Exploring Ethical Space with Gwen Bridge & James Rattling Leaf


Sep 7, 2023


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In this conversation, our Associate Director of Trainings, Sarah Sunu talks to our partners, Gwen Bridge and James Rattling Leaf, about the practice of Ethical Space, a powerful conceptual framework designed to support the reconciliation of Indigenous and western world views. They share how our partnership came to be, why this work matters, and how you can incorporating Ethical Space into your work with Indigenous Peoples. Full transcript below.


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This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

James Rattling Leaf: Hau mitakuyepi, cante waste nape ciyuzapelo. 

Hello friends. My name is James Rattling Leaf. I am a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and today I greet you from my heart with a handshake.

Sarah Sunu: Thank you so much, James, for that wonderful introduction. We’re here to talk about Ethical Space. 


Gwen Bridge: Hello, Tanisi. My name is Gwen Bridge. I’m a member of the Saddle Lake Cree out of northern Alberta, Canada, and I am a consultant who is working across North America now on really building out these opportunities for improved dialogue and relationships between Indigenous peoples and their non-Indigenous partners through a mechanism and a framework called Ethical Space. I’m so thrilled to be here today. Thank you COMPASS, for inviting me to partake in this conversation. 

JRL: I am James Rattling Leaf. I am principal of Wolakota Lab. It’s a consultant company, which has a mission to serve as a guide and inspiration to organizations to work more effectively with Indigenous people for a more equitable world. And I appreciate the opportunity to be with you today to have this conversation about Ethical Space and how we build better relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people for the betterment of our world. Looking forward to our conversation today. Thank you.

SS: And I’m Sarah Sunu. I am Associate Director of Trainings for COMPASS Science Communication and I’m really excited to be here with Gwen and James today. I’m speaking from the city of Seattle, Washington, on Indigenous land and waters of Coast Salish peoples who have sovereign, inherent and reserved treaty rights. I really appreciate the opportunity.

It’s been a privilege to get to partner with Gwen and James on some of this work. I’m really looking forward to sharing more about it today. 

So first, we’d like to open up by talking a little bit about, what is Ethical Space? It’s starting to get more traction as a term, but it’s still not super familiar. So, Gwen, I know you’ve been thinking and working on this for a long time. Can you share more about the Ethical Space framework and what it incorporates and entails?

GB: Sure, Sarah. I was first inspired to start framing the work that I was doing in developing productive and mutualistic relationships between Indigenous peoples and other levels of government and organizations and companies and things like that since about 2018, where I came across a talk by Reg Crowshoe, who had written a document which is a wonderful foundational document called Voices of Understanding, published by the Alberta Energy Regulator here in Alberta, Canada.

Reg introduced this concept of Ethical Space, which overlaid on the work that I had been doing to build these relationships, utilizing the laws and mechanisms, policies and procedures of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations to reach agreement about certain topics, particularly land and natural resource management decisions and discussions and plans and regimes. I have a background in hydrology and so most of my career has been focused around the relationships necessary to support Indigenous and collaborative decision making on Indigenous territories.

So it really provided the ability to think through some of the challenges that we have when we’re dealing with these important decisions about the livelihoods and cultural sustainability of Indigenous nations on their territory. 

Ethical Space is predicated on two main principles. That’s what I came away with when I heard Reg speak. These principles are one, that we have to bring forward into this space of collaboration what’s important to be understood from our sort of cultural side, from our sets of principles, protocols, laws, etc. — whatever is important to be understood by the other party needs to be brought forward by the party who is in those relationships. So for me, that important principle really caused me to delve deeper into those questions about what is important to be understood from the Indigenous worldview and begin to bring that forward.

Reg’s second point is that once those things are brought forward in an understandable way, understood by the other party, then we get to create something new. And for me, this was the compelling element of Ethical Space and still provides sort of the opportunity to co-develop visions about how things should unfold, to get creative and think about the possibilities that we can build based on this deeper understanding of these two unique worldviews.

