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  • Writer's pictureFiona Beaty

Reject knowledge hierarchies

When I was twenty, I experienced a place that was radically distinct to the North American urban culture where I grew up: La Paz, Bolivia. From the transportation systems, to the food, language, fashion, and architecture, almost everything about the city seemed different. This experience prompted me to understand how the culture and communities that we grow up with shape everything about how we see and move through our world.

A woman walks along a market street in La Paz, Bolivia. Photo credit: Fiona.

I had been exposed to the concept of cultural relativism before, in my grade 12 philosophy class. But, prior to travelling to Bolivia, I don’t think I fully grasped the significance of what cultural relativism means for how societies and people shape themselves. A second related concept I learned about while in Bolivia was pluralism. Evo Morales was president at the time, and while browsing displays in a museum one day, I learned about the constitution he brought forward. It established Bolivia as a plurinational state that respects and acknowledges the rights of diverse Indigenous groups and ethnic communities who live within the Nation’s borders.

Looking back on this experience, I am baffled as to why it took me so long, and why I needed to travel all the way to Bolivia, to understand the power and importance of cultural relativism and pluralism. It is particularly baffling considering that I grew up in a multi-ethnic and diverse community with many contemporary dialogues about Indigenous self-determination and self-governance.

Perhaps it is because we often have to frame concepts within our own reality and lived experience, and I had a pretty sheltered upbringing. Whatever the reason, I am grateful to have learned about and connected with these notions when I did, because I feel that they helped stretch and open my brain to accepting that there exist multiple ways of knowing, seeing, and being in our world, and that there can be multiple states of a system without needing one to be better than the other, or having a hierarchy of knowledge systems.

These principles of relativism and pluralism are cornerstone to the framework of ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’, or Etuaptumumk, which proposes that we learn to see the world through two eyes: one that brings forward the strengths of Indigenous knowledge systems, and one that brings forward the strengths of mainstream or Western knowledge systems.

Photo credit: Institute of Integrated Science and Health,

During a conversation with Dr. Andrea Reid, she challenged me to consider some of the potential barriers to the implementation and uptake of the Two-Eyed Seeing framework. Immediately, my brain started to roam through past conversations I’ve had with colleagues, friends, and family about implementing reconciliation.

To embrace the concept of Two-Eyed Seeing, people first have to acknowledge that there are multiple ways of knowing. Unfortunately, since Western knowledge systems are saturated with hierarchical power dynamics and competition, many people interpret the existence of more than one knowledge systems to mean that one must be better than the other.

This was exemplified in a conversation I had with a friend recently. When I asked them to consider that there are other ways of knowing, they become defensive about the value and integrity of their own knowledge system. This defensiveness seemed to prevent them from listening and learning about the other knowledge system, and to essentially reject the value and even existence of the other way of knowing.

Alternatively, people can feel that the less familiar knowledge system is only robust if it validates (or can be validated by) their knowledge system. In a recent research paper, Dr. Reid explained how this perception is what underscores people’s use of words like integrate, incorporate, and assimilate to describe how they bring together different ways of knowing. While this camp of people acknowledges that there exist multiple knowledge systems, their acceptance of one knowledge system depends on how it compares to and validates the other. This is particularly problematic considering Canada’s colonial history of cultural assimilation and the associated power dynamics and social ramifications for Indigenous peoples.

Two-Eyed Seeing is one of several Indigenous frameworks that bring together multiple knowledge systems. Art credit Nicole Burton

Two-Eyed Seeing is one of several frameworks that asks people to avoid both of these pitfalls by endorsing that each knowledge system maintains its own independent integrity and validity. Every knowledge system has its own set of tools to ask and answer questions. One set is not better than the other, and when used in tandem they can paint a more complete and holistic understanding of the world than when used separately. Two-Eyed Seeing is inherently pluralistic, and requests that people practice humility and acknowledge the limitations of their knowledge system. To learn about case studies of applying Two-Eyed Seeing in Canadian fisheries management contexts, watch this seminar video.

It is so interesting (and at times disheartening) to try to understand why we respond the way that we do when we are confronted with a new way of thinking about the world. Why do we become defensive? Why do we try to assimilate? What enables us to acknowledge multiple realities? When can we respect rights and independence? What allows individuals and societies to understand, trust, and embrace concepts like relativism and pluralism?

These questions, this work, requires critical and ongoing self-reflection of our instincts, our thought processes, and our biases (as individuals and societies). Most of the time, I relish this work and the conversations and places it takes me. At other times, I feel exhausted by it and the distance we still have to go as a society.

A beach near home. Photo credit: Fiona.

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