Anthropology professor receives funding for a major project which will tell critical stories of conservation in dynamic ways, beginning with Alberta's bull trout in Bighorn Country.
By Nick Ward
Photos by Fangliang Xu
“We have responsibilities to be reciprocal and thoughtful in how we move through the land and in how we behave as humans. We have impacts, every one of us, and that means we are obligated to reflect on how we can best nurture the planet and be just to the species we share our space with. We must acknowledge the ways we are embedded in webs of relations,” says Professor of Anthropology Zoe Todd.
These considerations form the guiding philosophy for Todd’s important new research project.
Titled Plural perspectives on Bighorn Country: restor(y)ing land use governance and bull trout population health in Alberta, the project has received coveted New Frontiers Research Funding (NFRF) from the federal government.
“Understood from my time learning from other Indigenous folks, including my friends Andy and Millie Thrasher in Paulatuuq, and from my time reading and listening to the work of Blackfoot scholar Leroy Little Bear and many others, this perspective is foundational to who I am as a person and researcher,” Todd says.
She recalls a talk Leroy Little Bear gave at the Congress of Humanities in 2016, where he stated, “Humans live in a very narrow set of conditions.” That means we must be mindful that our existence on this planet is contingent and fragile. “We cannot alter the atmosphere or watersheds or landscapes and expect to be able to keep living the way western society has been living,” she says.
Although the ecological outlook for our planet is undisputedly dire, there remains a tremendous amount of work to be done in cultivating the support and the action required to adequately address the human-created consequences of environmental damage and climate change on land, water, and the non-human/more-than-human species who have occupied this space throughout time without causing harm.
Todd’s Plural perspectives on Bighorn Country project confronts the matter of conservational passiveness and misunderstanding as isssues which are partly the result of inefficient communication in a 24-hour news cycle media landscape influenced by profit-driven lobbyists and stakeholders who stifle the desperate shouts of scientists, Indigenous leaders, and planet-minded citizens.
In Plural perspectives, Todd lays out a strategy to combat this unfortunate reality by proposing a shift in focus towards considering how stories are told.
The project aims to more effectively articulate factual narratives on the immediacy of issues brought on by the pressures on lands and watersheds from climate change, resource extraction, urban expansion, agriculture, and recreational use, with the goal of increasing public appreciation for all species and space. By presenting these narratives in new and interesting ways, the project intends to influence meaningful change to policy processes regarding species at risk, watershed management, and land-use governance in Alberta; specifically, Bighorn Country in relation to the diminishing bull trout population.
Todd has been building up the groundwork for a research project on Alberta human-fish relations since she began as an anthropology professor at Carleton in 2015. She has spent this time thinking deeply about what such a project would entail and which logistics and partnerships would be necessary to do this work the correct way. With the New Frontiers Research Funding, she has a superb opportunity to carry out the research in a highly interdisciplinary and path-breaking manner.
“I have done work on human-environmental issues for over a decade now, and one thing that became really clear in previous projects I have worked on is that everyone has a story, or many stories, about their relations to non-human beings, like fish, water, and lands that they move through,” says Todd.
“One of the countless struggles that many communities face in advocating for more-than-human beings, lands, and waters is that the existing platforms for telling these stories are highly bureaucratized and technical because the processes for protecting species and ecosystems tend to be filtered through government consultation systems.”
As a response to this issue, the Plural perspectives project will develop a digital toolkit to field-test different media and methodologies that will enable storytellers to connect with wider audiences in progressive and dynamic ways. Todd’s project will help scientists, journalists, Indigenous Knowledge keepers, youth, elders, artists, academics, architects, biologists, ethnobotanists, and others, present their conservation stories in a manner that engages all audiences.
“We will be using radio documentary and podcasts as well as exploring how to tell stories about fish, lands, watersheds and art, augmented reality and virtual reality,” says Todd. “Our goal is to make these media and methodologies available and accessible for other communities to use in order to tell their own stories about their relationships to lands, waters, atmospheres, and more-than-human beings.”