SS: Thank you, Gwen. And James, I know that you’ve been doing this work as well. And how did you come to Ethical Space and is there anything else you’d like to emphasize from that? 

JRL: Well, that is a great introduction certainly to Ethical Space and I cannot top that. But what I would say is that, you know, I met Gwen in her work about three years ago. I was beginning to learn for the first time what Ethical Space is. And right away I thought that was, and is continuing to be, and will be an important part of the work that I want to do and have been doing for over 20 years. And that’s been really working on Tribal engagement, working with organizations who want to work better with Indigenous peoples, Tribal governments, Tribal colleges and Tribal students.

So I think I see Ethical Space as a new era, primarily now here in 2023. We have such a great interest in Tribal affairs now, in Tribal cultures, and how do we move relationships forward. And I really believe the Ethical Space is that framework to do that work in meaningful ways. And I think that our partnership has been about not only learning the theoretical framework of Ethical Space and what that means, but also to move into the operationalization—well, look at that!—of Ethical Space and I think as we move forward in that operationalization of Ethical Space, we’re going to be learning a lot of how to do this work. And it’s going to take, it’s going to take practitioners, it’s going to take experience, but also it’s going to take, I think, open minds, open hearts to move in this new direction.

And I’m really excited and looking forward to continuing to work through this capacity development approach, like workshops, but also how do we bring this into the management, into visioning, and into sustainability as well. So I’m looking forward to growing in understanding how we apply Ethical Space to real world problems, right? Real problems that people face today, like climate change.

So I think these are great opportunities for us today to apply these kinds of new frameworks together — co-produced — between us as Indigenous people and our allies. 

SS: Yeah, I think one of the things that really drew me to Ethical Space when you all introduced me to the concept was the idea of co-creating a future together. So there are a couple key concepts that I’ve learned about through hearing from you all about Ethical Space that I’d really like to hear more from you on because I think they’re so foundational: the ideas of reconciliation and reciprocity. I wonder if you could expand on those a little bit. 

GB: So reconciliation is fundamentally the resolution of conflict if you look at the dictionary definition. And here in Canada, there’s been a lot of movement and a lot of inclusion in the lexicon of this notion of reconciliation. I think it’s important to ground it in its fundamental meaning, as in the resolution of conflict. 

So the question when we’re thinking about the work that we’re doing in Ethical Spaces is: what is at conflict? Where are the points of conflict? Right? And so really thinking through all of the layers of our conditioning and assumptions to understand where those differences begin and where they emerge and how they shape our behavior and how laws are derived from different ways of viewing the world. 

In the case of Indigenous and non-Indigenous examples, most of the time there is a sort of real difference in the way that natural resource decisions are made, right? In Western eyes, we believe that humans have decision making authority over the natural resource, over the world, over natural resources. That’s a deeply held assumption that’s not often questioned within the systems that are designed to deal with these types of questions, like environmental assessment processes. 

On the Indigenous side, oftentimes it’s not the humans who are provided the delegated authority from the creator to make decisions. It is the earth elements, the animals and plants themselves, which actually determine what should happen on the land base. And humans follow these kinds of things. So in terms of sort of the root of the conflict, that’s really a fundamental difference in terms of how human decision making over natural resources is thought about within the two societies. 

And so the question for reconciliation is, can we come to a conversation where we’re thinking about what it means to reconcile human decision making authority versus non-human decision making authority? 

So oftentimes in reconciliation we end up with sort of spatial or topical questions which are designed to resolve particular issues like, you know, should we cut down a forest or should we leave it so you can use it for cultural uses, right? But that’s a symptom of an underlying difference of decision making authority. 

So when we peel back the onion, if you will, to those more fundamental layers, the question about how we resolve that conflict within Ethical Space presents very deep challenges because as I mentioned before, we’re really beginning to question where we are in the world, who we are in the world, our levels of commitment to this process, because it means that we’re on both sides exploring these assumptions, which we have sort of deeply held onto without questioning for some time.

