PureBlue Blog


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

July 13, 2018
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, Yale Environment360 reports.

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 here. “They have literally staked their lives on its accuracy and repeatability.”

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 YaleEnvironment’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 found here.

Anthropologist Wade Davis has several fascinating TED talks. Start with https://www.ted.com/talks/wade_davis_on_the_worldwide_web_of_belief_and_ritual and enjoy some incredible photos as well.

Gleb Raygorodetsky’s Archipelago of Hope: Wisdom and Resilience from the Edge of Climate Change, 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 Creative Multilingualism website. 


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