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OISE doctoral student strives to protect Indigenous knowledges for future generations

Indigenous Education Month spotlight: Fernanda Yanchapaxi

November 30, 2018

By Marianne Lau and Kaitlyn Balkovec


November 1 marks the start of Indigenous Education Month. Throughout this month, OISE News will spotlight Indigenous people from the OISE community who are doing work in Indigenous education. Through these conversations, we’ll explore the question: ‘How can Indigenous education advance justice for Indigenous peoples?’

Today we chat with Fernanda Yanchapaxi, a doctoral student who is researching ways to protect Indigenous knowledges for future generations.

“When I got to graduate school, I realized that traditional Indigenous knowledges are often seen as less valid than other forms of knowledge in academia,” she said.

“That is, until they are appropriated by non-Indigenous peoples who then claim the knowledge as their own.”

This prompted Yanchapaxi, who is of Indigenous (Kichwa Panzaleo) and Meztizx heritage, to dive deeper into how Indigenous peoples use, create, and preserve their knowledges, and how current intellectual property systems are inadequate for protecting these knowledges. She recently sat down with OISE News to discuss the importance of protecting Indigenous knowledges and how she hopes her research will contribute to the assertion of Indigenous sovereignty.

Tell us a little bit about your research.

My research looks at the ways in which Western intellectual property rules are unsuitable for the protection of Indigenous knowledges. As a part of this, I am interested in how these laws and regulations legitimize – even if unintentionally – colonial practices of appropriation and threatens Indigenous sovereignty.

Currently, I am looking at how researchers – while adhering to existing ethics protocols – are able to use and appropriate Indigenous knowledges for their individual or institutional benefit.

In Ecuador, it is common for non-Indigenous researchers to go into Indigenous communities to “learn”, for example, uses of a specific plant, and claim this newly learned knowledge as their own through patents, copyrights or academic authorship.

Examples such as this reveal that existing intellectual property regulations and notions of intellectual ownership embedded in ethics protocols and research practices are insufficient when it comes to protecting Indigenous knowledges – and in fact, may actually perpetuate colonial practices of appropriation among non-Indigenous researchers.

Why is this issue so important to you? 

I want to see Indigenous people be given rightful credit for their contributions and have full control over how our knowledges are accessed and used. When researchers claim Indigenous knowledges as their own, it's similar to how settlers arrived on Indigenous land and claimed ownership of it.

I feel it is vital that we protect Indigenous knowledges because they are linked to our existence, self-determination, relationship to land, and the lives of future generations. 

What motivated you to take on this research?

A couple of years ago, Ecuador approved a new intellectual property law that included a set of regulations to protect Indigenous knowledges. For the first time, this prompted Indigenous, Black, and Montuvio (from mixed Black and Indigenous ancestry) peoples to engage in a nationwide discussion about the importance of traditional knowledges and how to best protect them from misappropriation. Participating in these discussions opened my eyes to how intellectual property laws threaten the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. I feel a personal responsibility to contribute to this work because it is an issue that directly impacts the communities of I am part of and feel accountable to. 

What do you hope this work will achieve?

When Indigenous people exercise ownership, access and control over our knowledges, we are also exercising Indigenous sovereignty. From this perspective, I hope my work contributes to the assertion of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.

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