JRL: When I think about reconciliation, you know, I do think about what’s happening in our world today when it comes to dealing with the past, dealing with what happened in terms of people and particularly Indigenous people. So I look at this as an Indigenous person, I’m looking at it through my lens as Indigenous person, and I know there have been many movements now here recently really beginning to bring awareness to the issues like land, land sessions, stolen lands and cultural appropriation. And many of those real complex kinds of things have come about now. And since there’s, you know, greater opportunities now through platforms like social media, that information, you know, that content can get out now very quickly around the world. And what I see is that, you know, we have these opportunities, again to come together as people and to begin to deal with the past.

And how do we do that? How do we acknowledge those things? Because they’re very difficult things. You know, when I hear about reconciliation, people do want to talk about that, or reparations and those kinds of concepts — how do we deal with the past? How do we make it better? How do we, you know, create equity and those kinds of things? Right? And I’m thinking, I don’t know. Because it’s very hard. You know, it’s like pulling sort of the, you know, the Band-Aid off the cut again. For so many years, Indigenous people have suffered these injustices. And now that we want to talk about them again — we wanted to talk about them before, but nobody listened. But now I think people are listening.

And I think we have an opportunity now, you know, to address these things, to redress them somehow. And I think those are the big issues I think that affect all Indigenous people. I think ‘how do we go forward’ is our question for us. And I think that we have to do that together. And I think that this work of workshops and bringing things like Ethical Space together to try to create an environment, a safe environment for people to talk, for people to listen.

And I think, in those two things, will come those ideas of how to heal, but also how to go forward. And even if there are things to make right—economically or land, land return—I think those are happening. People are talking about them now for the first time. So to me, it’s a very important time in the history of our planet where these issues now are coming forward.

And I do think that reciprocity is also a good concept, you know, because it does require both people. There’s equity, there is equality there. And when something happens that there’s an expectation of return, just like when we, in my culture, Lakota people, when we provided something, gifted somebody or did something on behalf of something, there was an expectation that something would come back to that person. You didn’t go into that expecting it, but you know that culturally you would get something in return. And so there was a balance there. There was a harmony that reciprocity addressed. And I think that’s what we’re looking for. And we have a concept in Lakota culture called Wolakota. It’s the same kind of idea about how do we create balance, how do we create peace, how do we build relationships with one another that’s built upon an element of reconciliation, but also thoroughly built on reciprocity?

SS: Yes. And I think that sets me up nicely for the next question, because I think that seeing the need for this kind of work and for support for people who want to do it right through workshops, through trainings, through conversations, is part of what inspired this partnership to start with and the workshops that have come from that. I’d love to have us take a little bit of time to talk about the work we’ve been doing together and what makes it special. I think there’s some elements of it that are really unique, and it’d be great to hear a little bit more from you both about those.

JRL: You know, for me, I think one of the important elements of our workshops together, is that it is together. We worked hard to co-produce it, co-develop it together between COMPASS and Gwen and I. So that’s number one. I think a number two is that there is a need for this. We’re not doing it during this workshop because it makes us feel good or, or make a whole bunch of money or for the notoriety of it.

No, there’s a real need for this work and there’s a real need for these kinds of trainings. And there’s really a need for this kind of leadership. I think the third point I want to make about this is that, you know, we’re open and COMPASS have been open in our and our funders and our partners are open to bringing in new ideas. And one of the new ideas was the Indigenous Advisory Council. And so we were able to put together seven or eight Indigenous elders from North America to join us on these virtual webinars. And as elders, they were technology savvy enough to do it. And so our participants had a chance to interact with them, to listen to them, and ask questions of them.

And I think in those dialogues, if you will, I thought a lot of good things were shared. There was humor, there was laughter which made these workshops, I think, good, because, you know, we’re human beings. So when it comes down to it and so how do we create an environment for learning to take place? How do we transform ourselves and others around us, our organizations to be more open, to be more resilient, to be more adaptable to the changes that we’re seeing today in the world? 

