Tribal fishing areas are still actively maintained and passed from generation to generation as eagles soar overhead, Quinault Indian Tribe (WA)

The Importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) When Examining Climate Change

Samantha Chisholm Hatfield, PhD, , UCS | January 18, 2017, 5:24 pm EDT
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It all started with a simple conversation over lunch. The fuse had been lit, the spark began, and the first step had occurred in my journey, unbeknownst to me at the time. Later that day, I realized, for the first time in my life, I had experiences that were unique. And, I realized I held knowledge. Knowledge that was different from others; knowledge that went beyond the scientific or academic type, and that ran richer, deeper, more extensive. Sitting over sandwiches, sitting with culture, sitting with knowledge.

Accumulating knowledge through experience

Truth be told, it had begun much further back, as far back as I can remember, but blissfully unaware. Lunch with a friend brought it all barreling to the forefront of my destiny, and my ancestors’ wishes. I was talking with a friend about life, when he mentioned skeletal remains that had been unearthed underneath a bridge, and how the tribe had been explaining to the non-Native state and local agencies involved that the site was one of the traditional places our Native bands migrated to and from. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) was far from being on the radar for non-Native agencies at that point, and even as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act existed, the common attitude about Native Traditional Knowledges (TK) was that it was frequently discounted and dismissed.

I was infuriated at how remains and burial areas could be so flippantly desecrated, when I asked the question about taking the agencies involved to task to acknowledge our Indigenous Knowledge. I was informed that at that time, our tribe did not have a document that would convincingly show our position, and all knowledge that had been documented was brushed off as fable-like stories.

I was initially in shock, because I’d grown up continuously learning information outside of academic schooling confines. I’d never realized how much vital information I had amassed, much of it while simply playing, until it came flying back upon reflection. It reached its peak that day when I returned home to have dinner with my Mom and Dad. I listened as Dad discussed the way Native members of a committee were being brushed off by a state agency as they sat in a meeting that they’d been specifically invited to as tribal hunters and gatherers. The tribal members shared TEK about why the deer in the Western Oregon region were losing hair. Years prior to western scientific information finding an exotic lice species responsible for what is now termed Hair Loss Syndrome, Native tribal members identified the very patterns that had been noted and passed them along through a combination of TEK and TK data. My father, along with other Elders, detailed how the warming trends had allowed a surge of “bugs” to “chew” on the deer, and the massive amount of hair loss that they were all witnessing. They’d outlined the areas in Western Oregon that had been the worst hit, held knowledge collaborations with other hunters and gatherers, and shared ongoing discussions about tribal lands and the other species that were being impacted, directly and indirectly. I sat listening, as I had done so many times before, but literally stopped eating; I suddenly realized I’d reached an awareness level I’d not been at before. There, with those two seemingly innocuous conversations, it began. My journey as a scientist, but more importantly as an educator and facilitator regarding TEK and TK.

Integrating different types of knowledge

Just as with any system, applying and infusing TEK into studies and research is not a guarantee of clarified clear-cut results in a specific topic or area, and following the Indigenous community’s guidelines is imperative when working with any Indigenous tribe or community. The exploitation and theft of Native communities’ information and resources has left an indelible mark,  which must be approached with careful consideration and allowance of Indigenous oversight to sensitive material and intellectual property. The history of theft and destruction is the reason that the publication Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges (TKs) in Climate Change Initiatives was developed for protection.

Wild horses are an integral aspect of the TEK as an indicator species for the Duckwater-Shoshone tribe (NV)

Wild horses are an integral aspect of the TEK as an indicator species for the Duckwater-Shoshone tribe (NV)

