Indigenous Knowledge and Climate Change

Indigenous-owned company Kayanase is deeply committed to improving the health of Mother Earth, using Traditional Ecological Knowledge to mitigate the impact of climate change and restore natural landscapes. 
Posted on
August 17, 2022
Indigenous Knowledge and Climate Change

Imagine working each day as part of a small but mighty group that is dedicated to restoring damaged lands back to their healthful, natural state.

That’s precisely what the team at Kayanase gets to do. 

What is Kayanase?

Based on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in southwestern Ontario, Kayanase is an Indigenous-owned and -operated ecological restoration company and native plant nursery.  

The company’s name, which is pronounced Guy-ahh-na-say, means “new trails” or “fresh track” in Kanien’kéha (Mohawk). It’s an apt moniker, considering Kayanase is focused on finding new ways to enhance, conserve or restore native ecosystems in the face of climate change. 

Image from Instagram

What impact does climate change have on native ecosystems? 

Extreme weather, such as excessive rainfall, ice, windstorms, and heat waves—all brought on by climate change—can (and do) gravely disrupt natural spaces. 

As areas lose forests and wetlands to business and housing growth, they become increasingly vulnerable to flooding. Forests and wetlands are also vital for carbon sequestration (the way that trees and plants capture and store carbon from the atmosphere). As they disappear, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises. 

How does Kayanase’s work help to mitigate climate change?

Kayanase collects, processes and propagates native seeds for future planting. They also remove invasive species and educate the community about forest preservation and ecologically sustainable landscapes. 

Their goal is to bring healthy biodiversity back to damaged lands and restore the natural landscapes that trap carbon dioxide. 

Photo by Khara Woods on Unsplash

Why is native seed collection vital to ecological restoration? 

“We need to ensure an ongoing inventory of native sourced [seeds] and a hardy local supply of high-quality and ecologically appropriate native plants to form and restore the ecosystems that do the carbon sequestering,” explains Carole Smith, Kayanase’s administrative team lead.

“As we see the [climate change] challenges in our own community, we recognize the need for strong collaborative action in building our seed capacity to support ongoing conservation efforts in southern Ontario,” she says.

Why Indigenous knowledge is valuable for ecological restoration

Research suggests that ecological restoration projects that involve Indigenous peoples are more successful because communities have a deep understanding of their lands. As an Indigenous-led organization, Kayanase uses a mix of scientific methodology and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). TEK embraces a holistic approach that considers the important interrelationship between all of an ecosystem’s plants and animals, rather than focusing on an individual species or issue.  

This means, for example, that Kayanase’s certified seed collectors are mindful to not take more than they need. They're also careful to leave enough seeds behind for sustainable regeneration or, in some cases, to serve as food for wildlife. 

“That’s kind of the cultural piece. To take care of Mother Earth is the holistic nature of who we are. It’s what Haudenosaunee people do,” says Carole Smith, Kayanase’s administrative team lead.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge embraces a holistic approach that considers the interrelationship between all of an ecosystem’s plants and animals.
Photo courtesy of Kayanase

Kayanase’s history of ecological restoration in Ontario

Kayanase was launched in 2007 as one of the largest ecological restoration projects in North America. Its main purpose was to work with the City of Hamilton to help restore ecological diversity in the Red Hill Valley after the construction of the Red Valley Parkway eliminated about 14,000 trees and other native plants.

The partnership resulted in the planting of around one million trees. 

Since then, the company has grown both in scope and in operational capacity. Its 11-person team, when not in the field, works out of a 9,000-square-foot office/warehouse and a 55,000-square-foot greenhouse. 

Protecting one of Canada’s most biodiverse green spaces from climate change

Among Kayanase’s most important endeavours these days is the Six Nations Conservancy Project. The project focuses on building the company’s seed bank capacity to protect and preserve as many plant species as possible within the Carolinian Life Zone. 

It might feel logical to assume the Carolinian Life Zone lies somewhere in the Carolinas in the States. But this vital region actually consists of a swath of land in southern Ontario, stretching from Toronto to Windsor. Six Nations sits in the heart of the Carolinian zone. It's one of the smaller life zones in Canada, but it has more flora and fauna species than any other ecosystem in the country. 

There are more than 3,000 plant species native to Ontario’s Carolinian Life Zone. 

Kayanase is growing just over 300 Carolinian species in its greenhouse—and aims to grow more. The conservancy project is collecting more seeds from the region to prepare the Six Nations community for climate change.

Photo courtesy of Kayanase

Removing invasive species from the land

The Kayanase team have also embarked on a multi-year project with the Royal Botanical Gardens. The goal is to remove invasive phragmites, a non-native perennial grass that had overtaken the area.

Why does invasive species mitigation matter? “They have roots that release a chemical that kills native plants and takes over the landscape,” says Smith. “They do a lot of damage because they don’t support any wildlife.”

Invasive plants take up a large bulk of the company’s focus in the summertime. From the end of June right into November, Kayanase’s field crew works on invasive species management, removing non-native plants that have impacted the land. 

It’s a necessity that illustrates how colonization isn’t only cultural—its effects can be seen in the plants and grasses that grow and take over where they were introduced from other sources.

Last summer, the team completed mapping all the phragmites along the Six Nations’ roadsides. The project with Six Nations Public Works will eventually result in a comprehensive phragmites management plan for the area. 

Inspiring communities to get involved with environmental stewardship 

Kayanase aims to mostly hire Six Nations community member, and they encourage employees to become involved in environmental stewardship. 

Photo from Instagram

The company also employs a handful of summer students each year. Many of them have gone on to pursue post-secondary education in ecological- or horticultural-related fields. 

Kayanase inspires the broader community to think more deeply about Mother Earth through various outreach programs. They also open their greenhouse to the public from April to October to sell native plants. Some of the best sellers are native perennial flowers, which attract much-needed pollinators to gardens across the region.  

“We have Indian tobacco and a lot of native perennials. This past fall, our research horticulture technician was able to collect seed for 133 different native perennials and some grasses,” says Smith.  

The greenhouse team also promotes milkweed in the summertime, to strengthen the meadow habitats of endangered monarch butterflies.

Additionally, Kayanase has worked with Six Nations Public Works to distribute trees to community members as part of its tree replacement program. In the last six years, the company has planted more than 84,000 native plants, almost 60,000 of which were trees. 

Photo by Kevin Butz on Unsplash

Stewardship of the land is everyone’s duty

This sort of comprehensive thinking is at the heart of what Kayanase does: working to protect, conserve or restore every element of an ecosystem. 

“The land, along with the trees, plants and animals, do not stand alone but they exist as their own thriving community. When we see that community struggling, that’s where all of us can step up as stewards to help restore Mother Earth,” says Smith.

“Taking care of the land is everyone's responsibility. It's not just the responsibility of the conservationists, biologists and the ecologist. It's everyone's duty.”

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Kelly Boutsalis
Written By
Kelly Boutsalis

Kelly Boutsalis is a freelance journalist and writer from Six Nations of the Grand River. The bulk of her work is on Indigenous stories and she's been published in the New York Times, CBC, The Walrus, and more.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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