Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Western Science: Projections, Problems, and Potential

By Dylan Kelly

The Earth is experiencing rapid and violent transformations brought about by the actions of human beings. As we are faced with the challenges introduced by dramatic and ongoing climatic changes, many of us feel great frustration at the ignorance of our elected officials, the destructiveness of our consumption practices, and the failures of conventional western science. In many places around the world climate change is a fact of life that local communities are working hard to address. In the US, meanwhile, much of the general public has yet to accept the human responsibility for such radical changes to the earth system. In addition to dismantling the political arguments of “climate deniers,” we must also turn a critical eye on western research frameworks. The point is not to deny the usefulness of conventional research, but rather to question its perceived superiority as a way of understanding the world. In the last few decades there has been increasing acknowledgement in the scientific community of the wisdom offered by the teachings, practices, and values of indigenous communities, both past and present, around the world. This growing interest has resulted in studies of indigenous land use and management, natural resource conservation, climate change monitoring, and much more involving mutually beneficial community engagement and collaboration (Berkes 2012, Table 2.1). Grounded in thousands of years of lived experiences and stories and practices passed down through generations, indigenous and non-western worldviews offer an alternative holistic understanding of complex ecosystems. It is time for western-trained scholars to value and respectfully embrace the crucial perspective offered by different worldviews and ways of knowing. The more concentrated and narrow views in western science often miss the bigger picture, particularly when we attempt to remove humans from the systems we study or approach the process of research as impartial observers. It is imperative that researchers around the world open themselves up to different perspectives in order to face the global challenges ahead.

Below, I want to talk about the term traditional ecological knowledge, whichonlybegan appearing in academic literature in the 1980s, when some anthropologists started conducting more ethnoecological studies focused on culturally different conceptions of ecological relationships (Berkes 2012, 2-3). Gradually, individuals working in a wide variety of ecological contexts such as agriculturalists, pharmacologists, architects, and water engineers began recognizing the value of indigenous environmental knowledge (Berkes 2012, 3). Some took an issue with the word traditional, while others noted that the concept of ecological knowledge as a view that is incompatible with many indigenous understandings of the land itself.  While some scholars, activists, and researchers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, continue debating the correct terminology, the majority agree that the value of indigenous knowledge when it comes to human relations with the Earth is indisputable. Over decades of scholarly work involving local indigenous knowledge, Professor Fikret Berkes (2012, 7) of the University of Manitoba, Canada has developed a definition of traditional ecological knowledge as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment.” While a western-scientific style definition such as this cannot truly capture the totality of what some refer to as traditional ecological knowledge, Berkes draws from a wealth of experience to present a description that is digestible for scholars and scientists who have been raised and educated in western cultural spheres.

Although it is encouraging to see more people appreciating the knowledge that indigenous communities hold, it is deeply unethical to seek such knowledge without understanding the backdrop of colonialism, the histories of violence and oppression, and the contemporary challenges that indigenous populations face. Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012, 2), a Maori scholar of the University of Waikato, New Zealand calls attention to the extractive nature of much of the western research that has involved indigenous knowledge, as well as how researches often see themselves as the embodiment of the “greater good” they hope to achieve through their work. These kinds of behaviors have eroded trust between indigenous communities and western science and are a product of cultural arrogance and historical ignorance. Researchers who hope to work with indigenous communities must shed this perception of intellectual superiority and seek ways to collaborate for the benefit of everyone involved. Professor Margaret Kovach (2009, 156-157) of the University of Toronto reminds us that “add indigenous and stir” is not an appropriate approach to including indigenous knowledge in western research. The indigenous-settler dynamic is inseparable from higher education and needs to be acknowledged and reconciled for the relationship to progress. Kovach (2009, 168-173) suggests that non-indigenous academics work to decolonize their minds and hearts, know the history of indigenous people in the academy, refrain from viewing indigenous people as the exotic other, support growing indigenous scholarship, and do the relational work by truly engaging with indigenous communities.

Indigenous cultures around the world have long understood that human beings exist as a part of the larger earth system and that balance and reciprocity are necessary to sustain life over long periods of time. For example, the Wabanaki people have many stories that tell of the consequences from overconsumption and the importance of both human and non-human relations. Paul Pouliot, Sag8mo of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, provides an excellent example in his telling of the story of maple syrup (listen here) in which the mythical Wabanaki figure named Gluskabe discovers a village of people gorging themselves on syrup directly from a grove of maple trees. This overconsumption was causing the people to cease caring for themselves and their homes, so after consulting with the Creator, Gluskabe watered down the sap of the maple trees and ensured that it would only flow once a year to teach the villagers not to abuse the Creator’s gifts. In another story, Gluskabe attempts to trap all of the fish in the ocean using a weir at the mouth of a river, but is warned off by his Grandmother Woodchuck who asks, “what will our decedents in the future do to live?” (Brooks and Brooks 2010, 14). Stories like these highlight the connections between human beings and the rest of the natural world, as well as the vital importance of conscious consumption. Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013, 9) of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation writes, “For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.” Our lives and futures do depend on it, but unfortunately it has taken thousands of years and an impending crisis for western ways of knowing to begin to catch up with fundamental indigenous teachings.

The English language itself has played a significant role in holding us back. By imposing a classification system upon the world in which you are either a human or a thing, we isolate ourselves and distort our perspective to the extent that all else becomes an it or a falsely engendered he or she (Kimmerer 2013, 56-57). It is this disconnection that leads us down the path to destructive exploitation of the natural world. In our scientific approaches we focus on breaking these things down to their smallest components so that we may better understand them, but in doing so we close ourselves off from the bigger picture, from the subject itself. Kimmerer (2013, 58) and others see the need for a paradigm shift in scientific practice that changes from a study of objects to a study of subjects with agency and wisdom that is of great value to the world we share. Achieving such a shift in perception and practice is easier said than done, but a crucial step towards this goal may come in the form of vocabulary. Introducing the “grammar of animacy” to our discussions of research subjects could open the door to new conceptual models for understanding the ways in which the inhabitants of this world are all interconnected (Kimmerer 2013, 58). An important way to move forward is to encourage open dialogue between western science and indigenous knowledge, but that dialogue cannot ignore the former abuses perpetuated in the name of western science. Providing greater support for the continued development of indigenous research frameworks by (and for) indigenous scholars is crucial to the future of this relationship.


Berkes, Fikret. Sacred ecology. Routledge, 2017.

Brooks, Lisa T., and Cassandra Brooks. “The Reciprocity Principle and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.” International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies 3.2 (2010): 11-28.

Kimmerer, Robin. Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Kovach, Margaret. Indigenous methodologies: Characteristics, conversations, and contexts. University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd., 2013.

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