And also how do we prepare ourselves for new opportunities to come? And I think organizations like COMPASS and us, you know, we were forward thinking. And I think that, you know, these kinds of workshops are very relevant, and I think that’s a strength of them, is that we have a team, we have different different cultures involved, we have different ideas involved, but somehow we bring it together and we have a cogent agenda.

We have, I think, important topics to talk about. And we really think we have people who really care about this work. And I think that’s the fundamental thing that has to happen. We got to care about this work, I think, for it to make a change. And so that’s how I see this workshop and this partnership, why it came together, why it matters, and what we hope to do now and in the future.

GB: I think that what makes us really unique is that this is an offering by two practitioners in this space who have been doing this work of praxis, right? Like the developing of ideas and the applying of it, the learning from it. And, you know, frankly, James has been dragging me kicking and screaming into doing training work and to share the work and knowledge that I’ve been gaining over my career, right, with other people, because it’s so important to provide examples of how this stuff works, right?

We have the theoretical constructs, but we also have the deep knowledge of people who are, not trainers per se, but who need to share the experience and the work that we’ve been doing to improve these relationships, learning along the way, sharing lessons and sharing opportunities and sharing, you know, excellent outcomes. It’s really grounded in this practice. And as James said, right, it’s really needed. So it’s finally I finally acquiesced and said, okay, yes, we’ll go and share this. And it was really with COMPASS who sort of kickstarted the framework for me to be able to think through how to develop training curriculum, which was really meeting the needs of people who are advancing into this space.

And so we’ve really designed it to sort of move through the sequential steps, if you will. So it’s not overwhelming to begin to be able to see yourself doing this work, to build skills and knowledge, to be able to do this work. And so we’re so happy to be guides along with this space based on our experience and things like that.

And another thing that makes it special is that James and I were involved in a training about a year and a couple of months ago where there were there was an evaluation firm, an Indigenous evaluation firm out of Canada, and they did an evaluation of the training and they said that there’s nothing like this in North America. This is a really unique training.

There are certainly practitioners in Ethical Space and I think this is sort of making that leap for me from a practitioner into a trainer, is a really important place for people to be able to share because a lot of the work is hard, it’s busy, it’s intense, right? And so people really need to be — well, I needed to be,  with James’s support and COMPASS’s support — really sort of conscientious about carving out the ability to be able to take time to share with others and to help move, as James says in his introduction, as guides through the development of these way better relationships. So it’s a lot of wonderfulness coming together in these workshops.

SS: I’m glad that I and COMPASS have been able to help make that shift from practitioner to trainer a little a little easier and hopefully more enjoyable, Gwen. But yes, it’s been really valuable.  And for our part, I think in addition to just the knowledge and expertise and and experiences that you all bring to this, it’s it’s so needed for the scientists and the science professionals that we work with who are really interested in traditional ecological knowledge, who are interested in being better partners with Indigenous communities, both in terms of management and also I think in terms of data gathering. But there’s just a lot that you need to do and to prepare yourself to do this work well and in a better way than it’s been done in the past because it has not always been done in a good way in the past. And so we’re just really glad and grateful for the opportunity to bring this to the folks that we work with who are really eager to have it. So thank you. 

GB: You’re welcome. And I would just say that when we’re talking about traditional ecological knowledge, I mean, one of the momentums for scientists, a lot of them and others are to begin to more deeply understand the nature of understanding. Right? And I think that that’s a really often underestimated challenge for scientists who are thinking about what traditional ecological knowledge means to their work, what traditional ecological knowledge means sort of full stop, and then, of course, what traditional ecological knowledge means from the Indigenous perspective.

