Skip to content

Climate Changed: First Nation balances Western science with traditional knowledge

One method involves mimicking the work of beavers to better control the water supply
Alvin First Rider, an environmental technician with Blood Tribe land management, works to build a beaver dam analog in a dry creek bed on the Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta as part of work to protect grasslands and watersheds near Stand Off, Alta., on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

The Prairie Blood coulee winds through a property on the Kainai Nation, also known as the Blood Tribe, in southern Alberta.

On a warm fall day, about a dozen people haul willows, mulch, dirt and water to several spots along a dry creek bed. Some pound large posts into the ground.

Technicians from Blood Tribe and volunteers from local environmental groups are building five beaver dam analogs, which mimic a natural logjam. They hope to restore the stream flow to help the landowner care for his animals and have more water for wildlife as the area experiences a decade-long drought.

“Farther upstream, where there are beavers, there is plenty of water. They are missing here and we need to help this ecosystem,” Alvin First Rider, an environmental technician with Blood Tribe Land Management, said as the crew got started on another day’s work. “(Beavers) are ecological engineers like bison or fire. They are tools that people don’t need to be scared of. They get a bad rap, but we need to learn to live with them.

“We have been living in a drought and climate change is only getting worse. We are trying to be proactive by installing these to help climate resiliency on the landscape of Kainai.”

It’s one of many ways First Nations are dealing with climate change, which has led to extreme weather that contributes not only to droughts, but also damaging floods and wildfires across the Prairies.

The Kanai Ecosystem Protection Association, which includes Blood Tribe Land Management and the Blackfoot Confederacy, works to build a healthy environment that balances sustainability, the economy and a traditional connection to air, water, land and animals.

At its annual summit in September, the association showcased its efforts on water conservation.

Attendees learned about the Blackfoot Confederacy’s work to protect native bull and cutthroat trout on its four First Nations, heard about the importance of wetlands and visited a site where willows were planted along the river.

On the final day of the summit, First Rider walked to the edge of the Belly River, part of the Oldman watershed, and pointed to the stem of a recently planted willow poking through the grass.

“For ceremonial use, willows are hard to find,” he explained. “One of the things we are trying to do is restore willow populations here. It will also keep the stream bank from eroding.”

More frequent and intense rainstorms that come with climate change can cause more erosion and see more sediment washing into rivers and streams.

Shannon Frank, executive director of the Oldman Watershed Council, said the non-profit organization helps Kainai Nation, as well as nearby Piikani Nation, with water-related projects.

“Both Nations have been doing great work, so we want to support them and make sure they have the resources and tools they need,” she said.

Frank, who received a traditional Blackfoot name that means “water-singing woman” at the summit, said partnerships with Indigenous communities are an important part of reconciliation.

“It’s not just about the watershed and the water — it’s about restoring the culture,” she said. “The Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) culture is directly connected to the land and the water. So, by restoring the watershed, we are actually helping to restore the culture.”

Watershed councils across the Prairies have become an effective mechanism for local climate change adaptation planning and water protection, says a 2021 report led by Natural Resources Canada.

The report notes some of those groups in Saskatchewan have branched out to include drought and flooding on top of water-quality issues. In Alberta, the report says non-profit organizations report on health of watersheds, lead collaborative planning and facilitate education and stewardship activities.

Frank said a lot can be learned from the Indigenous community.

“It’s a sustainable culture,” she said. “It was always a sustainable culture.”

Kansie Fox, environmental protection manager with Blood Tribe Land Management, said Kainai’s projects come from engagement with the community, including its youth and elders.

“There is a lot of concern, especially around species and plants that are disappearing — those culturally important species that are needed daily,” she said, referring to sweetgrass and willows regularly used in traditional ceremonies.

There are several sites where willows are being replanted, similar to the site along the Belly River.

In addition to stabilizing the bank, First Rider said willows can create better fish habitat by shading the water and keeping it cool for native trout, provide food for beavers and become habitat for nesting birds.

“They are very important for the ecosystem.”

Similarly, more than 40 First Nations and tribes across Canada and the United States have signed on to a Buffalo Treaty to bring back bison — or buffalo, as they are traditionally known by Indigenous people — as a way to connect to their history and restore an ecological balance.

At Kainai, First Rider said bison could help to protect the native grasslands.

“At one time, it was considered the largest intact remnants of grassland,” he said. “It’s slowly being disturbed. We’re trying to create that awareness in that push to protect that little bit of grassland that’s left.”

The reintroduction of bison comes with an assessment of birds, soil and insects.

“We’re looking at the dung beetle population,” he explained. “Burrowing owl will seek out the dung.

“Historically, burrowing owls were there in the late 90s, 2000s. We’re hoping they eventually come back.”

Fox said the Nation is also trying to protect culturally important animals such as wolves and bears, which have been affected by climate change, before it’s too late.

In 2017, a wildfire swept through Waterton Lakes National Park, about an hour’s drive to the southwest.

“When that happened, there was an influx of wolves and wolverines,” said Fox. “Data is showing … they are using this place almost as a refuge. So, keeping that habitat healthy is something we are working toward to face those challenges that come with climate change.”

Their work, she said, tries to balance Western science with available traditional knowledge.

“A lot of knowledge is hard to find,” said Fox. “A lot of it was lost when colonization happened and residential schools.”

She said some of the project funding is being used to gather traditional knowledge, find a way to document it, then pass that knowledge on to future generations.

“It’s important to get that Western science data to make sure we are doing things in a consistent manner,” said Fox, “but also that we are respecting the knowledge that the land holds, that these species hold, that our elders hold.”

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.