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Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the United States: Contributions to Climate Adaptation and Natural Resource Management (Part I)

Monday, December 10, 2018
Greta Swanson

Greta Swanson

Visiting Attorney

Well before the world’s atmospheric level of carbon dioxide reached 400 ppm, residents and scientists in the Arctic were documenting dramatic changes taking place in the Arctic environment, which is warming at twice the rate as lower latitudes. The Arctic has seen loss and deterioration of summer and fall sea ice, melting of permafrost, migration of shrubby plants into the region, fires, and changes in the phenology of birds, animals, insects, and plants such that their seasonal cycles have become out of sync.

Alaska Natives developed, over millennia of making the Arctic their home, social-ecological systems that have allowed them to maintain a stable and rich culture without undermining the ecosystems on which they rely. The knowledge, social systems, and beliefs underlying these sustainable ways of living are collectively known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). In the last 50 years, the increasingly mixed nature of Native economies means that they rely on both traditional ways of living and the income and technology linked to the larger industrial society. Alaska Natives now face the challenge of applying their ever-evolving traditional ecological knowledge to adapt to their changing environment.

TEK has been defined 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.” Others prefer to call this set of knowledge, systems, and beliefs Indigenous Knowledge (IK), clearly attributing ownership to indigenous peoples and IK-holders themselves, while emphasizing its holistic, contextual character, and connection to ensuring survival over the long term within a specific environment.

LandscapeTEK can play multiple roles in the relationship between people and nature. Western scientists have sought TEK observations of nature, which provide rich local detail about ecological baselines and changes, and wildlife abundance, relationships, and behavior. This data fills gaps in scientists’ knowledge and corrects misunderstandings. Such information can contribute to environmental assessment.

TEK-based systems of management also give insight into holistic ecosystem-based management. Many natural resource managers seek to learn from traditional systems in order to exercise better stewardship over resources such as forests and wildlife. TEK can also inform multi-level, multi-stakeholder planning, such as marine spatial planning or land use planning for federal lands.

Importantly, TEK is essential to the self-determination of indigenous peoples. In the United States, the courts have recognized a right to a degree of self-determination for Native American tribes. International agreements and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples also recognize this right. The U.S. federal government has a trust relationship with tribes such that it must at a minimum consult with them before taking action that affects them. Further, through the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (1975), and the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994, the federal government supports tribes in developing their own governing systems, which include environmental and ecological management systems. Certain environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act expressly authorize the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to treat tribes as states for purposes of administering the statutes. EPA interprets several other laws to authorize tribal participation. These legal relationships support a significant role for TEK in U.S. tribes’ actions to protect their natural resources and plan for the future.

TEK in Responding to Climate Change

How can TEK aid in adapting to climate change impacts? Tribes emphasize that TEK improves the knowledge basis for making decisions in response to climate, provides a set of values and methods for scientific research, and suggests pathways for adaptation. Indigenous people engaged in traditional practices are highly attuned to changes in their environment, and can provide both local knowledge about ecosystems and ongoing observations of ecosystem shifts. Such knowledge also provides information about impacts on societies, cultures, and livelihoods. Further, sociocultural systems that rely on traditional ecological knowledge are typically adaptive to changes in the environment, making them more resilient to the further changes to come.

In the Arctic, Alaska Natives are participating in multiple initiatives to contribute to knowledge used by federal agencies about climate change in the Arctic. One example is the Atlas of Community-Based Monitoring and Indigenous Knowledge in the Arctic, a mapped compendium of community-based monitoring and indigenous knowledge projects in the Arctic. In another case, the Arctic Borderlands Ecological Knowledge Society uses local and traditional knowledge, together with scientific knowledge to monitor changes in the Porcupine Caribou herd to support co-management decisions. The Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network also relies on local observations of environmental change. LEO’s cited goals are raising awareness about climate change and other forces altering our environment, and linking communities to technical resources. LEO connects environmental experts—including local and traditional knowledge keepers, scientists, and government agencies—to document extreme weather and geological events and shifts in ecosystems—all of which have implications for community health.

It is critical that in the Arctic as elsewhere, indigenous peoples play a central role in regional efforts to adapt to a changing climate. Indigenous peoples frequently emphasize the importance of their direct participation in the decisionmaking processes to which they contribute TEK. Because Alaska Natives have mixed economic systems, it is important to take into account that climate change impacts affect not only subsistence-based livelihoods, but also the transmission of culture over time. In meeting these challenges, indigenous communities themselves must be the main directors of adaptation activities. One such approach is found in the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which, together with federal agencies, developed the 7 Generations Local Community Environmental Planning process to reflect tribal values and knowledge, including TEK.

