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3 Concordia researchers collaborate to engage Indigenous knowledges in the study of physics

A New Frontiers in Research Fund grant will support interdisciplinary approaches to decolonizing science
September 20, 2019
Ingo Salzmann, Louellyn White and Tanja Tajmel
Ingo Salzmann, Louellyn White and Tanja Tajmel: "We are finally gaining momentum in elevating Indigenous knowledges."

Interdisciplinary research is becoming increasingly relevant in our complex world. Yet, as many modern scholars are aware, it also can be a challenge.

For two science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) researchers and an Indigenous scholar at Concordia, the study of light provided the nucleus of an unconventional opportunity.

Since winning the university’s first New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) award in May, Tanja Tajmel, Louellyn White and Ingo Salzmann have begun collaborating to reimagine approaches to physics education and research by involving Indigenous knowledges.

Valued at more than $163,000, the NFRF award is part of an initiative by the Government of Canada to embolden ambitious ideas by supporting high-risk, high-reward interdisciplinary and international research.

By engaging Indigenous understanding and involving Indigenous communities in the co-creation of knowledge, the project aims to decolonize contemporary physics research and attract Indigenous students.

The group has identified several risks. Beyond the unique interdisciplinarity of the work itself, which encompasses approaches from natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, there could be some obstacles in recruiting Indigenous students due to their underrepresentation in STEM. The researchers must also seek acceptance in specific scientific and Indigenous communities.

“It’s a challenge for all of us,” Tajmel says.

Decolonizing light

A physicist by training with a passion for the Northern Lights, Tajmel questioned the colonial assumptions made in the way Western science evaluates light and what it considers knowledge.

“We are teaching this content to our students, without sufficient historical context and geopolitical awareness,” says Tajmel, associate professor at the Centre for Engineering in Society in the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science. “Who benefits from this knowledge? What do Indigenous people know about light? Why don’t we know about it?”

To help answer these questions, Tajmel approached her colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Science, Louellyn White, associate professor in First Peoples Studies, and Ingo Salzmann, associate professor of physics.

“Indigenous ways of knowing have been suppressed and marginalized throughout academic history and we are finally gaining momentum in elevating Indigenous knowledges as equally valid to Western science,” says White, who is Kanien’keha:ka and a member of the Indigenous Directions Leadership Council at Concordia.

“If we, as an institution, do not embody the Territorial Acknowledgement by recognizing and affirming the expertise of our Elders as Knowledge Keepers, the acknowledgement becomes nothing but empty platitudes.”

Indigenous knowledges meet Newton

In Western thought, physics plays a fundamental role in informing the understanding of light. It has been accepted as a scientific concept, grandfathered by the likes of Isaac Newton, Max Planck and Albert Einstein. For instance, science has established that light is described as an electromagnetic wave and its velocity is approximately 300,000 kilometres per second.

However, according to Salzmann, physics does not exist by itself and must become more involved in the critical discourses emerging in academia.

“The culture of physics certainly changes with diverse people involved,” he argues. “Therefore, decolonizing science involves challenging the underlying hierarchies.”

Salzmann looks forward to collaborating with Indigenous Knowledge Keepers to bring Indigenous knowledges to academic attention.

“Through this project, physics students will engage in these discourses, and I hope that with this initiative we can support students from underrepresented groups, especially from Indigenous communities, to participate in science.”

White also believes there is much to be gained in such a collaboration.

“The very survival of our Elders depended on observations of weather and animal migration patterns and expertise in subsistence ways of living,” she explains. “Our Elders’ wisdom and their contribution to knowledge creation at Concordia is just as important as that of the Western scientist, maybe more so, given the state of the world today.”

Unsettling the conversation

As a professor whose research focusses on how people are excluded from science, Tajmel considers it important to raise awareness on colonialism in science.

“Decolonizing also means investigating our blind spots and the knowledge that we, as scientists, are producing and contributing to,” she says.

For White, decolonizing academia depends on dismantling systemic barriers and making space for new conversations and relationships.

“When non-Indigenous educators step out of a place of defensiveness or self-blame and investigate colonial history of academia while looking inward at their own participation, the door can be opened for understanding Indigenous worldviews,” she says.

Coming from vastly different disciplines, the three professors took a brave approach to this project. Despite having reservations of their own, it was mutual respect, trust and understanding that sparked the collaboration.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” White admits. “But I was really struck by the willingness to investigate the historical context of STEM fields and its exclusion of Indigenous knowledges.”

‘There is great expertise in-house’

Despite institutional challenges, the team is optimistic about advancing this project at Concordia. The recommendations of the Indigenous Directions Action Plan provide an effective framework toward decolonizing the university.

“There is currently a broad acceptance at Concordia for initiatives like this one and there is great expertise in-house,” Tajmel says.

“It cannot and should not be up to Indigenous educators alone to create a more inclusive learning environment at Concordia,” White adds. “We need our allies, and the best way to be an Indigenous ally in this environment is to take a step back and listen, then take action in alignment with our shared goals and values.”

Tajmel believes that appropriately redistributing available funds will be a vital step toward decolonizing academia. “More than 90 per cent of this project’s funding goes directly to Indigenous peoples as bursaries for students, and honoraria for Elders and Knowledge Keepers,” she says.

“However, these measures do not lead to structural changes such as employment positions for Indigenous researchers. This must be done at a different level. But we can train students to become qualified applicants for such positions.”

The long-term mission of the NFRF project is to diversify the future of STEM and increase the number of Indigenous students with master’s degrees in physics.

“We envision a modern scientist or engineer who is able to critically reflect on his or her own scientific culture, who knows about different knowledges and about the role of science in reproducing social inequity,” Tajmel says.

Tanja Tajmel, Louellyn White and Ingo Salzmann are seeking master’s and PhD students for the following
research projects:

  • Cultural ideas about light in Indigenous knowledges and philosophies
  • Physicists’ views on colonialism in science
  • The concept of light in the history of science through a decolonial lens
  • Physics research projects using synchrotron radiation

Optional topics for interested students who have their own research idea to decolonize light:
email a proposal title, research question, 200-word abstract and resumé by October 6 at 11 p.m.



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