“We want to figure out the most efficient way to employ these technologies and then provide the frameworks, code, and platforms in an accessible and adaptable way for others to use so they can tell their stories.”
We have responsibilities to be reciprocal and thoughtful in how we move through the land and in how we behave as humans. We have impacts, every one of us, and that means we are obligated to consider how we can best nurture the planet and be just to the species we share our space with and we must acknowledge the ways we are embedded in webs of relations.
These stories need room to breathe, they need space to grow over time, explains Todd. “We need to create different platforms so people can tell stories in the ways that resonate for them.
“All too often in academe, the space to tell these stories is limited to very traditional media: journals, reports, and policy documents to name a few. The chance to use different tools allows us to think stories in different ways. A good story sticks with you, and gives you new things to think about every time you come back to it, so we need to use all the tools available to us to help ensure those stories are heard and that people have a chance to think with them,” she says.
Todd believes the power of storytelling cannot be overvalued. “There are so many amazing Indigenous scholars who talk about the power and importance of stories — Val Napoleon frequently cites Louis Bird, who says, ‘stories are for thinking,’ and this has shaped my own work in deep ways.”
Todd cites Indigenous scholars Val Napoleon, John Borrows, and Robert Alexander Innes as thinkers who look at how stories are themselves ways of engaging Indigenous laws and ethical paradigms. “So, stories are not just great ways to pass the time — though this is an important virtue. Stories are also how we imagine and build the worlds around us. They are entertainment, they are ways of tending to relations, and they are also how we theorize,” she says.
Todd’s project will heavily rely upon the rich knowledge of Indigenous people and communities and will do so without interpreting this knowledge and these stories through western theoretical conceptions, as is the prevailing kneejerk position of the western academy.
“This reflex enforces a very problematic dichotomy that places Indigenous knowledge as ‘colloquial’ or ‘parochial’ and western knowledge as refined, elite, or advanced,” says Todd. “In contrast to this, Kim TallBear argues that Indigenous peoples are theorists, full stop, citing her mom Leanne TallBear as one of the first theorists who she credits as helping her come to this understanding.
“So, these two principles are fundamental — that stories are good to think with, and that Indigenous people are theorists — and this disrupts the idea that Indigenous knowledge is parochial, anachronistic, and simple.”
Bighorn Backcountry, Alberta, Canada
Plural perspectives on Bighorn Country: restor(y)ing land use governance and bull trout population health in Alberta will commence with a case study on of the decline of the bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) in Alberta’s beautiful and rugged Bighorn Backcountry. This territory covers more than 5000 square kilometres through the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains by Banff and Jasper National Parks and is home to the headwaters of the Red Deer and North Saskatchewan Rivers which source the drinking water to nearly a quarter of Alberta’s population.
Bighorn Backcountry is vital to Indigenous peoples who use the landscape for food, medicine, and ceremony. Moreover, the landscape is critical to ranchers who lease it to graze cattle checked by horse-riding cowboys and is popular for guiding, hunting, and camping adventures. Of course, the land is also used for oil and gas extraction as well as logging, and since the early aughts has been subject to concerted efforts to re-organize land management, including the provincial promise to designate the region as a wildland park.
The previous Alberta Government was proposing to expand, amend or create four recreation areas and two public land use zones, but there has been opposition to this proposal from settler politicians and residents spreading misinformation and voicing sometimes threat-ening retorts to those in favour of the plan. As explained in the project’s proposal, in January 2019, security threats forced the Alberta government to cancel scheduled public engagement sessions on the province’s planned land-use changes in the southwest corner of Bighorn Country. This decision came on the heels of several years of increased threats of violence, including death threats, towards two prominent women in political leadership roles in Alberta – Environment Minister Shannon Phillips and Premier Rachel Notley. In response to the cancellation of the public hearings, settler residents and some politicians in the region took to social media, mocking the government for taking precautions to protect participants who support the new land-use policies (Clancy, 2019). In contrast, in early January 2019, 37 retired biologists signed a letter urging the Provincial government to adopt the Bighorn proposal in order to protect species and ecosystem integrity in the region (Weber, 2019).
