogues to ensure that the different knowledges can effectively interface.”
    It seems you are that Indigenous knowledge is something essentially different from scientific knowledgem that Indigenous “knowledge” couldn’t be discovered by people using the scientific method.
    For example, religious people claim to have a knowledge of God. Are you saying that Indigenous knowledge is more like knowledge of God than knowledge based on observation and experimentation?
    To use your example, prediction of a species population decline. You state “Northern indigenous people, living in close intimacy with their environment, have a comprehensive understanding of animals and can predict an impending population decline long before detection by conventional population surveys.” Certainly this may be true, that Northern Indigenous people who are present an environment longer than a scientific group, and aware of various natural systems that the scientists have not studied, might make better predictions.
    But it seems to me that the claim of those professing Indigenous knowledge goes beyound this. It suggests that even if the scientific study were of longer duration and included more variables, it would never be able to predict as well as the Indigenous group could because the knowledge gathered by the Indigenous group is of a different order or kind — knowledge by revelation as opposed to knowledge by observation.
    In which case I must admit to being skeptical about many claims of Indigenous knowledge, although I do think that scientific thinkers should consider very thoroughly the experience of Indigenous people, whether they are scientists or not.

  2. The [western] scientific method comprises systematic observations, measurements, and experimentation, leading to the formulation, testing and modification of hypotheses. Indigenous knowledge, on the other hand, is a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations maintained and developed by peoples with extended histories of interaction with the natural environment. These understandings, interpretations and meanings are part and parcel of [ancient] cultural complexes that encompass language, naming and classification systems, resource use practices, ritual, spirituality and worldview. The two systems differ greatly in concept, practice and derived information, which is why the attempted linkage via “two-eyed seeing” is fraught with difficulty and interpretation. However, there are strong moral, political and other reasons which justify the ongoing efforts to link the two via “Two-Eyed Seeing” approaches.
    I disagree with your contention that scientific studies, even if of long duration and inclusive of many variables, would never be able to predict as well as Indigenous knowledge. The knowledge gathered by indigenous groups would be of a different order or kind. There are lots of multi-billion dollar long-term [non-indigenous] studies of all kinds which yield precise predictions in various scientific fields.
    I also note that indigenous knowledge is hardly “knowledge by revelation as opposed to knowledge by observation”. The sensitivity of indigenous observers to subtle effects and changes in their natural environment is at the core of their ability to make accurate forecasts and estimates within those environments. Extending the forecasts spatially and over time would however be a subject for debate.

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