In academic circles, the knowledge, skills, and forms of technology that indigenous people have evolved in relationship to their environments are often known as “traditional ecological knowledge,” or TEK. These systems of knowledge are deeply related to place, and often involve a holistic understanding of people as part of, or interdependent with, the natural world, rather than having dominion over it. Though practices vary from place to place and people to people, traditional ecological knowledge is central to the lives and cultures of indigenous peoples and is often handed down over generations through everyday practices, as well as stories, folklore, songs, and other traditions.
In the United States, especially if you live in the increasingly fire-ravaged western part of the country, you might be most familiar with TEK in terms of evolving discussions about wildfire mitigation. Western ecosystem management practices have historically tended to view fire as a threat – something to be avoided and extinguished at all costs. Indigenous groups in fire-prone areas, however, have long recognized that fire serves important environmental functions, and that living with, not against, fire can increase ecological resilience. Now, organizations like the US Forest Service have begun taking these forms of knowledge more seriously, and groups like the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network exist to connect Western and indigenous fire practitionersi.
The relationship of people to the environment is central to indigenous worldviews, and is reflected in social relations, religion, cosmology, architecture, infrastructure, and more. In her book Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors, Nuu-chah-nulth author Charlotte Cote notes that for her people, whales were not hunted unwillingly – a whale would offer itself as a gift to the hunter who performed proper rituals and showed the animal appropriate respect. These practices center the recognition of humans as just another part of the ecosystem, an ecosystem not to be over-exploited but treated with gratitude. In British Columbia, marine ecologists have discovered evidence of clam beds (known as loxiwey to the native Kwakwaka’wakw) that were achieving increased rates of sustainable clam harvest millennia before Western marine resource management practices came into beingii. A recent article from the Land Portal Foundation summarizes what a growing body of academic research makes clear: “Indigenous people—both historically and today—often outperform government agencies and conservation organizations at supporting biodiversity, sequestering carbon, and generating other ecological benefits on their land.iii”
In the Andes, these relationships are no less true. Some communities in mountainous parts of Peru still use the traditional technology of amunas —shallow rock canals—to capture and sustainably recirculate rainwater through the ground for use during the dry season. Lima, Peru is a desert city that faces enormous shortages in water supply each year, and recent research estimates that usage of amunas around the city could more than cover the deficitiv. In northern Peru—at least before the pandemic ravaged the country—the government had begun to embrace the ethnobotanical practices of traditional healers, or curanderos. Though deeply persecuted throughout Peru’s colonial history and into the present, curanderos’ understanding of the links between the human body and medicinal plants has led to more effective and less expensive treatments for conditions such as osteoarthritis, migraines, and obesityv. A recent academic study of the Tsimané people of lowland Bolivia found that the success of forest conservation in the area was highly related to the level of traditional ecological knowledge present across villages. The authors concluded that “the protection of indigenous cultural systems is vital and urgent to create more effective policies” for forest conservationvi.
Unfortunately, there’s often an uneasy relationship between traditional ecological knowledge and Western environmental science. First of all, many of these practices were ignored or deliberately restricted by colonial powers intent on suppressing indigenous lives and cultural systems. Now, traditional ecological knowledge is often “re-discovered” by Western scientists or policymakers when it suits existing goals or projects. Often, excitement around TEK focuses on its utility, while ignoring the deep cultural histories, connections to place, and interdependent roles of humans and nature that are central to these knowledge systems.
While it is crucial for the future of our planet that we recognize the importance of traditional ecological knowledge, it’s equally important that we don’t exploit that knowledge, and the peoples who have carried it for time immemorial, in our attempts to understand its teachings.
If you’d like to know more about traditional ecological knowledge and how it connects to Western views of science and the environment, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass is an excellent and accessible place to start.
Featured image: Members of the Makah community pull in a whale from Neah Bay, on the northwest tip of Washington state on on May 17, 1999. It was the tribe’s first whale hunt in over 70 years. Photo by Theresa Parker, from the University of Washington’s Makah Cultural Collection.
A curandera performing a limpieza in Cuenca, Ecuador: Photo by calliopejen (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenfromalaska/4200038507/), shared via CC BY-SA 2.0.
vi . https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-018-1040-0