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Indian Time Documentable, According to Recent Study at Oregon State University

"Indian time" is a documentable, three-dimensional time telling method that is every bit as valid as the linear, chronological version: research.

A recent study conducted at Oregon State University has documented “Indian time” as a three-dimensional construct growing out of the interplay between climate and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). In other words, it’s a Thing, rather than just some made-up pejorative term bandied about by linear-thinking colonial settlers who found the Indian way of doing things incomprehensible way back when.

The results of an as-yet-unpublished study, Understanding Native Cultural Dimensions of Climate Change, suggest that the notion of Indian time is in fact founded on logic and common sense derived from triangulating climate events to create traditional knowledge.

Initially seeking to find out if Native people were altering traditional behaviors as a result of climate change, researcher Samantha Chisholm Hatfield, Ph.D. (Siletz, Cherokee) interviewed experts from the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon, the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington State, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, the Duckwater Shoshone in Nevada, and the Paiute in Utah. More specifically, Oregon State wanted to know whether tribes had noted any species depredation, and if so, how such species loss might be affecting traditional cultural activities. But the interviews yielded a lot more than the researchers anticipated, opening up new vistas for potential inquiry.

“There is an emergence of Indian time tied to environmental effects, things such as budding out of plants, insect movements, animal migration or fluctuations in their patterns of behavior,” said Chisholm Hatfield, who is nationally recognized for her TEK specialization, in an exclusive interview about the findings with Indian Country Today Media Network. “Native communities are very tied to the environment, and these behaviors are signals, an alarm clock in a sense, that comes across similarly to a calendar, and again in a very timely manner. I guess like 3-D for Native people. It’s not linear like it is for non-Native societies.”

Chisholm Hatfield said she was ecstatic upon finding a way to document what’s known as “Indian time.”

“At first I didn’t believe it,” she told ICTMN. “Indian time, it’s kind of a misnomer in Indian country, and some people use it negatively. For some it has a stereotype associated with it. But [now we] find that it can be validated, and probably where it comes from is this environmental situation that people experience.”

RELATED: A Look at Indian Time

While the original research did not target the depredation of specific species, Chisholm Hatfield and fellow researcher Philip Mote, Ph.D., a climate scientist and the study’s principal investigator, conducted semi-structured interviews and watched for patterns to emerge as a result.

“What we found is that things are essentially being put on hold or renewed in a cyclical fashion,” said Chisholm Hatfield. “It’s more of a renewal or resurgence philosophy. Here in the Northwest, certain things came up, such as salmon, eels, that sort of thing.”

Mote was astonished by the findings.

“I was indeed surprised when Sam started uncovering these more fundamentally level, identity-level perceptions of what was happening,” he told ICTMN. “That it went far beyond the visible cultural expressions, it was more something that people would talk about fairly late in the conversation and their sort of concern, or their sort of confusion, or the sense that things were being disrupted in an unprecedented way.”

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An example he found particularly interesting and illustrative was the case of eel ants.

“There’s stories that are historically linked to the emergence of the eel ant signal, the carpenter ants, that it’s time to get eeling,” he said. “Those are seasonal indicators. One of them is affected by terrestrial indicators, the other is not, and so as the spring warms and emergence of things shifts earlier, it disrupts that fundamental sense of time.”

The Siletz Tribe has a story of how to identify when it is time to go eeling. When the eel ant, commonly known as the carpenter ant, emerges in the spring, Siletz people would traditionally watch for them with specific individuals tasked with notifying the tribe and letting them know it was time to go eeling. At that time, the community would gather at the Siletz River, with the men throwing the eels onto the river bank, the boys putting the eels into sacks and handing them to the women, who would then take them to the elder women, who would fillet them. While that tradition does not continue because of the disappearance of the eels from the river, the story does. The interviewees pointed out that the emergence of the eel ant would tell them it was time to go eeling.

But the disruption of nature’s rhythms by climate change and other habitat pressures could throw those processes off balance, Mote said.

“The other major finding is that traditional knowledge being handed forward is less relevant, or that there is knowledge that is inherently born of the past and directions with nature, and informs of the paths with nature, is in a sense kind of departing because things are changing with nature,” Mote said.

Understanding those changes and working with them could allow traditional knowledge to evolve and adapt so as to keep pace with what’s happening, the researchers said. To this end, the notion that Indian time describes and measures a three-dimensional process of varied components moving in relation to one another also hit home for Mote.

“Sam was talking about the 3-D, it’s sort of about this elaborate, interesting, organic construct,” he said. “But then it’s being warped and twisted and broken because the pace of change exceeds what has been experienced in centuries, millennia.”

What is next for Oregon State and its climate change research? The team is working on additional funding to better assist more tribes in addressing areas of climate change and concerns. Chisholm Hatfield hopes that this research will result in tribes being able to recognize areas in which they are being affected by changing environmental rhythms, enabling them to preserve traditional culture in the midst of climate change effects. Her long-term goal is to create an increased awareness of the traditional ways that are being affected by climate change, and assist interaction between tribes while maintaining traditional knowledge and finding ways to cultivate it, simultaneously preventing further knowledge loss.

The researchers expressed great concern for the tribes being affected by climate change.

“If a species is moving out of the area, then they can’t hunt, if the treaty rights are only for that area, then what are they going to do?” said Chisholm Hatfield, giving an example of the consequences that tribes could soon face. “They need to be thinking, ‘How does that impact our traditional culture?’ ”

Renée Roman Nose, Cheyenne & Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, holds a Master of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) from Oregon State University.