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Traditional Knowledge Complements Modern Science

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When polar scientist Henry Huntington was studying a drop in the beluga whale population in Alaska some years ago, he and his colleagues were stumped by conversations they had with Native hunters.

The Alaska Natives were “supposed to be talking about whales, but they were talking about beavers instead and about the presence of beavers and the absence of fish species in the system,” he told his protégé, wildlife biologist Jeanne Spaur, years later.

It turned out that the beaver community was building dams that lowered the water level and blocked upstream-swimming fish that the whales liked to eat, said Spaur, a wildlife biologist and program coordinator for the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in Fort Peck, Montana. Huntington told her he would never have made a connection between beaver and beluga without that local knowledge, she said.

This is just one of the numerous ways in which traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, is shedding light on Western research, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which is placing increased emphasis on its use. The evolving, place-specific information acquired by indigenous and local peoples over many years of direct contact with the environment is proving invaluable.

“We really like the TEK program,” said Kim Greenwood, FWS Region 6 tribal liaison, noting that the program’s principles have been “used quite a bit with the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona, and in Alaska.”

She said the FWS recently hosted a program with Daniel Wildcat, a Native scholar who believes that “what the world needs today is a good dose of indigenous realism.”

Spaur herself tapped Native data in grad school in studying the black-tailed prairie dog on the Rosebud (Sicangu Lakota) Reservation in South Dakota, a process that involved “a lot of listening,” she said.

In addition to doing a random survey, she spoke at length with community members known as TEK experts. Although she promised not to disclose some of the information they provided, she said she was told that prairie dogs were “considered a very important part of healing ceremonies and were important in a lot of other ways because a lot of people survived on them.”

“One older man recalled that when he was a kid, one [prairie dog] would come up through a hole in the floor and they considered it a pet, but others they ate,” she said.

Much of the information she received was “generally related to the importance of the prairie dog both to the ecosystem and to the Lakota culture. I was told they were a respected part of the community and were part of healing.”

Examples abound of the use of TEK—Inuit hunters collaborating in research on the distribution of Hudson Bay eider in case of an oil spill, or aboriginal hunters and fishermen noticing a taste change in wildlife meat and water. The latter prompted the creation of a comprehensive environmental monitoring system in northern Manitoba that combined TEK with laboratory analysis. Comments from Yukon River subsistence users in Alaska are helping identify the impacts of climate change on fishing habitats and other resources.

“I think TEK can provide a lot of very valuable information that’s not readily accessible,” Spaur said. “It’s just as important as what mainstream science can provide. After all, people have made observations for generations—they are able to provide a lot of information that may not be available in other ways or at that level.”