Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Information pertaining to Traditional Ecological Knowledge methods.

Traditional Aboriginal Knowledge and Science Versus Occidental Science

Prepared by Stephen J. Augustine
 for the Biodiversity Convention Office of Environment Canada, October 1997


The intent of this paper is to stimulate enlightened discussion about the definition, mechanisms and purpose of traditional knowledge (TK) and occidental science. It aims to provide both a clearer understanding of TK from an Aboriginal perspective and a more objective view of modern science. At best, it will create a renewed approach to the environment—and possibly combine the best of both sources of knowledge—by helping to forge a new sensitivity to Native American world views.

In comparing TK and occidental science, it is important to take the following basic premises into consideration:

1)   In the same way that occidental science does not define itself in relation to TK, TK need not authenticate itself according to the criteria of occidental science. TK exists in its own right, and its intrinsic validity stems directly from survival techniques used by generations of Native Americans. These techniques have been used in harmony with the land and other living entities, and have avoided creating serious ecological damage.

2)   There is considerable confusion in mainstream society over the link between spirituality and TK, which are often viewed as the same thing. Although spirituality is a part of daily life for Aboriginal peoples, it does not, in itself, constitute TK. Aboriginal beliefs arise from Creation stories, dreams and visions, while Aboriginal knowledge is based on observation, direct experience, testing, teaching and recording in the collective memory through oral tradition, storytelling, ceremonies, and songs. This knowledge is exercised within the context of the social values and philosophies of the tribe—that the Earth and every animal, plant and rock upon it is sacred and should be treated with respect. The fact that Native science is not fragmented into specialized compartments does not mean that it is not based on rational thinking, but that it is based on the belief that all things are connected and must be considered within the context of that interrelationship. In order to maintain harmony and balance, this holistic approach gives the same importance to rational thinking as it does to spiritual beliefs and social values.

3)   Althoughthe term "science" is most often taken to mean mainstream society'sscientific community, it is important to recognize that traditionalknowledge also comprises Indigenous science. For the purposes of thispaper, mainstream science will be referred to as occidental science, and Native American science as Indigenous or Native science. Environmental knowledge is an element of TK, and follows these same principles.

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Strategies for a Living Earth: Examples from Canadian Aboriginal Communities

Prepared by Natasha Blanchet-Cohen
for the Biodiversity Convention Office, Environment Canada (1996).

Aboriginal peoples today are looking to restore and regain control over their environment. In the process, they are breaking new ground by undertaking interesting and innovative initiatives aimed at protecting biodiversity in a holistic manner.

Traditional teachings and practices play an important role in decision making, and serve as a foundation for efforts to rebuild native communities. Their ancient relationship with the land has given indigenous peoples a profound knowledge of the living earth. In the indigenous world view, all parts of the universe are interconnected. Every living creature, whether bird, animal, tree or plant, lives according to the instructions it was given by its creator. The conservation of biodiversity is an integral part of indigenous teachings.

Although native peoples have made important intellectual and technical contributions to society in such areas as food, economy, science, medicine and politics, these have gone largely unrecognized. It is only recently that international and national bodies have begun to accept that these people possess unique and invaluable knowledge about the environment and resource

Many people see economic development and biodiversity as mutually exclusive. The strategies aboriginal communities are currently pursuing to combine the two suggest that this need not be the case. Their efforts to realize sustainable development and self-sufficiency can serve as an inspiration to the rest of the world, which is urgently looking for ways to restore the harmony of the living earth.

As illustrated in the following case studies, native peoples stress the importance of putting biodiversity into a broader context— one that requires a holistic approach involving work both inside and outside the community. As such, native biodiversity programs have many components—including initiatives to heal the community, create jobs, promote the health of the ecosystem, build awareness and form new alliances— all of which are necessary to maintaining biodiversity. The fact that this formidable task is undertaken with such zeal is proof of the commitment these communities have made to regaining control over their environment.

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When All Peoples Have the Same Story, Humans will Cease to Exist: Protecting and Conserving Traditional Knowledge

A Report for the Biodiversity Convention Office
Prepared for the Dene Cultural Institute
by: Aggie Brockman
with the assistance of Barney Masuzumi and Stephen Augustine
September, 1997

Traditional Knowledge has become acknowledged in the past 20 years as having great
potential to contribute to environmental conservation and management. Biological
diversity is increasingly recognized as interdependent with cultural diversity, which in
turn relies on traditional knowledge, the cornerstone for the cultural identity of
indigenous peoples.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is a body of knowledge built up by a group of people
through generations of living in close contact with nature. Traditional Knowledge is
cumulative and dynamic. It builds upon the historic experiences of a people and adapts
to social, economic, environmental, spiritual and political change. The quantity and
quality of Traditional Knowledge differs among community members according to their
gender, age, social standing, profession and intellectual capabilities. While those
concerned about biological diversity will be most interested in knowledge about the
environment, this information must be understood in a manner which encompasses
knowledge about the cultural, economic, political and spiritual relationships with the land
(Brockman and Legat, 1995). “It provides a distinctive worldview of which outsiders are
rarely aware, and at best can only incompletely grasp” (Greaves 1996).

