Collecting and Applying Schitsu’umsh Indigenous Knowledge and Practices to Climate Change Decision Making

—Rodney Frey & Brian Cleveley, University of Idaho, 2018

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Tribes have a wealth of knowledge about local environmental changes dating back for millennia. At the same time, tribes are often interested in information from scientists about the future environmental changes projected by their models. Collaboration between tribes and scientists makes sense, but sharing knowledge across cultures is rarely easy.
Enter virtual reality.
In the spring of 2014, Steve Daley-Laursen, University of Idaho (UI) Director of the Department of the Interior Northwest Climate Science Center (NW CSC), was hoping to establish a set of best practices that would guide a mutual exchange of indigenous knowledge and empirical climate science. He invited Gustavo Bisbal, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Director of the NW CSC, and Emily Fort, Data Management and Communications Lead for the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center, to fund a project that would advance methods for sharing knowledge.
Next, Daley-Laursen invited Rodney Frey, a professor of ethnography at the University of Idaho, to help develop the right approach. Frey has spent over 40 years working collaboratively with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and other tribes, and is trusted enough to attend ceremonies where outsiders are rarely welcome. He has a deep understanding of the problems that can complicate sharing knowledge across cultures. 
“In the Western tradition, reality is something objective,” explains Frey. “The human mind is separate from the natural world and capable of observing and making predictions.” This leads to the idea that entities can be reduced to their material basis in order to study cause and effect. In this tradition, literacy is the best way to pass on knowledge.
In the indigenous worldview there is no “glass pane” or dualism between mind and nature. Humans are one with their world, and it is not a world of objects, but of events and transitory relationships. The best way to communicate in this tradition is orally--with a storyteller, an actively participating listener and the dynamic relationship between them.
To help develop a successful story-telling approach for sharing climate information Frey approached Leanne Campbell to act as co-principal investigator. Leanne serves as the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Historic Preservation Program Manager and Curator. The two of them began meeting regularly with a group of Coeur d’Alene women who advocate for language and culture.
The idea to share knowledge through virtual reality was what Frey describes as an “Ah-ha moment.” 
So how did the group come up with it? Campbell laughs. “It was never our intention, but it was an amazing addition. We had a diverse team of people with different skills. Brian Cleveley thought he could do this, so we figured we’d give it a try.”
Cleveley is a Professor of Virtual Technology & Design program at the University of Idaho and a “virtual world wizard” according to Frey. He quickly became an indispensable member of the team.
“Virtual reality hits all the buttons just right,” explains Frey. “It overcomes this problem of literacy and seeing the world as objects, versus seeing the world as a series of things that unfold dynamically over time, like an event.”
“From the very beginning we knew we were going to have to make sure this was a true collaboration,” says Frey. “In the past groups have come in to take what they want from a tribe without giving anything back.” In this case there were specific things that the Coeur d’Alene Tribe wanted in exchange for trusting a federal agency and a university with indigenous knowledge. The first of these was a curriculum for the local high school. There are only two fluent speakers of the Coeur d’Alene language left, and they are both in their nineties. The tribe is busy revitalizing traditional language and culture, and wanted a product that could help.
“We needed a primary deliverable that could authentically describe knowledge and practice, and could also render that knowledge accessible,” explains Frey.
Tribal youth, like most youth, spend considerable time with their smart phones, tablets and related technology, so a virtual reality game was immediately relatable to them. Embracing new technologies to help pass on traditional culture is not difficult for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe because they, like many tribes, have a long history of adapting aspects of outside cultures into their own.
With guidance from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Culture Committee the research group decided to use the water potato as a case study. The water potato is one of the last foods gathered during the year, and provides an opportunity for tribal members to get together one final time to gather food and enjoy each other’s company before winter arrives.
“We wanted to focus on the water potato because it’s an important food that we still gather,” says Campbell. “One of the first ways that we see climate change is through our food gathering practices.”
The project’s final virtual reality product is a totally interactive learning tool. Users choose a character (an avatar) to represent them as they interact in different scenes, including a water potato harvest, an interaction with an elder and a muskrat, and a campfire discussion between the tribal elder and climate scientists. As players listen they learn what to do next. If they don’t listen they need to start over. The virtual world features the voices of students speaking the Coeur d’Alene tribal language and is designed to look like traditional sites near Coeur d’Alene Lake.
The game was an immediate hit with Coeur d’Alene high school students. In the future it will become part of the curriculum for high school senior and first year college students, using Idaho curriculum standards.
What’s more, Frey and his team have developed a set of best practices for other groups looking to share knowledge with tribes. To do this they worked with attorneys to create a legal agreement based on guidelines from the World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations that deals with indigenous knowledge worldwide. The new agreement can be used to guide collaboration for other groups. It allows for the identification of sensitive information and protects intellectual property. It also ensures that what is publically disseminated is authentic and legitimate, and that the voice of tribal elders is appropriately distributed--respecting that certain material is not to be shared publically.
The actual agreement is 30 pages long and includes complicated legal language that took university attorneys and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe nine and a half months to formulate and finalize. Frey and Campbell are already talking to other tribes from as far away as New Zealand that are interested in applying their methodology to local knowledge sharing projects of their own. Soon there may be other virtual environments bringing climate science together with different indigenous languages, cultures and sets of knowledge about the world.
Funding for this project was provided by the Department of the Interior USGS Northwest Climate Science Center and the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center. The NW CSC is one of eight centers that provides scientific information to help natural resource managers respond effectively to climate change.
Learn more about the project here: and by watching a short video about the project here:

The Schitsu'umsh people (Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho) have an intimate relationship with their landscape and a rich knowledge of how to interact with the environment in a way that benefits human, plant, and animal communities alike. Such knowledge and practices can provide valuable insight as to how tribal and non-tribal resource managers, communities, and governments can best respond to the effects of a changing climate. 

This project was a pilot effort to collect and translate indigenous knowledge and practices into shareable formats. Researchers developed documents, images, lesson plans, and innovative, interactive 3-D virtual reality simulations that effectively convey Schitsu’umsh knowledge and practices and supply recommendations for how they can be integrated with scientific knowledge during decision-making processes. These products can be modified and expanded by other tribal and non-tribal communities seeking to improve their climate change decision making by incorporating traditional ecological knowledge. 
The project was undertaken collectively by the Northwest Climate Science Center, the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and the University of Idaho's Northwest Knowledge Network. It was jointly supported by the Northwest Climate Science Center and the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center.

Lead Investigator:
Rodney Frey, University of Idaho

Other Investigator(s):
Jeremy Kenyon, Leanne Campbell, Bobbie White

Project Contact:

State: ID

Funding Year: FY 2014

Project Status: Completed

Topic Category: Human Dimensions, Soil & Vegetation

Science Agenda Theme: Vulnerability and Adaptation, Data Infrastructure, Analysis, and Modeling, Communication of Science Findings, Response of Biological Systems to Climate Change, Climate Science and Modeling

Discipline: Social Science

Partners: Other, Tribes

  • Acknowledge the intellectual and cultural property rights of American Indian Tribes: This project addressed the need for managers to acknowledge the rights of American Indian Tribes involved in research. It provides a template to help managers obtain an agreement that lays out the conditions of research prior to starting a collaborative project.
  • Establish working partnerships with American Indian Tribes: This project developed a set of best practices that encourages tribes and managers to take part in every phase of a project and encourages as much face-to-face collaboration as possible. 
  • Design information and tools to benefit the tribal community: Managers are encouraged to develop products that have value for the tribal community, even if they do not have direct scientific value. 
  • Schitsu’umsh, Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho