Getting to USE in Traditional Use Studies

Martin S. Weinstein
M.S. Weinstein Consulting Services
108 Croteau Road
Comox, British Columbia
Canada V9M 2P8

A paper presented to the Society for Applied Anthropology annual meeting: March 4-9, 1997 Seattle, Washington.

This paper was entitled, "Getting to Use in Traditional Use Studies", as a play on the word use. Presently, there are many undefined questions about Traditional Use Studies (TUS). The issue of use is one of the more significant. Data about aboriginal traditional use of land and resources are being documented so they can be used, in turn, within administrative programs. There are clearly two central questions here. First, what is the use that we are documenting in Traditional Use Studies? And second, how should the Traditional Use data be used? The answers to these questions are, of course, fundamentally linked. The objective is to create a database that can be used to protect traditional use.

The genre of Traditional Use Studies is an invented-in-British-Columbia, recent addition to Canadian aboriginal land use research. TUS developed from government regulatory needs following the Court of Appeal's ruling on the Delgamuukw case. The decision established that the provincial government has a fiduciary responsibility for aboriginal rights under its jurisdiction. To meet its obligation, the government of B.C. suddenly found itself with an administrative need for a body of data about First Nation land use and cultural geography. TUS was envisioned as a method to develop the database.1

Many B.C. First Nations are now involved in TUS research or contemplating it. However, there is a high degree of uncertainty about what TUS is, and about the appropriate methods to collect the necessary data. And, there is a high degree of anxiety about how to use the data to protect aboriginal rights and not to place them in further risk.

These critical questions presently have no clear answers. They need to be considered by all parties. Some of the broad-ranging discussion necessary to come up with suitable answers have already begun. For example, the TUS workshop hosted by the Sto:lo Nation in Chilliwack in November 1996, at which 40+ First Nations were represented, was an historical event in B.C. - if not the country - as a First Nation forum focused on land use research methods. In this paper I want to throw out some thoughts to further and perhaps focus some of the central questions in this important discussion.

TUS Data Use Models
To get to use, as mentioned in the title, two different questions need to be addressed: what is being protected and how are the data going to be used to protect traditional use? It is useful to start with the second question, the use of the data. There is a simple model, based on the avoidance of physical damage to specific, identified cultural sites. A logging plan, for example, can be evaluated for impacts if a cultural site database is available, and the plan altered to avoid damage to the identified sites. This is the commonly discussed model in conversations with government agency officials. Among First Nation representatives there is an apprehension that government officials have only gotten this far in thinking about the use of TUS data. The limitations in the model are obvious. Nonetheless, there is value in stating them. The simple site-avoidance model is a museum approach, rather than a solution to the use question that deals with the needs of and risks to distinctive, living cultures. Its focus is on the past, rather than on the requirements for the continuation of land and resource use in the modern world.

An appropriate model for the use of TUS data is complicated by the high diversity of First Nations in B.C. To start with there is the enormous linguistic and cultural diversity. Then there is a large range of culture and life/style change: from urban First Nations to isolated northern communities. The large diversity indicates the difficulty in coming up with a common method for documenting the geography of traditional use and for the use of the data to protect aboriginal rights. Having said this, it is important to appreciate that all B.C. First Nations have in common the use of fish and wildlife as the historic basis for their economic lives. That is a very important starting point. Much of the categories of traditional use have to do with the harvest of fish and wildlife, including seasonal residential sites and travel within territories.

The North as a starting point for developing the model
In thinking about these questions, my approach is to look to the north. Why start with the north? First, northern First Nations have seen less culture change than southern groups. Institutions and traditions still function relatively intact. For example, fish and wildlife persist as central economic resources, harvests come from traditional lands, and the organization of harvesting is based on social and cultural institutions.2

Second, northern First Nations within B.C. fall within the scope of the province's fiduciary obligations. Consequently, the appropriate TUS questions for these, and other groups which still rely on their lands and waters for food harvesting, must ask: What are the basic conditions required for continued traditional use? And what is the nature of the conflicts with the continuation of traditional use that may come from resource development?

Finally, and most important, the last twenty-five years have seen major progress in understanding the traditional land use of northern aboriginal communities in Canada and in Alaska. There is a well developed body of social science literature and the start of theory building. This body of work (much of it still in the so-called grey literature) is highly relevant to the issue of how to use TUS data in B.C.

Since the Supreme Court's Calder decision in the early 1970s, aboriginal land and resource use has been a very active field of research in the Canadian north (Brooke 1993; Weinstein 1993). Much of this research focused on resource developments and their impacts on aboriginal communities and, particularly, on the relationship of the communities with their traditional lands. Although TUS and impact assessment are different administrative tools, they have a common objective: identifying and addressing conflict. What has been learned from impact assessment has a great degree of relevance to questions of the use of TUS data.

Aboriginal land use, impact assessment, and models of social change
Aboriginal land use only recently became a field within impact assessment. It does not fit comfortably into the standard distinctions of environmental impact assessment or socio-economic impact assessment. For many present-day northern aboriginal communities there is an inextricable link between the environmental, social, and economic worlds. The connection that is most easily appreciated is the reliance of aboriginal communities on harvests of wildfood from traditional lands. The importance of sustenance or 'subsistence economies'3, as they are more commonly termed by the social scientists who study these socio-economic systems, means that for many aboriginal communities, environmental impacts may have broad socio-economic consequences.

In the past, the models used for assessing impacts to aboriginal communities from resource developments proceeded with a number of assumptions about the importance of land to native communities. The first was that the land was not significantly occupied or used. The key word, of course, is significantly. Hunting, fishing, and gathering were not considered economic activities unless production was geared to a market.

The second assumption was that land and resource harvesting would loose their importance as native societies modernized. In this view, as native communities modernized they would replace a culture based on resource harvesting with wage labour or business enterprise; and fishing and hunting would become recreational activities. The assumption tied attitudes about progress together with the notion of cultural replacement.

This model of social change is based on the European experience. Economies based on household production prior to the 19th century industrial revolution were largely replaced by wage labour and business enterprise. The model derives from historical change within agricultural societies. It does not take into account the difference between those societies and hunting/fishing cultures.

The research of the last twenty-five years, much of it resulting from aboriginal impact assessment, has shown this model of social change to be in error. Modern native experience has not conformed to the assumptions about replacement. Rather, in northern native communities, wage earners typically combine employment and resource harvesting through strategic land use and time management decisions.

To tell their own story, some aboriginal communities developed an alternative model of impact assessment (Usher 1993). Essentially, two models of impact assessment have operated for native communities facing resource development proposals (Usher and Weinstein 1991). The two models rely on different theories of social change. The assumptions discussed above are the rationale of what might be called the modernization/acculturation model. They imply an essential similarity between the impact assessment methods required for native and other Canadian communities. If the logic is followed to its completion, land use and resource harvesting conflicts need only to be addressed as recreational impacts. To this, special cultural and historical sites need to be added, to account for and protect the historical and cultural differences and values of the aboriginal communities. There are obvious parallels here to the site-protection use of TUS data.

The other model of social change, which for want of a more formal name can be called subsistence (or sustenance)/adaptation, assumes that continuing land and resource use on the traditional lands of the native group in question is a primary value for the society. The value is economic in part, but it goes beyond resource harvesting to meaning and satisfaction in life. The model also assumes that "modernization" for northern native groups includes the adaptation of food harvesting, as a socio-cultural system, to village life and wage employment.

The use of this model, obviously, goes far beyond impact assessment. The decades of research on northern aboriginal sustenance-based communities covers a broad spectrum of other purposes, from planning to health (e.g., Adelson 1992).

For TUS, and specifically for understanding the basics of traditional use, this research has great importance. What do we now understand about aboriginal land and resource use from the results of the northern subsistence studies? How does traditional use work? What are the conditions required for its operation and maintenance?

The adaptation model and the organization of traditional use
First, the results of the research on modern northern aboriginal communities says that important aspects of life for their inhabitants are organized differently than they are for most other Canadians. Most distinctive about these communities is the central role of hunting, fishing, and gathering. The cultures and their historical experience derive from an economic and spiritual relationship with animals and the environment which produces them.

Harvests of wild foods and materials represent an integration of the means and the ends in life. For the practitioners of this way-of life, sustenance harvesting connects individual activity with family and group welfare, and these in turn with a direct experience of the state of resource animal populations and of environmental quality. Resource harvesting acts as a connector between environment, communities, human history and individual and family life. It is the integrating role of sustenance harvesting that makes it so important to aboriginal communities. This has always been true, but the significance is enhanced in times of rapid social change.