This sums up to a profoundly complex social and political backdrop for Todd’s project in a region that means so much to her. In fact, she has been a first-hand witness to the ups and downs of conservationism in Bighorn Country for much of her life, having spent her formative years exploring the territory with her late stepfather, biologist Wayne Roberts, who dedicated his career to Bighorn Country and the Red Deer River. “We camped there often when I was little, and that’s where I learned how to fly fish in Elk Creek. We spent time at places like Ram Falls, Pepper’s Lake, and in my adolescence, I helped run a model UN camp at Goldeye Lake just outside of Nordegg, Alberta,” recollects Todd.
“I spent many, many summers hiking and mountain biking in and around the region — at places like Shunda Creek, Siffleur Falls, so, though this is not the territory that my Indigenous ancestors have relations to — my Cree and Métis ancestors have ties to St Paul des Métis settlement in central Alberta and Whitefish (Goodfish) Lake, Alberta as well North Battleford and Fort Pitt in Saskatchewan and St James Parish, Red River, Manitoba.”
“I learned a great deal about fish and the environment and my responsibilities to the land and water from my time in this part of Alberta,” she says.
Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus) in Bighorn Country
Bull trout, the official fish of Alberta, is a slender fish whose silken olive skin is accentuated with red and yellow spots. They are most often found in mountain river systems and other backwater locales, and while they have the most extensive natural distribution of any trout species in the province, they are a fish that takes their time. They grow rather slowly, and it is not until they reach their full maturity in their fifth-year, when their heads begin to look slightly too big for their over 30-centimetre-long bodies, that they begin to spawn.
“Folks who are older than me speak in hushed and excited tones about what it was like to see healthy bull trout populations in local watersheds, and to encounter these fish in the water in large numbers,” says Todd.
Unfortunately, bull trout have long been susceptible to the pressures of cohabiting with humans. They have been overfished, and their habitat has deteriorated. In the 1980s, it became clear that bull trout were in decline, but wonderfully, thanks to the hard work of concerned individuals, they have done some recuperating, but remain classified as Sensitive and Threatened under Alberta’s Wildlife Act.
We will be using radio documentary and podcasts as well as exploring how to tell stories about fish, lands, and watersheds using art, augmented reality, and virtual reality. Our goal is to make these media and methodologies available and accessible for other communities to use to tell their own stories about their relationships to lands, waters, atmospheres, and more-than human beings.
“Fish biologist Lorne Fitch has explained in media reports that bull trout are an indicator species — it is one of those fish that you want to keep track of because its decline is signalling other worrisome things about its habitat to us,” says Todd. “I see the struggle of bull trout to survive the intensive settler-colonial extractive paradigms that shape my home province of Alberta as something that is a bit of a parable for how we as humans come to understand the impacts of our actions on the watersheds that sustain us.”
Todd asks: Without the bull trout, what is Alberta?
To help answer this question, Todd once again points to the wisdom of Leroy Little Bear who states: “The fish has been around — think about it — way before the dinosaurs, way before the Neanderthals, way before our time. The fish are still around. I wonder what scientific formula the fish has discovered. We should ask the fish. They’ve survived.”
“Fish have existed in one form or another for 510 million years and survived multiple mass extinctions, but they are barely surviving the cumulative pressures of human- induced climate change, capitalism, resource extraction, colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy that currently shape our relations with the planet,” remarks Todd. “So, as Leroy Little Bear argues, and as countless fish scholars, fisherman and fish enthusiasts would also argue, I’m sure, we have so much to learn from these beings who have figured out how to live in dynamic and diverse conditions on the planet for half a billion years, and managed to adapt to various realities through immense periods of change.”
The captivating story of the bull trout is but one of the many stories Plural perspectives intends to tell through innovative storytelling in non-traditional journalistic formats. A practice Todd partakes in herself, through her artwork.
