“Spiders are really powerful,” Frederick Andrew tells me. It’s a bright summer morning in Tul??t’a, Northwest Territories. We’re standing at the side of a dirt road, examining rain-drenched willows in the wake of a storm. In Dene, an Athabascan language of the central Northwest Territories, the word for rainbow is closely related to the word for spider web. For someone who speaks Dene, gots?? m??? (literally, “spider net”) evokes both the prismatic arc of a rainbow and the sparkling water drops that catch on spider webs after the rain. The word itself connects the smallest beings with the most striking of natural phenomena.
At its core, ecology is about the relationships between different species and how these interactions play out in the environment. However, both the English language and the scientific method prioritize compartmentalizing information – by emphasizing nouns, establishing boundaries, creating boxes, and fitting things into those boxes. Dene language, however, does not. Instead, connections are built into the verb-based language and describe a world where relationships among and between species, people, and the environment are central to how the ecosystem is perceived.
For ecologists, it can be difficult (or even impossible) to isolate individual components of a system and study them independently because sometimes a species’ behaviour may only occur when it is part of the complicated whole. Modern ecological research acknowledges this and many researchers now focus on the “emergent properties” of ecosystems (complex outcomes that cannot be explained by the sum of individual parts).
Some ecologists have also begun to recognize the importance of collaborating with Indigenous Peoples to help understand how ecosystems function. The robust understanding of ecological interactions that make up Indigenous knowledge systems and languages should not be viewed in conflict with scientific knowledge. Instead, Indigenous knowledge contains essential information about the environment that can enhance our collaborative understanding of the world by providing a different perspective. This has certainly been the case with my community-based collaborative research on caribou in the Sahtú region of the Northwest Territories.
Working together with Dene collaborators, we found alignment between the Dene words for caribou and genetic population groupings. Specifically, we found genetic differences between to?dz? (boreal woodland caribou), ?ekwe?? (barren-ground caribou), and shu?hta ?epe?? (mountain caribou), and historical accounts by Dene elders helped us make sense of the spatial patterns we found.