The research shows that sustenance is typically organized at the household or super-household level. Both input (as labour for harvesting and distribution, and as cash for investment in equipment and for operating costs) and production (the results of the harvests) flow through linked households made up of multi-generation kinship groups. Households may have a mixture of people with regular wage labour commitments, others who are unemployed, and pensioned elders. Each contributes labour or cash. The harvest is shared as part of the household income. And some is shared with other family and friends who are outside of the household unit.

Harvesting generally occurs within a territory historically occupied by the aboriginal group. Most of the historic adaptations devised for life in northern ecosystems required dispersal on the land, seasonal movements, and gentle use. The few exceptions to dispersal were found in locations where rich and consistent fish production permitted a more settled village life-style. Hunting groups followed seasonal rounds of resource harvesting, travelling to different parts of the territory in order to have access to seasonally available resources.

The modern adaptation is based on village life. Most villages are of recent date, developed by government to provide educational and centralized services. From a sustenance point of view, the villages serve as a residential base from which harvesting groups travel to traditional land and water areas. An important consequence of the decisions to centralize aboriginal life in village communities was the removal of harvesters from their harvesting lands and a fundamental disruption of the systems of allocating and managing the resource that First Nations had devised over many generation of time.

In the past, formal or informal codes of tenure set the rules for access to resources. The formal rules of tenure used by some communities specified who could use a given territory and defined codes of behaviour for others to follow if they desired access for harvesting. In other communities the traditions specified that the land was open to all. In actual use, however, the behaviour of non-kin members indicates that there were areas of recognized kin-group interest. These codes, whether formal or informal, were fundamental to the sustainable and reasonably conflict-free use of resources.

Modern tenure and allocation arrangements are modifications of past structures. The way that communities organize territory access has gone through different changes during the middle part of the century but, for the most part, new patterns are based on the old, with some important modifications.

The creation of large common-use areas and altered rules for fur resources appear to be the most widespread changes. Following settlement in villages, areas equal to a day's travel from the village tended to become intensively used commons. Year-round residence in high-density village sites has created stress on customary access rules, which in some cases are in the process of being re-formulated.

Modern versions of tenure have often seen the development of two categories of lands: community commons within short travel distances of villages, and more distant lands on which, to varying degrees, the customary access codes and rules of tenure continue to operate.

Traditional-use decision making
Understanding the factors and process that operate in decision-making by sustenance harvesters is critical to being able to predict resource development conflicts. All of the elements discussed above play a part in decision-making.

In addition, harvest decisions have economic considerations. However, sustenance harvesting operates under different premises than commercial harvests. The objective is to supply the food and material needs of the kin group. Consequently, there is a limit to the needs, which is based on size of its distribution circle. In decision-making many factors are balanced. Need, cost, and probability of success are the most important elements.

The assessment of likely success is the realm of traditional knowledge. Harvest economies rely on a mixture of resources because the abundance of most animal and plant resources is cyclic. Three types of animal population cycles operate: seasonal, short-term, and long-term. The economies function within the complexities of these cycles and other, less predictable, changes.

Sustenance harvesters traditionally base their harvesting decision-making on an assessment of the likely catch-per-unit-effort which they expect to obtain from the available resources. This is a working area for traditional ecological knowledge. Generally, for a given resource to be of interest a certain level of abundance is required. The need for a high likelihood of success, the ability to switch from scare resources to more abundant ones, along with the awareness of the status of animal populations that constant monitoring of catch and effort provides are the main elements in the conservation formula as practised in aboriginal resource management.

The above discussion indicates that rather than being a random activity, sustenance has a high degree of complexity and sophistication. (Indeed, it is the complexity which is the basis for the fundamental integrative role of sustenance harvesting in aboriginal societies.) Rules of social organization govern resource allocation. Labour and capital are internally organized within kin harvesting groups, generally according to the norms of the cultural group and the modern experience of the particular kin group. In addition, a variety of rules influence decisions about which resources to seek. Resource abundance and the ability to harvest efficiently are key considerations.