Expressing Conservation and the More-Than-Human Through Art
Todd was trained as a biologist through her undergraduate degree and it was during this time that she worked in a gastroenterology research lab. There, she did important experiments on rats and other animals to test treatment possibilities for severe illnesses, but she struggled with the way they were treated by scientists in this process, even though they were, by all measures, exceptionally ethical and thoughtful people.
“I was raised to revere fish, to think of them as kin and food, so when the time came to work on fish as a researcher, I decided that the most ethical way I could study them is pretty much the way my stepdad Wayne Roberts did: spend time with them in their own environment as a fish ethnographer,” says Todd who intrinsically connected with the practice of an immersive fish biology. “It aligns very well with Cree-Métis principles like wahkohtowin (kinship/relatedness), wicihitowin (working together), and sakihitin (love).”
“My stepdad never endeavoured to instrumentalize the fish to make a career for himself through them in a typical western academic way — he was always focused on what the fish needed, wanted, what they were trying to communicate to us through their presence, absence, the condition of their bodies, how they were manifesting in specific places. Moreover, he advocated strongly for protections of fish in response to the struggles he was directly observing in the watersheds he spent time in.”
Wherever Todd is in the world, she spends plenty of time visiting fish, practising what scholar Anna Tsing calls ‘the arts of noticing’. She also does her own quiet ceremony for fish everywhere she visits, placing tobacco for them as a sign of respect for their continued presence and labour in their habitats. Following in her stepfather’s footsteps, Todd is interested in learning from fish as unobtrusively as possible, and so art became a very organic way to study them without using the practices and tools she would have had to pursue had she continued on her path to becoming a fish biologist.
“Of course, I still eat fish, because we grew up eating fish that Wayne harvested in Alberta, but he was always very careful and thoughtful about how many fish he kept, and we never wasted a single bit of those fish that he did keep. In my work in Paulatuuq, in the Western Canadian Arctic, I learned from my friends Andy and Millie Thrasher about how Inuvialuit fishermen practise ethical, recip-rocal relations with fish — paying close attention to the well-being of fish, but also centering the agency of fish as political, social, cultural citizens in their own right.”
She does not eat fish in Ontario, because she is not from the province, and therefore feels that she does not have the appropriate permission from Indigenous nations in the region to be catching or eating their kin. Instead, she sticks to her art and her visits to the waterways.
Growing up, Todd and her sister used to joke that Pierre Elliott Trudeau borrowed his “just watch me” phrase from their own family, based on their steadfast and industrious disposition. “I mean, not to take away from the seriousness of a prime minister imposing wartime measures and definitely not to take away from the issues Trudeau was responding to in 1970,” quips Todd, “but, basically I turned to art because folks with formal artistic training kept dismissing my drawing and art.”
“People in my life kept telling me my art wasn’t very good, so I kind of leaned into it and thought ‘okay, just watch me.’ And funnily enough, I’ve managed a pretty good career of combining my art with my research and writing. So that’s kind of fun to reflect on, too. I believe that art should be accessible and that all of us have the right to make it, find joy in it.”
When Todd was quite young, her father, celebrated Indigenous artist Gary Todd, used to teach her and her sister art techniques in the kitchen of their Edmonton home. She was only five years old when she learned about cross-hatching (the drawing of two layers of fine parallel lines to create a mesh-like pattern). Her father also taught her about Cézanne and Matisse and other eminent European artists who remain today as some of her many artistic influences. “I love my dad’s work, and I’m also a fan of work that dotes on landscapes and nonhuman beings.”
“My friend Michelle Campos Castillo in Edmonton is an artist doing incredible work, and recently did a beautiful roadway installation that honours the fish of the North Saskatchewan.”
“I am also deeply inspired by the work that Cree/Métis artist Dawn Marie Marchand and Cree artist Tashina Makokis are doing back home — both working in deep relationship with the land and with nonhuman beings that live back on the prairies in Alberta.”
When asked what she hopes her artwork sparks in audiences, Todd replies, “I would like them to take away a bit of joy; and also inspiration to tend to more-than-human beings in the world around them.”
Professor Zoe Todd’s artwork can be purchased at this link: https://society6.com/zoestodd
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