Practical illustrations include a locally driven adaptation process for the Shaktoolik on the western coast of Alaska. Shaktoolik’s planning efforts focus on protection from increasing storm surges. In another example, in order to support Arctic Inuit communities’ traditional reliance on whale hunting and long-term storage of meat, communities are considering several options, including a technological solution to storage—solar-powered ice cellars to replace ice cellars that rely on the now melting permafrost. Hunters are also using tools such as drones to help them find the solid ice that is essential for hunting walrus and seals safely.

Beyond Climate Adaptation: TEK in Natural Resource Management

TEK informs how tribes make use of their lands and resources. Tribes shape their wildlife programs to serve traditional uses of wildlife for community subsistence and ceremonial purposes. They develop fisheries and marine mammal programs to manage resources to which they have treaty and/or statutory rights. In addition to tribal wildlife programs, many tribes manage their lands, including forests, in ways that increase biodiversity and long-term sustainability while providing access to traditional resources. For example, in addition to sustainably harvesting timber, the Yurok Tribe of California, under authorities provided by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, manages forestlands on its reservation to restore ecological diversity, provide access to traditional resources, protect salmon streams, and allow controlled burns that promote tribal uses and reduce the threat of wildfires.

TEK also contributes to federal land management. Many federal lands were historically tribal lands on which tribes accessed and managed resources and frequently contain trust resources. In certain cases, the National Park Service (NPS) has collaborated with tribes to provide access to tribal resources. In 2016, NPS promulgated a regulation to expand the opportunities in national parks for tribes to collect plant materials for traditional uses to include ceremonial or religious purposes. Under this rule in 2018, the NPS formalized a long-standing arrangement with the Tohono O’odham Nation for tribal members to collect saguaro fruit and cholla buds in Saguaro National Park. More generally, the Service’s Management Policy provides potential opportunities for cooperative conservation between tribes and the Service in parks. Tribes have had a role in managing a few NPS sites—Grand Portage National Monument, Badlands National Park-South Unit, and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.

Such programs may extend to co-management arrangements when tribes and the federal government jointly manage a protected resource. Co-management may be explicitly authorized in statute, such as in the Marine Mammal Protection Act, §119, or via other instruments. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in its 2016 Native American Policy, states that it supports the rights of tribal governments to “manage, co-manage, or collaboratively manage fish and wildlife resources.” For example, tribes co-manage the salmon harvest in the Pacific Northwest and tribal representatives sit on the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council. Tribes bring their traditional knowledge of species to co-management, enhancing understanding of biology, ecosystem relationships, and relationship to social and cultural values.

Numerous other agencies also cooperate with tribes. President Barack Obama’s declaration of Bears Ears National Monument envisaged co-management with tribes of the Monument, which originally contained land tribes deem sacred. The tribes’ proposal would have integrated TEK into land management practices in the Monument. Federal agencies are also learning from tribes in relation to resource management. In the western Klamath Mountains of Northern California, the Karuk Tribe contributes its TEK to fire management techniques and implementation both on and off reservation lands, which an environmental assessment and a fire management strategy incorporates.


These are just a few examples of the contributions that TEK is making to climate adaptation and natural resource management. As Arctic communities respond to dramatic changes to climate systems with which they have lived for millennia, TEK provides a basis for making adaptations to their social-ecological systems. TEK also serves as a basis for ecosystem-based management of tribal and federal lands that reflects tribal values. Laws and policies that require consultation, promote co-management, and support tribes’ self-determination provide a strong basis to include TEK. However, TEK contributions often occur under legal frameworks in the United States that allow for but do not mandate, or even allude to the use of TEK. To improve both natural resource management and strengthen self-determination of U.S. tribes, resource management arrangements should include TEK on a more regularized basis that provides equal opportunity for tribes to assert TEK in decisionmaking that affects them.

Interestingly, in contrast to the United States, Canada goes further in mandating the use of TEK. Part 2 of this post will explore some of the mandatory frameworks that Canada, our neighbor to the North, is implementing to include TEK in its environmental and resource decisionmaking. For further in-depth discussion, see the October 31 ELI Webinar on Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Environmental Decisionmaking.

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