Cultural Spotlight – Building fish traps, building community

Brazilian mathematics educator Marcelo C. Borba once compared the visualization of ethnomathematics to a forest ‘in which each tree would be considered as a different expression of ethnomathematics, socio-culturally produced.’

“The definition of ethnomathematics that I prefer was stated by Ubiratan D’Ambrosio, another Brazilian mathematics educator and historian of mathematics,” says Veselin Jungic, teaching professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU)’s Department of Mathematics.

He says D’Ambrosio defined ethnomathematics as the mathematics which is practiced among identifiable cultural groups, such as national-tribal societies, labour groups, children of a certain age bracket, professional classes and so on.

“I like to think about mathematics in the sense of D’Ambrosio’s definition of ethnomathematics,” Jungic says. “I like to think of the term as one that includes an extensive range of human activities, which, throughout history, have been formalized into academic mathematics.”

He says these concepts, however, also remain alive in culturally identified groups and constitute routine in their practices. Jungic’s current work uses mathematics and modern technology to create mathematical models based on certain Indigenous traditions.

“Of course, a key part of the initiative is that we work very closely and in a mutually respectful way with our Indigenous collaborators,” he says.

Stone fish traps; a longstanding tradition

Following his first project on traditional basket designs created by the Tla’amin Nation, Jungic’s latest initiative involves modelling stone fish traps.

A view of the Tla’amin Nation’s fish traps, located on the Sunshine Coast.| Photo courtesy of The Tla’amin Nation

“While talking with members of the Tla’amin Nation and through our research, we learned that across the Pacific Northwest region, First Nations used stone fish traps as a traditional way of harvesting fish,” he says, explaining that constructing these stone traps required detailed designing and planning, just like any other engineering project.

One must have a complete understanding of the trap’s location, type, shape, size and configuration before construction, the professor explains. In addition, one has to understand the periodicity of the tidal changes, the behaviour of the fish and more factors that affect the trap-building process.

“Optimization, another mathematical notion, may be used to describe some other components of this kind of project,” Jungic adds.

According to Jungic, knowing how to optimize available resources and outcomes is crucial to securing a reliable source of food for the community over a long period.

“The fish traps were sustainable ways to support a First Nation’s food supply over many decades,” he says. “Our Tla’amin collaborators shared with us recent photos that display the clearly visible remains of old fish traps on their traditional territory. The fact that these structures are still there, after many decades of general disuse, is a testament to the skill and knowledge of the ancient Tla’amin builders.”

Two-eyed seeing

Building stone traps is often a collaborative process. In the same way, many important concepts contribute to the idea behind ethnomathematics.

According to Elder Albert Marshall of the Mi’kmaw Nation, two-eyed seeing refers to the ability to see with the strength of Indigenous knowledge from one eye and see with the strength of Western knowledge from the other.

“Using these eyes together, we see for the benefit of all,” he explains.

Two-eyed seeing is also essential to Jungic’s initiative.

“Constructing such a large and important project would not be possible without having Indigenous tradition, ethnomathematics and two-eyed seeing coming together,” Jungic says.

A free online learning resource is available, in order to communicate cultural, engineering, environmental and mathematical ideas at the high school level on a global scale.

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