So we’re really having conversations about that. Some of my scientific colleagues said, you know, we’d really like to understand traditional ecological knowledge and one of the things that we share through this workshop is that the journey towards understanding a completely sort of different way of relating to the world through different authoritative structures, through different spiritual understandings, through different processes and protocols of relationships is, I would say, beyond a lifetimes of work. But the commitment is there from audiences and the process, you know, they say a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. And so we’re hoping that these workshops really illuminate some of those steps that we feel are really important to begin with when people seek to gain deeper understanding. 

SS: I’m also going to invite James to say something about data sovereignty, if you’d like to James, because that is hand in hand with traditional ecological knowledge and some of the other elements of the space where science and Indigenous communities and governments and the land intersect. 

JRL: Data sovereignty is a very important concept, a very important challenge, and a very important issue in particular for all of us who live in an open science, open data society now, where everything wants to be open, shareable, reproducible and those kinds of things, which I understand. But many First Nations, Tribes, Indigenous people around the world have had experiences  — and mostly negative — with researchers who would appropriate data and information on Tribal people and share it inappropriately, share against their will and without any kind of necessary protections or policies or safeguards that were put in place, even before the work began. So there was a genesis for why data sovereignty is what it is today.

And increasingly more and more of our Indigenous people are becoming data scientists and are becoming data practitioners and recognize not only the usefulness and power of data, but also the safeguards of data, in particular data related to Tribal cultures about sort of the spiritual aspect, sacred places that we still have, we still honor and still practice in our country today — and as well around the world.

So data sovereignty again is built upon this idea again that like other Tribal sovereignty issues, is the Tribes having the authority and ability and wherewithal to manage their own data and how they want to do it, whether it’s collection or whether it’s distribution, dissemination, archival and protection. There is a movement within our country here in America to really understand and develop policies to protect Tribal data sovereignty.

And I think even greater is the understanding and awareness from organizations of why even Tribal data sovereignty matters. In particular, I’m part of a major national data center called ESIIL, which is the Environmental Science and Innovation Inclusion Lab. It’s a $22 million five-year NSF funded project and I get to serve as the Tribal Liaison for that center. And one of my tasks is to help guide and shepherd a Tribal data sovereignty policy for the center.

And so that’s going to be a tremendous challenge. And for us, for me, again, what does that look like? You know, like federal dollars, like from NSF? You know, can we protect Tribal data sovereignty with our Tribal partners? So these are opening up a lot of deeper, deeper questions, how we do this work with Tribes. And I think they’re good. This is a good thing, even though we may not understand it completely, just like A.I., we don’t understand it completely. But there’s something about it, right, that we have to confront. I think we have to understand and we have to make sure that we do this work together with Tribes, that those things are in place to protect the Tribes, because that’s how you only build partnerships.

You know, it’s good data, good partnerships. Those kinds of things are very important. That and how we think about it in terms of not only our workshops together with COMPASS, but again, how we’re taking those best practices around the country who are using Tribal data sovereignty and applying it into their research, into their projects online, offline, all those all those things.

So it’s an exciting time in a way that Tribes are really strengthening their infrastructure, their Tribal court system, their Tribal policies, their trust relationship with the federal government. All those things are coming to bear now in how we think about Tribal data sovereignty. So let’s make that part of our understanding of working with Tribes to make that part of the curriculum that we need to all understand. And then how do we practice it as well? 

SS: To wrap things up a little bit, I’d like to hear from you. What are your hopes for this work? And that could be in kind of the narrow ‘our partnership and what we’re doing’ sense, but also in the big broad, like what is the legacy that we’re leaving through this work and anything in between? 

GB: I think that James mentioned it earlier that people are now listening to First Nations and there’s been so much work that’s been done by our ancestors, people in this space, you know, who have toiled and died to continue to make sure that these issues, these challenges, these opportunities were not forgotten. 