Harvesting assessments also include considerations for food quality, and consequently of environmental quality. Sustenance harvesters routinely monitor the health of animals during butchering and processing. Fat content is an indicator both of food quality and of the general state of animal health. In some northern communities recent concerns about the health risks of consuming animals and plants contaminated with high concentrations of toxic substances (like mercury and other heavy metals, and organic contaminants) are influencing decisions about what and where to harvest (e. g. Usher et al. 1995).

Getting to theory: The requirements for sustenance harvesting
As a system, the particular shape that sustenance takes is not fixed. Where they have been studied, particular systems show high degrees of adaptability. Different hunting/fishing household economies adapt to environmental, technological, social and even to political changes. The core values and institutions persist.

The basic elements of the system consist of:

1. a natural resource base, which can be harvested and processed by people working in small groups using small-scale technology;
2. an institutional foundation, typically kin based and shaped around one or more households and influenced or guided by cultural traditions; and
3. the individuals who make the system operate, whose social and economic lives are tied to the system, and whose sense of satisfaction and meaning in life are ultimately derived from participation (Usher 1992).

All 3 of these elements are required for the continuation of sustenance as a system. Over time, change in the particular shape of these elements is possible and, in fact, expected.

"...Conditions are present for subsistence to continue as a social system" so long as:

1. the natural resource base continues to be sufficiently abundant and accessible,
2. kinship continues to be the organizing principle of production, distribution, and consumption, and
3. the material and non-material needs of its members continue to be met. (Usher 1992:5)

One further consideration is required. For the reproduction of sustenance harvesting, training in the organizational skills and environmental knowledge from one generation to the next is necessary.

Although sustenance systems have been shown to have a high degree of resilience to both social and environmental stresses, there are limits. The environment has to continue to provide fish and game abundance which is adequate for a group's particular economic strategy. If animals are not sufficiently abundant, not only will individuals not harvest, they will also not invest their time in teaching their children local knowledge and organizational skills that would enable the next generation to carry on the traditions. The same is true of animals or environment perceived to be contaminated. Sustenance harvesters expect high quality meat and water. Suspicions of contamination are generally met with abandonment of an area until the harvesters themselves see signs of recovery which are meaningful to them.

The use of TUS data
What does the above model say about the kind of information required to assess conflict with the enjoyment of an aboriginal right? First of all it is important to realize that TUS has antecedents. It is far from being in an infancy stage, as seen from the understandings discussed above that result from decades of research on northern communities. Although there are useful models of how to put this kind of data together to identify conflicts and assess impacts (e.g., Brody 1982, Usher and Weinstein 1991, Usher 1992, Weinstein 1992) there are no off-the-shelf solutions as yet. And there are many unresolved questions. With Traditional Use Studies the objective is a body of information useful for routine administrative purposes. At present, models of the cooperative administrative use of aboriginal land use data to manage conflict are lacking.

Usher (1993) draws a perceptive distinction between the political use and the technical use of aboriginal land use information. When northern aboriginal communities began doing their own impact assessment studies, they were struggling against the modernization/acculturation model of social change used in standard impact assessment. The communities undertook their research to tell their own version of the story. This is clearly a political use of data. The objective was empowerment: to have a version of the story which did not trivialize the concerns of aboriginal communities.

Getting to technical use
TUS data is intended for technical use: identify a problem and work out a technical solution. Unfortunately, we do not have a ready model for the technical use of aboriginal land use data. We have not yet gotten to the place where aboriginal communities can abandon their use of the data to tell their own version of the story to the people in power. The tensions over how the TUS data will be used feels very much like the conflict over models of impact assessment, which, in turn, came from different ideas about social change.

Three things are needed before TUS data can be used for its intended purpose: first, a fair and cooperative process; second, a model for the use of data to assess conflict; third, a method for managing identified conflicts.
Even though the full requirements for the technical use of TUS data do not presently exist, it is possible to sketch useful guidelines. The decades of learning allows us to comment about some of the fundamentals required for assessing conflict between the enjoyment of traditional use rights and resource development proposals.

First, traditional use and sustenance harvesting must be addressed as a system. It is not sufficient to present isolated facts. The data needs to fit into an explanation of how they connect to the life, culture, economics and history of the community involved. If traditional use is going to be considered as a living system, it is not enough to identify valued locations. Consideration of possible conflicts with the use of those locations is a necessary part of the assessment.

