PureBlue Blog

Seeking Native Knowledge: When Indigenous People Speak, Scientists Are Learning to Listen

January 22, 2019
By PureBlue Staff

Throughout the world, scientists are looking to traditional
people to grow their understanding of the natural world. Their discoveries are
helping them learn more about everything from the meltdown of Arctic ice to the
protection of fish stocks and ways to control wildfires,

From Alaska to Australia, researchers are turning to what is
known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to augment their understanding
of the natural world. This deep knowledge of a place has grown out of the
indigenous people’s familiarity with that region over thousands of years as
they adapted and observed every aspect of a place. TEK is based on generations
of observation and experience by people who depend on the land and sea for
their food, materials and culture. Each generation passes its earned wisdom on
to the one that follows.

“People have relied on this detailed knowledge for their survival,” says Arctic
researcher Henry Huntington, whose article on Traditional Ecological Knowledge
can be found
. “They have literally staked their lives on its accuracy and

Ethnobiologists, anthropologists and others have studied
this body of knowledge for years, but generally at arms’ length, not embracing
the possibility that the folk ways might be deep wisdom after all. Now, as
scientists work to better understand a world rapidly losing biodiversity in the
face of climate change, they are starting to pay attention to what anthropologist
Wade Davis, of the University of British Columbia, calls the “ethnosphere.” Davis
defines ethnosphere as the sum of all thoughts, dreams, myths, ideas,
inspirations, intuitions brought into being by human imagination since the dawn
of consciousness. “It’s a symbol of all that we are and all that we can be, as
an astonishingly inquisitive species.”

Tapping into indigenous wisdom is especially important in
places such as the Arctic where global warming is occurring twice as fast as
other parts of the world. While the scientific perspective is often different
from the traditional perspective, both have much to offer each other. Working
together is the best way to arrive at the deepest understanding of nature, Huntington
says. In the Arctic, for instance, remote sensing can detect changes, but can’t
determine what that means. The native people who make a living on the landscape
notice the dramatic changes taking place in some of the earth’s most remote
places, from reindeer migration to thawing permafrost.

Ecological anthropologist and ethnobiologist Felice Wyndham
notes that the indigenous people she works with can intimately sense the world
beyond their bodies. “It’s a form of enhanced mindfulness,” she says. “It’s
quite common, you see it in most hunter-gatherer groups … an extremely developed
skill base of cognitive agility, being able to put yourself into a viewpoint
and perspective of many creatures or objects—rocks, water, clouds.”


For more information, see Yale Environment’s excellent article: Native Knowledge: What Ecologists Are Learning from Indigenous People, by Jim Robbins. 

Henry Huntington and Nikolai I. Mymrin’s article on
Traditional Ecological Knowledge for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference can be

Anthropologist Wade Davis has several fascinating TED talks.
Start with

and enjoy some incredible photos as well.

, available on Amazon and other
outlets, concludes that despite dire circumstances, there “is no sense of doom
and gloom” among the traditional people. Give it a read for a shot of "equanimity and optimism."

Felice Wyndham writes about the creative force of linguistic
diversity and has several fascinating blogs/papers on the


Did you enjoy this article? If so, sign-up for more water innovation updates via our bi-monthly newsletter Ripples.
Sign-up for ripples
Contact PureBlue