Laws, Policies, Values, and Fish

The words of consulting evaluator Patrick Field, who works with Indigenous people (2019:168-170):

“A fundamental question is: how do you integrate indigenous and traditional ways of knowing with scientific, technical, or Western ways of knowing. This is a tricky problem. One example we recently worked on is with the United States Department of Interior and numerous tribes whose cultural resources have been harmed in some fashion by contamination from Superfund sites (i.e., sites in the United States that are contaminated by hazardous waste). The department wants to come up with ways of assessing cultural resource loss at Superfund sites in order to obtain natural resource damages from the polluting parties. The polluting parties and often the courts say — quantify it: name it, number it, explain it, and measure it. What tribes may very well say is that they will not reveal to outside parties the exact nature, or specificity of their cultural resource (say, a certain forest with particular medicinal herbs or a unique and special fishing spot) — I can’t name it for you exactly — and it is not simply the number of medicinal plants or salmon lost over the last twenty years. For example, a tribe may say, ‘Salmon are the lifeblood of our ways, our tradition, our culture, our spirits, our youth, our teaching. So tell me, how do you value the fact my child will never catch a salmon the end of a hook?’ Yet, the courts require that parties come up with such a dollar number: what is the resource loss so that we can ascribe blame and then we can allocate costs and someone pays and we are done. Justice is done we move on. Western thinking requires us to categorise, to box, to file away, to calculate and measure, to break things apart and fractionate them. And this is often completely antithetical to the way that an indigenous culture whose people view things as connected, systemic, part of a greater whole. Furthermore, the very things that Western science treats as objects — a tree, a river, a mountain — may be seen by native cultures as subjects. In the Maliseet language, for instance, trees and water are treated as subjects, like humans, capable of action and experience. . . Oftentimes myself as a westerner and mediator get trapped in a particular way of instrumental thinking — what do we need to do next? What are the data we need to collect and the models we need to run? How can we show concrete progress through projects, timelines, and milestones? And my colleague who is Maliseet has to constantly remind me: ‘That’s all well and good but there’s actually a bigger goal here and we’ve got to tend to the relationships. We have to tend to the reconciliation and things must fall underneath that broad goal.'”

Questions to facilitate your conceptual weaving process:

Why do you think Patrick Field’s Maliseet colleague insists that tending to the relationships in this river means tending to reconciliation?

Who is in relationship to who in this situation?

Why do you think there’s a need for reconciliation, based on what you see in the part of the story reproduced on this page? Who needs to be reconciled to who?

How do you think reconciliation might be accomplished?

Fields writes that “The polluting parties and often the courts say — quantify it: name it, number it, explain it, and measure it.” This is a privileging of intellectual ways of knowing  over all others, including relational knowing and participant observation. How does this epistemic barrier reinforce and maintain the wall between Western culture  and the natural world? How does it wall out the Maliseet from the river and the salmon in this situation? Is it ontologically possible for the Maliseet to fully restore the river and the salmon in a legal system that enforces this epistemic value system?

How do you expect that a similar value system of epistemics (ways of knowing) managed (bureaucratically, governmentally) to wall the Japanese fishermen away from the sea to which they’ve always been connected, when the new 40-foot tall tsunami walls were built? Can Western evaluators change the cultural value system of knowledge and ways of knowing that’s being applied so destructively in these situations? Why or why not? How do you think the problem could be addressed in a meaningful way?

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