ELI Primary Menu

Skip to main content

“Every Culture Has a Science”: An Introduction to Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and Indigenous Scientific Representation

Monday, October 29, 2018

Hannah Dale

Research & Publications Intern

In the Alaskan Arctic, Inupiat hunt bearded seals for food and blubber—a tradition spanning generations, and based on hunters’ extensive knowledge of the weather, ice, seal habitats, and how to prepare and pay respects to the animal after killing it. But over the past few generations, their ability to harvest seals has been significantly affected with the warming oceans, melting ice, and changing patterns of marine animals in the Bering Sea. Last spring, hunters in Unalakleet, Alaska, could not participate in the harvest because there was little ice cover. Since seals use ice pans as a place to rest above water, reduced ice cover impedes hunters’ ability to find and hunt the animals. Inupiat worry about what these environmental changes will mean for future generations.

The activities the Inupiat undertake in harvesting bearded seals, practiced since time immemorial, contribute to an example of what researchers call traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Similarly, in Indonesia, the Dayak Iban people rely on their extensive knowledge of the land for cultural and subsistence practices in their everyday life such as identifying suitable areas for agriculture, agroforestry, hunting, dwelling, and sacred spaces. They employ crop rotation, allowing land to reforest for several years before using it again. Off the northern coast of Australia, Torres Strait Islanders use constellations to determine the best times to plant certain foods and to identify weather and seasonal patterns.

What is this concept of TEK, exactly? The West often defines TEK as a dynamic, evolving system of knowledge about indigenous societies’ local ecosystems through interactions with the environment over many years. Dennis Martinez, a Native American ecologist who works in eco-cultural restoration, also describes TEK as “a place based knowledge-belief-practice complex of ancient lineage.”

Traditional Ecological KnowledgeTEK encompasses a vast array of interconnected practices. It is borne out of a close understanding of a community’s local environment, and it is an essential adaptation strategy that incorporates indigenous societies’ resource management, culture, governance, and environmental worldviews. TEK includes pragmatic knowledge, gained over centuries of information-gathering and observation, which is invaluable in carrying out day-to-day activities spanning agricultural, hunting, and spiritual practices. TEK represents accumulated knowledge about weather, plants and animals, harvests, medicine, and related community rules and spiritual practices. While TEK regimes vary between cultures, TEK generally emphasizes sustainable resource use and a holistic understanding of environmental systems.

Although TEK systems around the world have been evolving for generations, Western researchers only became interested in learning about indigenous societies’ systems of knowledge within the last century. Researchers recognized the ecological benefits of TEK that promote landscape diversity, ecosystem resilience, and resource replenishment. These benefits encouraged researchers to explore how TEK practices could be incorporated into Western science to improve ecosystem health, including mitigating and adapting to climate change.

While this is a positive development, it is important to recognize that this tendency to “incorporate,” “integrate,” or outright ignore TEK in Western frameworks can deprive indigenous people of their own agency and power in the decisionmaking process. Indigenous people are responding by putting themselves at the forefront to fight for representation, resources, and legal recognition. For instance, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) are working with the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) to ensure that climate change policies address indigenous rights and maintain the integrity of TEK. The IIPFCC itself is a caucus of indigenous peoples that promote indigenous issues before the UNFCCC Conference of Parties. Grassroots organizations, like the Indigenous Environmental Network based in North America, also fight against environmental and industrial intrusions into indigenous land and resources. Individuals—like Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a member of the Mbororo people of Chad—are advocating for justice and solutions to climate problems. Ibrahim speaks out on environmental issues affecting her people, most notably the evaporation of Lake Chad, even addressing the U.N. at the signing of the Paris Agreement.

The inclusion of the world’s nearly 500 million indigenous people and the TEK they bring to the table will be essential to ensuring that those who are the most heavily impacted by climate change have central roles in decisionmaking processes. These individuals and organizations are committed to dismantling centuries of social and environmental injustices against indigenous people, but they continue to face challenges posed by Western frameworks of science and legal protection. For instance, Western science may reduce or dismiss TEK and indigenous peoples’ perspectives, potentially undervaluing their contribution to current environmental solutions despite growing support for the inclusion of TEK, which can further deprive indigenous people of recognition and of the legitimacy of their scientific systems and their ways of life.

ELI is engaged in the conversation on TEK and indigenous rights in environmental decisionmaking contexts, convening expert panelists in an October 31 webinar. Our panelists will explore the current status of recognizing TEK and indigenous participation in decisionmaking frameworks, indigenous rights in regard to TEK and intellectual property, and the role of TEK in contributing to a sustainable environment.


This webinar will be held on Wednesday, October 31, from 12:00 - 1:30PM. Please register by end of day October 29. The event is open to the public, but there is a fee for non-members.

Event details and RSVP information can be found here: Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Environmental Decisionmaking.

Keep updated with ELI’s blog to hear more on this topic and others from our expert attorneys.

The quote in the title of this blog comes from a BBC article about indigenous women and their use of TEK to fight for recognition and representation.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.