Justice-Centered and Emergent Knowledge through Indigenous and Earth Science Collaborations: A New Special Collection for Community Science

Bill Thomas1‡, Daniel Wildcat2, Paulette Blanchard3, Heather Lazrus4*, Julie Maldonado5


1NOAA Office for Coastal Management

2Haskell Indian Nations University

3University of Kansas

4National Center for Atmospheric Research

5Livelihood Knowledge Exchange Network

‡ Authors listed in elder order

*Corresponding author: Heather Lazrus [email protected]


Emergent knowledge through Indigenous and Earth sciences

The urgent threat posed by our climate crisis necessitates innovative actions that look beyond Earth sciences to emerging solutions that engage a diversity of knowledge systems, and in doing so, support the rising voices of those who have been historically marginalized. Intercultural collaborations that engage both Indigenous and Earth sciences are necessary to bring all relevant knowledge to bear on the climate crisis. Indigenous Knowledges represent intergenerational understanding, wisdom, and practices based on lifetimes of observing and interacting with the environment, and thus involve critical insights about climate change and its local impacts (Whyte 2017). The Biden-Harris Administration recently recognized Indigenous Knowledges as “one of the important bodies of knowledge that contributes to the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of our nation” (The White House, 2021). Crucially, intercultural collaborations – across a diversity of cultures and knowledge systems -- must intentionally include “an ethos of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice” (NAS 2021:40) to avoid repeating past injustices.

The Western institutional pursuit of science is entangled with processes of colonialism, imperial expansion, power differentials, erasures, extractions, and intergenerational trauma (Lazrus et al. 2022). To effectively support intercultural collaborations, and to redistribute the balance of power and use the emergent knowledge to address our climate crisis, requires a cultural change within scientific institutions and broader society – “a change in our thinking and actions” (Wildcat 2009) – and decolonizing the scientific process (see for example, Montgomery and Blanchard 2021; Kimmerer 2013; Smith 2012). Such collaborations are opportunities to co-create more just, equitable, and sustainable climate science and responses to climate change that support communities’ priorities and wellbeing.

Here, as a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists, we are introducing a special collection for Community Science – a new collaborative journal founded by a number of professional societies committed to equitable partnerships between communities and scientists/researchers from multiple disciplines to address community issues collaboratively.  The special collection will host contributions that focus on various aspects of collaborations between Indigenous and Earth scientists. Contributors to the special collection will outline a new mode of engagement for emergent science, in which the word “emergent” does double duty by describing the knowledge that emerges from intercultural collaborations between Indigenous and Earth sciences as well as responds to the urgent emergency of the climate crisis. The framework of emergence replaces transactional approaches with relational approaches that prioritize core values such as respect, responsibility, and reciprocity to center justice for all collaborators, communities, and more-than-human relatives. Such values have evolved from millennia of Indigenous communities’ interactions with their environments and will guide more just, equitable, and actionable science and policy.


A new lens for engagement

Bringing together multiple knowledge systems from Western and Indigenous backgrounds means recognizing multiple lenses (e.g., Palmer 2021, Reid 2021). Western science is but one of the valid lenses through which to understand the environment and our interactions with it. The intention is never to validate one type of knowledge against another, but to see the world in new and more holistic ways. By bringing multiple lenses together, new understanding and action emerges from the convergence of knowledge created by scientific measurement and knowledge accumulated by Indigenous communities over centuries and millennia of observing and interacting with their environment. Engaging Indigenous lenses and worldviews cannot be achieved without direct and full inclusion of Indigenous partners. New models of inclusion value Indigenous Knowledges equally with Western science. For example, updated academic citation practices give full attribution to Indigenous Knowledge holders (Kornei 2021). Engaging Indigenous Knowledge holders in the scientific process from the very beginning means that fundamental research is driven by community priorities. Communities are not only defined geographically but also through relationships and practices (Marino et al. 2019). By starting from community priorities, this research is inherently actionable, ultimately producing both good science and good policy.


Actionable science

Typically, from the very beginning of a scientific research project, the questions are related only to what interests Western-trained scientists, even if the research is intended to have general application or usability. Yet, curiosity-driven science and actionable science are not mutually exclusive. Our view of actionable science is not the same as applied or usable science – it is actionable because it is being directed at each step of the process by those who will put the outcomes into action. In this way, emergent science carries actual benefits to the communities and to ecosystems. In collaborations, you can listen, you can understand, and you can work with Indigenous Knowledge holders and communities to ask what the key questions are, what is the benefit to the people, and what is the benefit to the ecosystem? By allowing new knowledge to emerge through multiple lenses, in a collaborative way, and with a goal of direct benefit to both the people and the ecosystem, the research will be inherently actionable. The use or application is not hypothetical. Truly actionable science can only happen if partners – in this case Indigenous partners - are leading the creation of knowledge. For example, the Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences facilitates partnerships between Indigenous Knowledge holders and communities and Earth system scientists to identify and characterize the physical dynamics driving the climate hazards that threaten security, livelihoods, and cultural lifeways. Community priorities help direct areas of scientific attention that will produce the most relevant knowledge and inform appropriate policy responses and brings that knowledge back to the community in a culturally appropriate manner for sharing, discussion, and use. Emergent, actionable science includes the entire action research cycle, in which scientists and communities work together to understand the questions, determine the methodologies, design the process and methods of data collection, analysis, and dissemination.