Traditional Knowledges are foundational systems with which most Indigenous populations operate.  Traditional Ecological Knowledge evolves from generations of experience; a base that is incomparable in terms of the depth, breadth, and holistic perspectives that it provides for a given ecosystem. While there can be many forms of knowledge, such as Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK), Farmer’s Ecological Knowledge (FEK), Fishermen’s Knowledge (FK), TEK is often highly developed relating to traditional Indigenous areas, and can span hundreds of years back through multiple generations. In most of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon, families relied on detailed information being correct, as they lived subsistence lifestyles. Survival depended on informational accuracy, and concerted sustainability efforts. Even small environmental indicators such as squirrel behavior in the fall, or caterpillar markings, can illustrate a TEK data set that has been established and relied on for other traditional activities, such as gathering or hunting and/or fishing. Much trading occurred between all tribal systems, particularly in the Columbia Gorge at Celilo Falls, and different areas’ TEK was often shared for planning purposes. Western Oregon and Eastern Oregon have very different climate and weather patterns, but reliance on TEK information systems was vital for all Natives. Even today, more traditional aspects of cultural information rely heavily on reciprocity and sustainability aspects of TEK for maintenance of cultural traditions and traditional value systems.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is often discounted as “irrelevant” in ideologies which are based in traditional western scientific paradigms. Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte expertly articulates how western scientific assumptions discount TEK. Colonist thought processes are still prevalent, as evidenced in science curricula. Very little Indigenous information is available for students, at any level, and the lack of TEK and biases are then carried into professional realms. Working to shift this paradigm can be difficult, and daunting. As described in Paul Nadasdy’s book Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon, when Indigenous people are invited to conferences and workshop, they are expected to utilize the vocabulary and manner of western science. The invitations come with expectations of addressing one issue at a time. Each issue, or resource, is expected to be divorced from all others, which makes accuracy for TEK experts extremely difficult. TEK is holistic and the expertise regarding the ecosystem addressed, relies on interdependence behaviors of multiple species and is uniquely separate from other, even nearby, ecosystems. TEK observations, sustainability practices, and active participation in TEK resource use and management rely on information databases that can extend back hundreds of years. These long held foundations have often been exclusionary, and TEK still remains the “underdog”, if you will, in western scientific contexts.

Writing, presenting, and collaborating in traditional science areas of research and development are accompanied with challenges of TEK information systems. Because TEK research is relatively new, and due to its interdisciplinary aspect, it’s slow to be accepted and integrated into western science methodology, and funding is not as accessible as it is in other areas. I’m continuously looking for grant funding to continue my research. Increased TEK documentation that is in accordance with the aforementioned Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup (CTKW) guidelines will help contribute to the information of how climate change effects are impacting aspects of anthropogenic causes of climate change and other human impacts on the environment.

I strive to contribute information, along with other TEK scientists and Indigenous communities, to illustrate the relevant contributions that TEK has in scientific communities, and the positive impacts it has in tribal nations. I strive to help change the preconceived notion that TEK is a misnomer, and irrelevant to western scientific systems. TEK is somewhat like an outlier dataset point that, when examined and applied, can illuminate the entire context of the topic. TEK can help to clarify, enhance, and even augment knowledge that is long believed to have been studied exhaustively. When properly applied, TEK can often create a 3D approach to climate change issues presently, rather than the usual 2D regular printed paper or computer screen analyses that have been traditionally relied upon. TEK offers an integrated system of environment and timing knowledge that adds a dimension where none has been fully examined previously. It is the Indigenous science that puts faces and names in congruence with places and events, and assists in the long term assessment of what exactly is going on, by looking at long-held trends from the past.

An added dimension in studying climate change

Many scholars are, and have been, examining climate change issues from a very pragmatic and logical regimented approach that is rooted in western scientific dogmas. Everything from temperatures to land base changes, agricultural crops impacted to increased diseases that are being altered from climate change events. This logic and pragmatism provides much needed information, but difficulties arise when data is deficient in areas of human interaction with the environment, and impacts to human cultural issues. Models that are run for specific tasks cannot offer nor evaluate qualitative measures of human interaction issues such as cultural impact adaptations, traditional food set shifting, or phenology sequencing in relation to traditional cultural activities. Multiple data sets and models are run daily on issues at hand happening worldwide, lacking the insight that TEK can offer. TEK adds a holistic approach to climate change that no other data set can provide. Through the depth, breadth, and length of documented TEK and TK, there is a wealth of information that models and western science cannot reach though western science approaches alone. Human interaction and observation of the environment has been commonly relied upon for multiple generations. This type of interaction is noted in petroglyphs, and in communities FEK, FK, and LEK provide a much shorter timeframe and often a more limited dataset than Indigenous TEK, however. There is a realm of information offered that is complementary, or even new in some instances, when TEK is applied and adjusted to examine environmental events that are occurring. Dovetailing TEK and western scientific methodology can provide datasets that address climate change Impacts in an effective holistic manner, and more comprehensively illustrate human interfacing systems.

