Staff Editorial: The World Needs Traditional Ecological Knowledge


Early this October was Global Climate Change Week (GCCW), an international effort that encourages academic communities to raise awareness about climate change and focus on solutions to the crisis. 

The earth’s average global temperature has risen one degrees Celsius since the late 19th century and the past seven years have been particularly hot, with 2016 and 2020 tied for the warmest year on record.

If we want to reverse or slow down the effects of climate change, we should not depend on new technology and science to create quick-fixes, but rather learn from the people who have long been stewards of the environment.

Indigenous people have taken care of this land using traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) for centuries. TEK provides the basis for Native science and is centered upon the value of a sacred interconnectedness between all living beings. This principle is conveyed in the Lakota expression “mitakuye oyasin,” meaning “we are all related.”

In his research, Tewa Indian and established scholar Dr. Gregory Cajete, calls for the creation of a bridge between Western science and Native science as a solution to climate change. He defines Native science as a body of knowledge that “is very much founded on how [indigenous peoples] developed an intimate relationship with the plants, the animals, the places in which they have lived.

“It is also how the communities have integrated that knowledge within themselves, how that knowledge has been expressed in their language, their art, their music, their dance and their practical technologies for living in places in which they have evolved.”

In recent years, California has faced the most deadly wildfires in the state’s history due to droughts, and has turned to the once banned Indigenous practice of controlled burns to help manage them. Used by the Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, Miwok, Chumash and other tribes, controlled burns help clear combustible leaf litter and other debris from the forest floor and spark regeneration of nutrient-rich plants.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, TEK was also used in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Lacking data on the local species populations impacted by the spill, Federal and state authorities turned to local Indigenous communities to help with ecosystem restoration.

In recent years, the National Parks Service reported that TEK is being used to help restore and preserve the shell fish population in the Pacific Northwest by building clam gardens which help reduce ocean acidity and beach erosion while also protecting baby clams. 

Indigenous people and knowledge should be at the forefront of discussions on climate change management — and universities should include TEK in their curricula to prepare students with climate knowledge rooted in both traditional knowledge and technological sustainability. 

The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry is leading the way with its Center for Natives People and the Environment (CNPE). Founded in 2006, the center has been bridging the gap between a Western approach to environmental solutions and TEK by funding fellowships and a graduate program that focus on the principles of TEK.

TEK is becoming increasingly recognized as the way forward in stewarding the earth and addressing the climate crisis on a larger scale. Last year, the Biden Administration released a memorandum that officially acknowledges TEK and promises to incorporate it in policy decisions. 

USF often begins major events with a land acknowledgement written by a former Suquamish alumna, Calina Lawrence, but the University does not have an official acknowledgement. Formulating a collaborative land acknowledgement would follow USF’s goal to conduct intentional outreach and relationship building with the local indigenous communities. 

Plans to incorporate TEK into USF’s curriculum are slated for the next five years with an initiative led by Associate Professor Kouslaa Kessler-Mata, who holds expertise in American Indian Politics and is Tityu Tityu Northern Chumash and Yoku.

We will continue to acknowledge and voice our opinions on the progress USF makes in implementing TEK and other reparative initiatives for Indigenous communities. 

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