The Translation of TEK

My previous post on the strategic uses of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) spawned a discussion about the history of the label and identified similar or complementary approaches to the documentation of knowledge about the land held by indigenous peoples. Adam Henne’s comment (#5) is particularly provocative. In it, he writes:

… for the knowledge and practices of indigenous people to have standing in court they must be turned into “TEK” by a credentialed representative.

This point can be extended to the application of TEK more generally – TEK studies fuel the consulting industry in places like British Columbia in large part because the government and industry want (require) the outside expert to offer information related to land use and the environment in a non-native idiom. To do so, the outside expert is often expected to ‘translate’ native ways of seeing the world into maps, reports, and databases.

This discussion encourages further critique of the uneven power relations between aboriginal peoples and governments/industry. It raises question about the direction in which information, codified as TEK, flows. As Paul Nadasdy says in his book about the Kluane of the Yukon: “[indigenous knowledge studies focus] on the incorporation of First Nations cultural elements into existing Euro-Canadian institutional contexts without ever questioning the appropriateness of such a project” (Nadasdy 2003:10). To that I’d add: ‘without questioning the possibility of such a project.’

While I feel that discussions of TEK might start conversations, I am concerned about finding ways other than the translation of knowledge to incorporate indigenous views of the world into industrial development, biological studies, land claims agreements, and other cross-cultural projects. In my own work, I aim for this by attending to the speech acts and events associated with discussion about the environment – and that probably falls short when the audience is uninformed or unreceptive to narrative data. Are there other ways to promote the dialogue without favoring one side and its goals so heavily?

(And this is my last post … thanks again to everyone at SM for the opportunity to write here over the past couple of weeks. I have an increased amount of respect for all of you and the astonishing rate of high quality and thought-provoking posts you publish.)

Bibliography

Nadasdy, Paul. 2003. Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon . Vancouver: UBC Press.

Also

Cruikshank, Julie. 1998. The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.

I am a cultural anthropologist teaching at the University of Guelph in southern Ontario, Canada. My interests are Indigenous peoples, local knowledge, and the relationships between Indigenous communities and the state within resource development contexts.

4 thoughts on “The Translation of TEK

  1. “While I feel that discussions of TEK might start conversations, I am concerned about finding ways other than the translation of knowledge to incorporate indigenous views of the world into industrial development, biological studies, land claims agreements, and other cross-cultural projects. In my own work, I aim for this by attending to the speech acts and events associated with discussion about the environment – and that probably falls short when the audience is uninformed or unreceptive to narrative data. Are there other ways to promote the dialogue without favoring one side and its goals so heavily?”

    I’m not sure if I understand this bit correctly. I *think* that what you are suggesting is that there may be ways of incorporating indigenous knowledge into these various Euro-North American projects other than “translating” the knowledge for Euro-N.Americans. On one hand, I’m curious to hear more about what these alternatives might be. On the other hand, I’m sceptical about the receptiveness of non-Natives. What proportion of non-Native scientists, politicians and other people who make decisions about various projects affecting Natives are receptive to Native forms of discourse? What proportion of them are willing to accomodate for Native worldviews about the human relationship to the environment? What proportion of them are open to ways of viewing/speaking of the environment in a way that does not consider it to be something that is not under human control? What proportion of them are willing to subvert their own end goals to accomodate the well-being of Native peoples and/or the environment?

    I’m not asking these questions to demonise bureaucrats and scientists. I’m just asking whether it is over-optimistic to expect that there would be overwhelming support for measures that would require non-Natives, many of whom are not socially or academically trained to adapt to cultural viewpoints other than the mainstream, to try to comprenend “speech acts and events associated with discussion about the environment” that derive from these other viewpoint. I guess this is what you’re getting at with “that probably falls short when the audience is uninformed or unreceptive to narrative data”.

    Is your last statement a suggestion to explore ways that Native viewpoints can be presented to non-Native project heads without appearing to threaten their own possibly profit-oriented and self-serving goals? Or am I misunderstaning you completely (which is highly possible this early in the morning as I procrastinate in the face of tons of marking)?