Defining Traditional Knowledge is the responsibility of First Nations and Inuit. It may
not be possible, or advisable for one definition to be adopted universally (Brooke 1993).
“It resists simple, abstract and objective definitions and focuses on inter-relatedness”
(Couture 1991 quoted in Friesen 1995).

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Political Anthropology of TEK in the Canadian Subarctic

Roy C. Dudgeon, M. A.

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Submitted to Crossing Boundaries, the Seventh Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, Vancouver, British Columbia. June 9-14, 1998.

This paper shall present the preliminary findings of my Ph. D. research in anthropology at the University of Manitoba. As a whole, this project is intended to describe and compare the worldviews, as systems of knowledge, of First Nations in the Canadian subarctic to that of public and private development planners, in order to better understand the ongoing disputes between the two. This preliminary paper, however, shall focus more narrowly upon the role which Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) has played in recent disputes over land use between First Nations peoples and development planners, and the manner in which they have deployed TEK in their presentations to various legal and political bodies. The methodological and theoretical approaches of the paper have been developed in my earlier writings, and are best understood through a description of the same. The methodology which the paper shall deploy was first developed in an earlier manuscript, Common Ground: Ecology & Native American Philosophy, which is currently being revised for resubmission at the request of a major Canadian academic press.

This work illustrates the many similarities linking Native American philosophies with recent ecological philosophies, and their common differences from the modern philosophy of the contemporary Western world. The methodology employed was to directly compare Western philosophical works to the literature, narratives and oratory of Native American peoples since first contact. Thus, rather than turning to ethnographic accounts of Aboriginal philosophies, as so much previous anthropology has done, it turned directly to their own literatures. This allowed for an equitable comparison of the various philosophies considered, since all were accessed in the same manner-through a comparison of primary sources.

The same methodology shall be deployed in the current paper, which shall turn to primary documents in order to reach an understanding of the role which TEK plays in land use disputes. The narratives considered shall include, though not be confined to: 1. recent presentations to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which were recorded at the RCAP's public hearings, and 2. the presentations of the Moose River/James Bay Coalition to the Environmental Assessment Board of Ontario concerning James Bay hydroelectric development. While the primary focus shall be upon the various Cree Nations of the Canadian subarctic, the views of other peoples may also be included. The theoretical framework which shall be deployed in the current paper was most fully developed in my M. A. Thesis, The Pattern Which Connects: Ecology, Anthropology & Postmodernity (York University, 1996). This work developed a theoretical orientation based upon the works of ecological anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, and discussed its significance for contemporary anthropology. Such an eco-holist approach, or postmodern science, is also closely linked to other recent schools of ecological philosophy-such as deep ecology, ecofeminism, and social ecology. Its basic insight is shared with the discipline of ecology itself-that all things are interconnected in living systems. Thus, while the current work shall focus upon the role of TEK in recent political and legal disputes and presentations, it shall not ignore the larger relationships between ideological, social and ecological systems, nor the political relationships between First Nations and development planners, and the implications of each view for ecological relationships and practices.

The objectives of the paper will be threefold, each of which builds upon the previous themes. Firstly, as noted, it shall attempt to illustrate the political role which TEK has played in recent land use disputes between development planners and First Nations peoples in the Canadian subarctic, through an examination of the public presentations made by various Aboriginal groups in order to represent their views to the larger Canadian population. This shall allow for the development of the second theme, which is a comparison of the different approaches to the "management" of common property resources on the part of the two parties. In other words, it shall allow for a comparison of the management approaches suggested by the TEK of Aboriginal groups, with the management approaches of the modern Western techno-economic view, as well as the ecological consequences which have tended to follow from the adoption and practice of each view. This section shall suggest that while TEK has more often than not lead to sustainable management of the commons, the techno-economic view has tended towards a short term, profit oriented approach, which erodes the resource base over a relatively short period of time.

Finally, with this comparison in hand, the paper shall conclude with a brief discussion and critique of "The Tragedy of the Commons," as described by Garrett Hardin. For if, as the case studies shall attempt to illustrate, we must admit both that: 1. Aboriginal and Western peoples have different worldviews which, when enacted in practice, suggest different methods of managing and interacting with the commons, and that, 2. the former practices have tended to be more sustainable, while only the latter have tended to embody the "tragedy" described by Hardin, then his arguments must be reassessed. Thus, the conclusion shall use the case studies outlined above to critique, once again, the short comings of Hardin's views, and to suggest that the tragedy in question might be more aptly dubbed "the tragedy of capitalism in a commons."