Relational rather than transactional approaches

Working with Indigenous Knowledge holders and communities represents a shift in Western-oriented Earth science from transactional processes to relational ones. Western, Earth science tends to conduct transactions, whether that is to isolate and describe individual variables or to derive profit through commodifying knowledge (Lazrus et al. 2022). Indigenous Knowledges are based on relational processes that emphasize the relationships between all components of our living human and non-human relatives in the atmosphere, geosphere, and ecosphere (Wildcat 2009). Emergent science prioritizes relationships, understanding that in Indigenous knowledge systems, relationships are central to worldviews and therefore must be central to scientific collaborations. Concepts that emphasize relationships, such as symbiosis, are important bridges for bringing together Indigenous and Earth science understandings. Building collaborations between Indigenous and Earth sciences means putting relational understandings into practice by growing relationships between collaborators. Collaborators can collectively ask the question “What does it mean to be a good relative?” It means growing relationships of trust and responsibility in our connections with the environment as well as in our collaborations. Relationships of trust are essential to decolonizing Earth sciences and allowing emergent forms of understanding in response to the climate crises.

Group of men and women standing in a circle on Hawai'i island with two volcanoes in the background
Participants of 4th Annual Rising Voices workshop gathered at the base of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on Hawai’i Island, two mountains with both Indigenous and scientific importance. Credit: Craig Elvitch. 

Special Collection: Centering Justice in Indigenous and Earth Sciences

This special collection in Community Science, Centering Justice in the Emergence of Indigenous and Earth Sciences in Response to the Climate Crises, grows out of more than a decade of work through the Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences.  At its core, the Rising Voices Center aims to advance science through collaborations that bring Indigenous and Earth sciences (including atmospheric, social, biological, ecological disciplines) into partnership, supports adaptive and resilient communities through sharing scientific capacity, and provides opportunities for Indigenous students and early career scientists through scientific and community mentoring, in which they can bring their whole selves, including their cultural and science traditions and approaches, into their scientific work. At the same time, it helps Western-trained scientists expand their observational skills, research paradigms, capacity to apply and translate findings, and improve their overall approach to their science. This special multi-disciplinary, multi-media collection will highlight work that demonstrates emergent science in action, and future pathways for a justice-centered emergent science across cultural, disciplinary, and geographic boundaries to address the climate crisis. The articles in the special collection will be invited and will span key topics that have emerged through Rising Voices workshops and activities over the past decade, such as the importance of mentoring, data sovereignty, place-based methodologies, intersectionality, intergenerational practices, and more, reflecting the values of respectful, reciprocal collaborations. There will be case studies included that illustrate the partnerships that create emergent knowledge and actionable science to address our climate crisis.



Kimmerer, S. (2013), Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis.

Kornei, K. (2021), Academic citations evolve to include Indigenous oral teachings, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO210595. Published on 9 November 2021.

Lazrus, H., J. Maldonado, P. Blanchard, M.K. Souza, B. Thomas, D. Wildcat (Forthcoming, 2022), Culture Change to Address Climate Change: Collaborations with Indigenous and Earth Sciences for More Just, Equitable, and Sustainable Responses to Our Climate Crisis. PLOS Climate. In press.

Marino, E., A. Jerolleman, and J. Maldonado (2019), Law and policy for adaptation and relocation meeting. Meeting summary report. 3-4 September, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO.

Montgomery, M. and P. Blanchard (2021), Testing Justice: New Ways to Address Environmental Inequalities. The Solutions Journal https://thesolutionsjournal.com/2021/03/01/testing-justice-new-ways-to-address-environmental-inequalities/

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2021), Next Generation Earth Systems Science at the National Science Foundation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26042.

Palmer, J. (2021), Water Wisdom: The Indigenous Scientists Walking in two Worlds, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO210595. Published on 9 November 2021.

Reid, A.J., L.E., Eckert, J-F. Lane et al. (2021), “Two-Eyed Seeing” An Indigenous framework to transform fisheries research and management. Fish Fish. 22: 243– 261. https://doi.org/10.1111/faf.12516

Smith, L.T. (2012), Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books, London, UK.

The White House. (2021), Fact Sheet: Building A New Era of Nation-to-Nation Engagement. 15th November. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/11/15/fact-sheet-building-a-new-era-of-nation-to-nation-engagement/

Whyte, K. (2017), What do Indigenous knowledges do for Indigenous peoples? Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Learning from Indigenous Methods for Environmental, Sustainability, M. K. Nelson, D. Shilling, Eds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, USA, pp. 1-20. 

Wildcat, D. (2009), Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge. Fulcrum, Golden, CO.



The Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences is jointly administered by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network. We are grateful for the ongoing support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office for Coastal Management and Haskell Indian Nations University. The ideas conveyed in this article represent over a decade of collaboration with colleagues, friends, and family throughout the Rising Voices network. For more information about Rising Voices, please visit the website: https://risingvoices.ucar.edu/



To Bob Gough, the most interesting man in the world, who continues to find ways to remind us that “climate change is inevitable, adaptation is optional.”