ORAL HISTORY EXTENDS THE PERIOD OF RECORD AND OUR UNDERSTANDING: “Blue Ecology is an ecological philosophy, which emerged from interweaving First Nations and Western thought. It is meant to be a companion because it augments existing Western science hydrology rather than displacing this knowledge.” – Michael Blackstock


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.


Are you, the reader, intrigued to learn more when the Partnership for Water Sustainability asserts that “Blue Ecology is the pathway to reach water reconciliation in British Columbia”?

In January, the first edition of Waterbucket eNews in 2022 featured Blue Ecology the idea. This drew attention to the Blue Ecology Seminar: Creating a Climate for Change, livestreamed via YouTube on January 20 and headlined by Michael Blackstock. Coming soon is the “legacy video” suitable for broadcast on community cable TV.

Through a water-first approach, Blue Ecology is about interweaving Indigenous and Western perspectives to build bridges between two cultures. But what does this mean, really? In today’s edition, we present a conversation between Michael Blackstock and Neil Goeller.

To Learn More:

Actually, we selectively feature some of their “moments of insight”. For the complete story, we ask curious readers to download the PDF document that is part of the Living Water Smart in British Columbia Series.

What is the Synopsis for this Conversation?

Blue Ecology is meant to be a companion because it augments existing Western science hydrology rather than displacing this knowledge. Oral history extends the period of record and our understanding of what the data mean.

In BC, 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.

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 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.

Neil Goeller is 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”. Once you read the Editor’s Perspective, you will understand the relevance of this last statement.


EDITOR’S PERSPECTIVE on how oral history extends the period of record and our understanding of what the data mean

“My leap of faith is that interweaving Indigenous knowledge and Western science makes sense and is the right thing to do. That is why I embrace the Blue Ecology work of Michael Blackstock. He is making a difference,” stated Kim Stephens, Waterbucket eNews Editor and Executive Director.

“But what about those who are challenged when it comes to being intuitive and opening their minds to other ways of knowing? The question that I have been wrestling with is, how might we explain interweaving in a way that would make sense to the engineering mind-set?” 

“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.”

Oral History Extends the Period of Record

“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 the underlying theme for the featured story that follows.”


Neil Goeller & Michael Blackstock in Conversation: “Moments of Insight” about Interweaving

After he read the paper written by Michael Blackstock in 2009 for the International Association of Hydrological Sciences, Neil initiated a conversation with Michael to explore interweaving and the idea that “water is living”.

When they convened in a “question-reflection” setting, a series of Aha Moments resulted. An idea would click as either Michael or Neil had a flash of insight because of what the other was saying. This is the context for presenting their “moments of insight” as a series of quotable quotes.

The “Either-Or” Framing

Neil Goeller:  When the topic of traditional knowledge versus western science comes up in conversation, I have heard the two put in an EITHER-OR context, or it may even be intimated that they are at odds.

During a technical review, for example, I have heard the comment, “Well are they at odds, because science is science. And although there is leeway for uncertainty, these are researched and established facts about how a system behaves or how certain processes happen.” There is a prevalent misinterpretation that it must be ONE or the OTHER, rather than how can we bring these two ways of thinking together.

In my mind, traditional knowledge and western science are just different ways of recording, or documenting, and communicating the same information. I believe there is an analogy between Indigenous oral history, and a statistical approach called Bayesian analysis.

Michael Blackstock:  Neil, it is insightful that you’re seeing this kind of either-or framing because it is a mental trap, much like the choice between economy and environment. The aim of Blue Ecology is to move away from that false choice. The research methodology I use is called interweaving. I developed it as I worked through the logic of Blue Ecology.

Interweaving means bring together two different ways of knowing into one new concept that weaves the strengths of both ways of knowing, rather than criticizing one or the other; or trying to make them compete. It is a more collaborative way of knowing.

There is a sense of humility that comes with interweaving and acknowledging that Western science is not the only way of knowing. There are other ways of knowing. And so, the humility part is interweaving the strengths of those other ways.

Treat Water with Respect

Neil Goeller:  Michael, let’s explore the idea that “water is living”. In science, it is used as an analogy. It helps us convey an understanding of physical processes. One of my favorites is the analogy that Matthias Jakob uses to describes the basin, the gully, and the fan as a digestive system spraying its waste across the landscape!

Michael Blackstock: In the 1700s, water was not given a proper place when Carl Linnaeus, known as the father of modern taxonomy, developed his system of naming organisms. Had First Nations had a say at that time, it would have been that water must be included with the biotic world, not the abiotic world.

By describing water as living, it creates a conversation about what can we do to improve our view of this living system. Out of that comes a new respect. One of the key tenets of Indigenous oral history is that if you disrespect nature, she will get angry and get back at you.

The Observation Record is in the Oral History

Neil Goeller: It seems obvious that oral history provides context. If our society had a rich oral history that stretched back over time beyond the period of scientific data collection, would we then understand that Mother Earth is in the driver’s seat, and maybe we are just mis-reading the map?

Michael, your work on Blue Ecology has me thinking that the idea of interweaving traditional knowledge gives us a broader set of tools to help people understand what we need to do.

Michael Blackstock:  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?

Neil Goeller:  In North America, 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.

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.

Michael Blackstock:  Neil, this example brings us full circle to our starting point, which is, it is usually false when someone frames a situation as being an either-or choice. This way of thinking just does not apply to complex topics.

When someone puts a solution in front of you and says, “it is either this or that, you’ve got to make your choice”, that closes the door on other possible solutions. Our conversation shows that when minds are open to other ways of knowing, it leads to new possibilities.

Lastly, your reflections on investing in restoration speak to the Blue Ecology principle of establishing “healing zones”.  Let the ecosystem heal, after we ask from it.  It is a way of giving back and saying thanks for its gifts.


Have you enjoyed what you have read so far? Well, there is much, much more to learn from “Michael Blackstock and Neil Goeller in conversation”. Click on the image below to download a copy of their entire conversation. Waterbucket News feature stories are published online as part of the Living Water Smart Series. 



About the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC

Technical knowledge alone is not enough to resolve water challenges facing BC. Making things happen in the real world requires an appreciation and understanding of human behaviour, combined with a knowledge of how decisions are made. It takes a career to figure this out.

The Partnership has a primary goal, to build bridges of understanding and pass the baton from the past to the present and future. To achieve the goal, the Partnership is growing a network in the local government setting. This network embraces collaborative leadership and inter-generational collaboration.