Traditional canoe of the Quinault Indian Tribe (WA)

Traditional canoe of the Quinault Indian Tribe (WA)

My 2013-2014 research work was funded through the Northwest Climate Science Center and Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, involving in-depth research with tribes in Pacific Northwest. My research examined climate change impacts to Northwest Native traditional culture and practices. My 2015 research work through generous support of the Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative extended that research to include tribes in the Great Basin region. This research involving tribes’ TEK traditional cultural adaptation responses to climate change both in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Basin brought forth new results of a time and phenology issue perceived in Native American culture that extend beyond seasonality. This newfound timing issue is based on surrounding environmental cues rather than the linear time sequencing that is common with clocks, and calendars devised from abstract time creation. Additionally encompassed are various levels of anticipated changes, with resulting adaptation response measures by Native communities. Adaptation responses included practices such as traditional food substitutions, adjusting timing sequences of hunting, gathering, fishing, or ceremonial events, or noting the changes in environmental and ecological cycles. These responses brought forth results that models and data sets could not have produced alone.

Much like analyzing tree rings for fire, disease, and flood events, TEK can offer a broader view of ecological and scientific topics researched and examined  that are localized in nature, but broad in perspective. Trends that have been documented through generations are more likely to offer detailed long term data patterns, provide tools for a better analysis, and add more comprehensive insight than stand alone western scientific methodologies. Items such as basket materials, regalia changes and fluctuations (due to materials being impacted by events such as floods, fires, or other catastrophic impacts can cause alterations and fluctuation patterns to traditional regalia and use), or even cooking and eating utensils can provide data that can be added into assessing climate change researched topics such as weather fluctuations, tree material adaptations, foods and crop impacts, any issue relating to environmental composition and the human interaction with environmental resources. Even songs, or stories that were once assumed to be merely entertainment can prove to be valuable tools in the quest to understand our changing environment and climate change events.

TEK, when applied, has been able to realize information that can clarify climate change research and analyses further, adding to the base knowledge about cycles and anticipated results, explaining certain impacts with an added depth and breadth that has been lacking in western scientific methods sans TEK. In this time of climate change uncertainty, TEK offers a tool that, can be applicable for insightful results, bridging the interdisciplinary gap that has existed within the traditional rigor of conventional scientific research. Unconventional methods are now at the forefront of addressing climate change research, information, analyses, and policy. This is one of the many ways that Traditional Knowledges can provide understanding in a rapidly changing world.

Dr. Samantha Chisholm Hatfield is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, from the Tututni Band, and is also Cherokee. She earned a Doctorate from Oregon State University in Environmental Sciences focusing on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of Siletz Tribal Members, from Oregon State University. Dr. Chisholm Hatfield’s specializations include: Indigenous TEK, tribal adaptations due to climate change, and Native culture issues. She’s worked with Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, and successfully completed a Post-Doctoral Research position with Northwest Climate Science Center. She’s spoken on the national level such as the First Stewards Symposium, National Congress of American Indians, Northwest Climate Conference, and webinars. She’s helped coordinate tribal participation for the Northwest Climate Science Center and Oregon State’s Climate Boot Camp workshops. Her dissertation has been heralded nationally by scholars as a template for TEK research, and remains a staple conversation item for academics and at workshops. She is a Native American Longhouse Advisory Board member at Oregon State University, was selected as an H.J. Andrews Forest Visiting Scholar, is actively learning Tolowa, Korean, and continues her traditional cultural practices. In her spare time she dances traditionally at pow wows, spends time with family, and is the owner of a non-profit organization that teaches the game of lacrosse to disadvantaged youth.    


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