Second, assessments also need to take the past into account. Many aboriginal land use systems are under considerable stress due to a history of past conflicts and impacts. Many of these resulted from policy and local resource management decisions taken in the absence an understanding of federal and provincial fiduciary responsibility.

Third, the model for the enjoyment of land use rights sketched above says that three basic elements are required: productive natural resources, functioning institutions, and individual benefit. Although industrial resource development can effect all three, the most direct and obvious concern is to sustenance resources. Clearly, for First Nations still actively involved in sustenance as a way-of-life, a quantitative evaluation of the effects of habitat change to fish and wildlife populations and productivity is a necessary part of the technical use of TUS data. If, for example, a First Nation can specify the amount of deer or moose it needs or customarily harvests annually from traditional lands, a basic requirement in assessing the compatibility of a major habitat change event, such as a logging plan, should include an evaluation of whether the First Nation can continue their harvesting over the period of habitat regeneration.

And fourth, In addition to evaluation of habitat change on resource populations, an assessment needs to consider the details of how resources are harvested. Aboriginal harvesting is based on the use of traditional ecological knowledge. Harvesters can read a variety of signs that speak of animal presence and abundance. Techniques are based on knowledge of the details of animal behaviour and, in some instances, on knowledge of ecological associations. Harvesting operates according to cultural formulas and detailed local ecological knowledge. The accessibility of resources depends on the utility of traditional ecological knowledge and of cultural land use formulas.

Given the great diversity of First Nations in B.C., two models for the use of TUS data are needed. The simple site-specific, heritage site model is likely adequate for First Nations whose use of traditional lands for economic purposes is largely historic. For First Nations which still depend on their traditional lands for food harvesting, this model is clearly inadequate. Obviously, we need a much greater understanding of First Nation communities' present lives to tell which model is appropriate in each case. Consequently, the bare bones of cultural site mapping is not sufficient. We also need the flesh -- which tells the story about present day life and about current relations to traditional lands and how the communities got to where they are now.

With regard to the technical use of data, the site-specific model is simple enough. The site-specific model is simple because the sites come from past use patterns, and preservation is sufficient. What might be called the habitat/traditional ecological knowledge model is much more complex. Use is ongoing and the conditions of use must be understood, and then, if not supported, then at least not further stressed. In addition to the identification of sites, impacts on the productive habitat of traditional use resources need to be seen as conflicts with the enjoyment of the rights. This is a critical first step to getting to the use of Traditional Use Study data.


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Brooke, L. F. 1993. An Inventory of Mapping Projects in Connection with Aboriginal Land and Resource Use in Canada. A report prepared for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Ottawa.

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1. The only comparable example I can think of is the development of the State of Alaska's Division of Subsistence (under the Alaska Department of Fish and Game) research program. The shape of the research is different, as are the ethnicity of the rights. Nonetheless, large advances in understanding northern aboriginal communities, relevant to the considerations here, resulted from the 200+ research studies conducted by the Division of Subsistence over the past 15 years (cf. Wolfe et al. 1984; Wolfe and Walker 1987, Fall 1990).

2. This may equally be true for other B.C. First Nations. However, the critical questions have not yet been asked or the research done to establish the role of fish and wildlife harvests in contemporary societies or, more significantly, how these harvests are organized.

3. The term subsistence has had an uncomfortable history. It has a pejorative tone, implying no social benefits beyond economic survival. Subsistence also has a specific and legal use in neighbouring Alaska, where it been used to overcome any special native rights to animal harvesting. Nonetheless, the term has long and recognized use among social scientists studying northern native land and resource use.

The term sustenance appears to be the word of choice in B.C. In this paper we have conformed to B.C. practice. However, if sustenance is being used as a replacement for the way that subsistence has been used by social scientists it means much more than simply picking berries or shooting a moose. Properly speaking, if sustenance is going to replace subsistence as the word of choice, then sustenance should signify a system of land and resource use, including food production (through hunting, fishing, and plant gathering); fur production; the use of natural materials as tools, for structural purposes; and non-food resources; the distribution of the harvested resources; the consumption of the harvested foods; and the set of social relations, specific to native communities, through which the production, distribution, and consumption of these resources are organized.