  2. Nancy … I couldn’t have asked the questions better, I don’t think! In trying and rework your last paragraph, I might have phrased the question this way:

    “Are there ways that Native viewpoints can be presented to non-Native project heads without sounding non-Native?” Perhaps it’s only wishful thinking … but I’d like to find ways to include native perspectives in bureaucractic projects which are more representative (?) of native perspectives, categories and knowledge. Perhaps it’s futile, given that the flow of money requires information in a certain form, but if the power imbalances inherent in development projects are to be rectified at all, the way in which the land and resources are talked about needs to change too.

    (For the Canadians in the audience particularly, a shift of this sort occurred with the Delgamuukw court decision and fall-out from that. In the final Delgamuukw decision in 1997, the Canadian Supreme Court allowed for aboriginal oral traditions to be given the weight of written evidence in the court room. This was a significant change from an earlied decision where the admissability of oral tradition was denied. Is there a possible move from TEK to something else that developers would still accept as reflecting successful consultation with native people?)

  3. Thanks Tad;

    RE: my questions. To refresh my memory to respond to this dialogue, I went back and re-read the post, then the comments. One of my questions *should* read: “What proportion of them are open to ways of viewing/speaking of the environment in a way that does not consider it to be something that is under human control?” (The original had another “not” because “under human control, which made no sense).

    RE: finding “ways to include native perspectives in bureaucractic projects which are more representative (?) of native perspectives, categories and knowledge. Perhaps it’s futile, given that the flow of money requires information in a certain form, but if the power imbalances inherent in development projects are to be rectified at all, the way in which the land and resources are talked about needs to change too.”

    I agree that this would be ideal but . . . I guess I’m pessimistic about the likelihood of this inclusiveness without direct Native involvement. It’s not usually advantageous to the “powers that be” to acknowledge the validity of worldviews that do not support the power that they are trying to maintain. If more Native people become involved in the projects, then it becomes a bit more feasible.

    We could make an analogy with the nature of political (as in governmental) discourse. What is seen as effective political discourse tends to be what I would call patriarchy-based: coercive and aggressive. The goal is to gain “victory” and to “win” a debate. At an NDP women’s meeting a couple of weeks ago, it came to light that many women are turned off by this mode of discourse because they are socialised, in general, to be more cooperative and to include listening in their discourse strategies (sociological and anthropological research supports this as far as I can remember). The result? The same mode of discourse is propagated, women keep staying out and it appears to be “natural” that men dominate politics. Were more women to become politically involved, perhaps the nature of political discourse would slowly but surely change.

    To return to the original point then: were more Natives to become involved in projects that affect them, in spite of the possibly unpalatable views and processes that are currently espoused, perhaps the processes and views involved would change with time. I hope.

    Tad, in your experience, are Native people in BC wanting to be more involved in these various sorts of process? Are they encouraged to be involved by outsiders? Are they blocked from being involved in any way?

  4. Dear All,

    I happened upon this site while looking for information to link to a research group web page and blog that I coordinate at UBC.

    In terms of TEK I would suggest there are more approches than one of ‘translation’ into something meaningfull for those outside of the Indigenous world. It is fair to say, as has been noted in the several coments and postings on this subject, that for some in the dominant society TEK exists as yet another resource waiting to be extracted.

    However, there are alternative approaches that place Indigneous kKnoweldge at the centre of a political and intelectual framework. As part of my work (i.e. academic, not paid consultancy work) with the community of Gitxaala I have been able to work with a team of people to develop what we hope are meaningful local applications of Indigenous Knowledge for meaning use in the community. An article by Caroline Butler published in the Canadian Journal of Native Education discusses some of the multiple ways that indigenous knoweldge can be deployed wihtin a community and a community-based resaerch project.

    As for the origins of TEK one might suggest that this is ultimately at the core of anthropological research if one broadly understands what we are doing as a form of investigation of local knoweldge.

    With warm regards,

    Charles Menzies

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