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Passed down through stories, songs, and proverbs, traditional ecological knowledge is increasingly recognized as complementary and equivalent to Western science. Are we paying attention?

By Keith Bowers, Biohabitats President

Article Index

Many practitioners of ecological restoration have long assumed that our field is solely the domain of Western science. Many of the environmental challenges we face are a direct result of industrialization, most likely a product of Western science. Yet we assume that the same science that got us into our current predicament will offer us ways to set things back in balance. So where do we turn? Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) may provide many answers. For countless generations, indigenous cultures throughout the world have been developing, refining and passing down TEK knowledge and wisdom.

Many TEK experts retain a remarkably long-term view of environmental change as a result of their people having lived in the same place for many hundreds of years. For example, indigenous experts in global climate change have been tracking subtle shifts in the flora, fauna and weather patterns where they live. They notice subtle changes in the flavor of the meat from the animals they raise and hunt. They track variations in the migration patterns of birds, and changes in crop robustness. Their intimate knowledge of their land and environment, coupled with strong oral traditions that preserved knowledge from earlier times, offers insights into global climate change that Western science simply can’t replicate. TEK is a cumulative and dynamic process that builds upon collective wisdom, practical experience and adaptation to change. TEK experts typically have access to information about, for example, how past generations coped with environmental changes resulting from radical shifts in rainfall and temperature. Indigenous experts have a tremendous amount of compelling information to share with the ecological restoration community

Like many of my colleagues, I was not aware of the breadth of investigation TEK experts have engaged in to understand global climate change. My hope is that those of us who practice from a Western orientation will seek out, listen to, learn, and put into practice what our indigenous colleagues have to share with us. We need all the creative collaboration we can get to find ways to mitigate the negative effects of global climate change and promote a more life-enhancing way of existing on Earth. And while indigenous solutions may help guide Western science, scientific solutions may help local indigenous communities. The integration of TEK within the modern scientific framework has the potential to offer more stability and balance in the way we interact with the Earth.

So join us as we explore the topic of TEK. We’ll chat with Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi and plant ecologist who directs the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY School of Environmental Science and Forestry. We’ll also gain insight from Dr. Daniel Wildcat,a Euchee member of the Muskogee National of Oklahoma and faculty member at the Haskell Indian Nations University. His latest book, Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge, is an immediate and compelling call to action to address “global burning.”

We’ll also learn how indigenous wisdom is enhancing efforts to improve stormwater management at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Ecological landscape designer Jennifer Dowdell reflects on her experience studying restoration efforts of New Zealand’s indigenous Mäori people and shares some of her findings. Water resources engineer Nick Lindow tells us what can we learn about the recently discovered use of biochar by indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazon. We include a list of recommended links and resources related to TEK, and share the latest news about Biohabitats projects, places and people.

What are your thoughts about the role of TEK in the fields of ecological restoration, conservation planning and regenerative design? Let us know by sharing your thoughts on the Rhizome blog or Biohabitats’ Facebook page

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