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Shinnecock Bring Indigenous Science to Federal Ocean Policy

Shinnecock Nation shares 2017 Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Solutions, for ocean work melding indigenous traditional knowledge with science.

Long before modern science came along, Indigenous Peoples were reading the skies, ocean, marine life and tides, processing that data without technology. After contact, Euro-centric methods supplanted the ancient ways of gathering and testing information. But in recent decades, the power of indigenous knowledge has cropped up again and again, as science finds itself coming to many of the same conclusions in the lab that Indigenous Peoples had done over millennia.

Everyone from academics to researchers to government officials is increasingly turning to such traditional knowledge as science corroborates what Indigenous Peoples learned long ago. The Shinnecock Nation and Pamunkey Tribe are working with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body, which recently shared the 2017 Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Solutions, for a partnership “whose collaborations with tribes, states, federal agencies, and fishery management councils are finding new ways to value indigenous science, respect tribal sovereignty and protect our ocean,” according to the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

“We’ve made assertions that have been accepted, that the best available data includes traditional knowledge, includes indigenous science,” said Kelsey Leonard, the Shinnecock Nation member who serves on the regional planning body. “It’s really revolutionizing the way in which decisions are made and who gets a seat at the table, and creating a space for indigenous knowledge holders to be respected in these governing processes.”


The award went to three programs working with state, federal and tribal agencies “to better understand, map and make use of our public seas for all citizens,” said the website of the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards, which according to the Shinnecock are the “Oscars” of ocean conservation prizes. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body shared the award with the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Planning Team and the Northeast Regional Planning Body, two other agencies dedicated to sustainable oceans. The groups are gathering and correlating data to better understand the functioning of marine ecosystems. With this knowledge they are helping develop public policy on managing ocean resources. The collaboration is bringing in data that in the past have not been included in ocean studies—such as indigenous marine knowledge transmitted via oral history—and “are enabling us for the first time ever to make smarter, better coordinated planning decisions for long-term enhancement of our shared ocean resources, including fisheries stocks, transportation channels, and the leasing, permitting and development of offshore energy projects,” the Benchley site said.

Other winners included Indonesia’s Minister of Marine Affairs, Susi Pudjiastuti, for Excellence in National Stewardship, and U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Brian Schatz, for Excellence in Policy. The Southampton, NY–based Shinnecock Nation formed part of the team known as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body, one of five entities created by the federal government in 2010 throughout the U.S. to devise management strategies for on- and offshore coastal areas.

“This collaborative project has shown that the bridge between Western science and indigenous science can be achieved through principles of open data sharing if carried out in a culturally responsive and respectful manner,” the Shinnecock said in a statement after being presented with the award in May.

Some indigenous knowledge is part of oral history that is not laid out qualitatively the way modern science would do it. Thus, the Shinnecock’s first task was to identify data that were not being collected, such as expertise in tribal aquaculture, and feed the information into the plan. The Shinnecock’s role in the prize-winning plan was mainly facilitated by Leonard, who shared the stage with the other recipients at the May 11 ceremony.

“As a planning body, we are really at the forefront of creating solutions to how the world manages and plans for ocean resources and ocean uses,” Leonard told Indian Country Media Network. “And I think a large part of that excellence is the fact that this is the first time that tribes and indigenous nations have an equitable, participatory role in that decision-making process.”

Kelsey Leonard, Shinnecock, speaks as part of a team winning the 2017 Peter Benchley Ocean Awards for Excellence in Solutions.

Kelsey Leonard, Shinnecock, speaks as part of a team winning the 2017 Peter Benchley Ocean Awards for Excellence in Solutions.

Indigenous traditional knowledge of the oceans, coastlines and marine life, gathered over millennia, constitutes scientific evidence just as much as something discovered in the lab. Where indigenous science is not valued as such, Leonard said, “it’s just such a missed opportunity for a new level of shared innovation to build more resilient communities.”

There are more than 140 laws in U.S. dealing with ocean and marine resources, Leonard noted, and 40 federal agencies have some arm of their jurisdiction or mission related to ocean governance and resource management. Yet few of them mention tribal governments or nations, Leonard said. Part of the goal of the regional planning bodies was to weave the piecemeal efforts of those laws into a cohesive, overarching policy, Leonard said.

Just including tribes in the decision-making process is a major step, Leonard said. Tribes have more often been excluded from the decision-making process. Also overlooked—until now—was examination of the reasons that people like the Shinnecock were on the front lines of climate change to begin with, Leonard said.

For instance in one initiative, the planning body is to superimpose current floodplain maps atop outlines of reservation land and indigenous territories to show the quality of land that Natives were removed to.

“It’s not a coincidence that many of the tribal nations on the seaboard were pushed to areas that are in the floodplains—that are below sea level,” Leonard said. “Prior to colonization we knew which way the sea would go. And so we would adapt to our environment. We had summer fishing villages and winter sites.”

Relegated to the Shinnecock Reservation, “that level of mobility has been denied to us,” Leonard said, making it imperative “to show that indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change and sea level rise because of where we’ve been forced to live.”

Left to right: Bob Labelle, Federal Co-Lead; Laura McKay, State Co-Lead; Kelsey Leonard, Shinnecock, Tribal Co-Lead; Gwynne Schultz, State Co-Lead, winners of the 2017 Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Solutions.

Left to right: Bob Labelle, Federal Co-Lead; Laura McKay, State Co-Lead; Kelsey Leonard, Shinnecock, Tribal Co-Lead; Gwynne Schultz, State Co-Lead, winners of the 2017 Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Solutions.

The other regional planning bodies are for the West Coast, the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean. All grew out of the National Ocean Policy, created by Executive Order in July 2010, with the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan going into effect April 2013. Each body was tasked with developing a plan for how states, feds, tribes would coordinate for protection of America’s coasts. The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic bodies have created and certified their plans—the first to do so.

“So the work that we’ve done as tribal nations in these ocean action plans is unprecedented and the first of its kind,” Leonard said, adding that this group can set an example for best practices in how tribes can participate in planning bodies in an equitable manner that respects tribal sovereignty.

“We’ve been able to secure tribal sovereignty in the ocean for the governance of ocean resources now and in the future,” she said. “And these are living documents. We’re securing a place for tribal nations to continue having equity in the decision-making process.”

One example of how this played out on the ground was in including tribal knowledge as data, equal to what was ascertained via modern scientific methods. Since decisions should be data-driven, it behooves planners to include everything, Leonard noted. It’s in this context that tribal knowledge comes into play.

They are currently identifying gaps that could be filled in with indigenous knowledge of tribal aquaculture, and identification of heritage sites so as to, for example, prevent offshore wind farms from being built through canoe routes. Creating zones of notification would require parties to notify tribes of something happening in their traditional waters.

Leonard sees this inclusion as a turning point in the way Indigenous Peoples are perceived in the scientific world.

“We’ve had some growing pains where there’s often a desire by non-indigenous entities to want to define indigenous science,” Leonard said.

But the tribal co-leads pointed out that since there is no definition of “science” within the documents related to Western science, why have one for “indigenous science”?

“Really trying to have there be parity in our discussions has been a challenge, but also an achievement in bringing these two streams of knowledge together,” Leonard said, adding that she sees their work as a potential example to the world on how to work with indigenous communities.

“Each of these three groups has produced landmark ocean plans that will benefit all users and provide excellent models for other states and regions to engage in smart ocean planning,” the Benchley site said of all the award winners. “Ultimately, they are proving that securing our ocean future in a collaborative way is not only possible, but also the best way forward.”