INTERWEAVING INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE & WESTERN SCIENCE: “In British Columbia, hydrometric records are fairly limited in time and geographic coverage. From a hydrology perspective, then, interweaving science and a rich oral history would turn a comparatively short period of data collection into thousands of years of knowledge. This might profoundly change how we view extreme changes in the water cycle and the consequences in BC,” stated Kim Stephens, Partnership for Water Sustainability (February 2022)


Waterbucket eNews celebrates the leadership of individuals and organizations who are guided by the vision for Living Water Smart in British Columbia to build greener communities and adapt to a changing climate. The edition published on February 8, 2022 featured Michael Blackstock, Independent Indigenous Scholar, who developed Blue Ecology, the “water-first” ecological approach to interweaving Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science. The storyline highlights “moments of insight” extracted from a conversation between Michael and Neil Goeller, provincial government hydrologist, about the meaning of interweaving. In the story below, Kim Stephens of the Partnership for Water Sustainability sets the context for their conversation.

Getting Data and Making Sense of It

Michael Blackstock is the Independent Indigenous Scholar who developed the Blue Ecology philosophy. His work is recognized by both UNESCO and the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS). In his 2009 peer-reviewed paper titled Blue Ecology and climate change: interweaving cultural perspectives on water, an indigenous case study, Michael laid out the case for an attitude change and culture-shift related to water. Blue Ecology has been a two-decade long journey of discovery for Michael Blackstock. The Blue Ecology Seminar in January 2022 marks the start of the next leg of Michael’s journey, now in collaboration with the Watershed Moments team.

Neil Goeller is an original member of the Watershed Moments team, a grass-roots initiative that draws its strength from 11 organizations, including six local governments. The Watershed Moments mission is to advance mainstreaming of Blue Ecology. Neil is an experienced hydrologist with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. He is passionate about advancing a science-based approach for the greater good. He is also one of a small cohort that is trained in field data collection and hydrologic analysis, and what happens in and to the stream. As Neil says, “this means getting data and making sense of it”.

Where Data are Sparse and All Available Information Must be Used

“A three-way conversation with Michael Blackstock and Neil Goeller resulted in an Aha Moment. Like Neil, my master’s degree and career experience encompasses hydrology and its applications in water resource engineering. When Neil mentioned Bayesian analysis, and suggested an analogy with Indigenous oral history, it resonated. Bingo, I exclaimed, Neil, you have nailed it,” stated Kim Stephens, Waterbucket eNews Editor and Executive Director, Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC.

“My mind flashed back 40 years. UBC Professor Emeritus Denis Russell, one of my mentors, developed a methodology based on the Bayesian Theorem to estimate peak floods in situations where data are sparse and all available information must be used. Thomas Bayes lived three hundred years ago. He is the mathematician who invented probability analysis. If he was alive today, I have no doubt that Bayes would say, Oral history extends the period of period.”

“Bayesian statistics offers a framework for combining different kinds of information and making best use of what is available. Four decades ago, I applied the UBC Peak Flood Estimation Program to North Vancouver’s creek systems. The municipality brought public works staff back from retirement so that I could interview them in the field and compile the oral history of strategic culvert installations. The oral history “data inputs” made it possible to generate flood frequency curves with reasonable confidence.”

“Michael observed that the individuals most receptive to Blue Ecology were the ‘hydrology elders’ when he presented at the International Association of Hydrological Sciences Conference. I am not surprised, I said to Michael, hydrology elders understand the limitations and assumptions inherent in how scientific knowledge is applied. They are not dazzled by a slick software interface. Getting data and making sense of it, whether recorded or oral, that is a key message.”

Oral history extends the period of record and our understanding

During the conversation, one of the questions posed by Michael Blackstock was, “In science, as you know Neil, you create your hypothesis and then you make observations. Indigenous knowledge can bring in thousands of years of observations.  From that alone, and if you are humble enough, would you like a data set of 100 years or 10,000 years?”

In North America, Michael, from a scientific point of view, water records are quite short. We are lucky when we have 60 years of reliable records, possibly extending out to 100-plus years. Consider that our oldest hydrometric gauge in BC is only in the order of 110 to 120 years,” Neil Goeller responded.

“The peak period for collection of streamflow and climate data was the era from the 1960s through 1980s. However, a majority of gauges in BC are discontinuous. This raises questions. How carefully was the information collected at any point in time? Can we really claim that our measurements from 1914, for example, are more reliable than somebody’s family memory of the occurrences?”

“When I reflect on this short-term context for hydrometric data collection in BC, there is no doubt in my mind that Indigenous knowledge would expand our horizon and help us make sense of the numbers in a larger context.”

“Our timeframe for largescale settlement is only the past one and a half centuries. Again, the context is short-term. Yet the cumulative impacts and consequences of our actions on the land and the water cycle have been far-reaching during this period.”

“Restoration efforts will likely require us to pay back into systems, with significant interest, what has been taken out of them through land use change. The idea being that to begin to restore functionality in a system requires us to put back the value of our withdrawal from nature (or natural assets) plus significant interest.”

“The road we must travel in holding the hand of Mother Earth to help more than hinder requires careful planning, foresight, and patience. Traditional Indigenous knowledge provides this perspective and, to me, embodies those qualities required for longer term thinking and planning.”


To read the complete story published on February 8th 2022, download a PDF copy of Living Water Smart in British Columbia: Oral history extends the period of record and our understanding of what the data mean.