And it’s taken, you know, how many hundreds of years since the advent of the imposition of colonialism in Canada and U.S. for these levels of government to begin to think about what it would mean to reframe their understanding of whose land this is and how it came to be this way, and what assertions were made in the progress and the growth of these new colonies to, you know, that enabled the enrichment of so many. Right? And this is not to sort of say, you know, positioning about, you know, all the bad things that happened. Certainly there’s a lot — it’s a it’s an acknowledgment that the opportunities we have now and that the work that we’re doing is built upon all of that and people never giving up, even in the face of all of this oppression and genocide in Canada. We have acknowledged genocide of Indigenous peoples. 

And so, you know, this is just one — I see in my place, my role is one small step in advancing the continuation of not being forgotten. Right? And if we can begin to advance some of the wonderful ideas and people who are part of Indigenous communities to improve our relations, to improve land management — we know that Indigenous people, for example, manage land better across the world, right? Five percent of Indigenous peoples control or have within their managed territories 80% of the world’s biodiversity. 

So even from an ecological, a sort of global sustainability perspective, the importance of listening to Indigenous people is paramount and people are beginning to recognize that all over. It is wonderful. And so we’re able to advance these conversations, build upon them and just continue to be able to do work that’s meaningful. Work in building relationships with you and with others is significant and for me, very profound. But I just wanted to acknowledge that it’s just a tiny little step in all of the work that’s come before and all the work that will follow. 

JRL: Thank you, Gwen, for acknowledging the ancestors and all those who’ve gone before us, not only the Indigenous people, but all people. Those people who, you know, sought a better world for our children and our grandchildren. Myself, being a grandfather now going on two years, you know, I think about, you know, the future more and more, about what kind of world my two [grandkids] are going to inherit. And what can I do? 

What can I do today that’s going to help them and help all children, including yours, Sarah, in terms of living in a better world and that they have opportunities to fully become human and to practice and live what they’re supposed to be. 

As was said earlier, there is a role, important role for Indigenous people around the world to take us into a new era in terms of how we work with the land, work with the water, work with the air, and work with all those things that are living.

And we still have those Tribal philosophies today. The Lakota people, my people, we still believe and still practice those big global concepts about our connection, our relationship to the world. Now we have these very powerful two words, and we say, “Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ” (All my relations). When you have something like that, it’s a constant reminder again about our place not only in the world but also in the universe, and that we’re responsible. We’re responsible to those around us. We’re responsible to today, to those in the past and also to the future. 

You know, to think seven generations ahead is a big, big idea again. But I’ve seen that term again be used more and more. My thought, my next thought would be is are we doing that as a people? Are we thinking seven generations ahead in terms of how we make decisions? So it’s going to take all of us, right? It’s going to take all of us to do this work. No matter if you’re a high level decision maker or you’re a person — you’re a mother, you’re a father, grandmother, grandfather, you all have a role today to play in advancing good things for our planet.

And now that we can have things like these collaborative platforms using the internet, we can reach the world now in so many different ways. And my hope is that there are good ways and it’s going to make a difference in each person’s life, and education is part of that, right? We want opportunities. And so all this is connected. The work we do with COMPASS, the work with workshops, even the power of our prayers and our ceremonies when we do this work — all matters. And so I would say that we hold on to that. We believe in that. And we have, again, the responsibility to carry these things forward. Again, that’s up to us today.

SS: My hope for this work is that it helps us to change our relationships both with each other and with all of the life in the world around us, because it’s really clear from how things are going that that’s so necessary. And especially for those of us coming from a Western view, there’s a lot to learn and a lot that we have not absorbed that is really, really important, especially if we want to have that shared, co-created future where everyone can thrive and all life on earth can thrive. And that’s really what I’m interested in. 

I want that future for my kids and your kids and all the kids. And this work is a really important part of realizing that future, I think. And so I’m really glad and grateful to be part of it. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. And so I’m excited to welcome others to join us and do that work with us in our Ethical Space workshops in the future too.

GB: We hope you’ll all join us and we welcome you. And we really love the opportunity to get to know you, to share your experiences and to build something together that will really help us in all of our works and in all of our lives. So hopefully see you soon!


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