'Every plant and animal is useful to us': Indigenous professor re-thinking how we deal with

'It is our responsibility to figure out how they are useful,' says professor Nicholas ReoNicholas Reo is an Native American and environmental studies professor at Dartmouth College. His research focuses on Indigenous approaches to mitigating invasive species like cattails, pictured left.(Pixabay/Eli Burakian)

When invasive species show up, Western science tells us they should be dealt with.

But Nicholas Reo wonders whether we should instead ask why they're here in the first place.

Reo, an assistant professor of Native American and environmental studies at Dartmouth College, alongside anthropologist Laura Ogden, is researching how invasive species mitigation could be approached differently.

As a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, Reo is looking through the lens of Indigenous knowledge.

Invasive plants, animals and insects find their way into new habitats either intentionally or by accident, and can subsequently threaten existing ecosystems. They're sometimes called "non-native" or "introduced" species.

Yet Indigenous knowledge views them as an opportunity, not a menace.

"I have been told by some Anishinaabe collaborators that every plant and animal is useful to us in some way or multiple ways," Reo told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild.

"It is our responsibility to figure out how they are useful."

Typha × glauca, commonly known as hybrid cattails. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

In Western conservation science, there's a concerted effort to protect areas from the spread of invasive species. "We try to keep people out," Reo said, in order to minimize their reach.

The idea of native and non-native species presents foreign plants and animals as something to be understood or dealt with. Non-native plants, by definition, shouldn't exist in a new place.

Indigenous knowledge, however, views these "intruder" plants and animal species as nations in their own right. Rather than explaining why invasive species have arrived, Indigenous communities seek to build relationships with them, he said.

"We're part of a broader kinship network, or a family network, that includes not just humans but other beings as well," said Reo.

"So, if a new plant or animal moves into your home place, how do you fit it in?"


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