I have had a long-standing interest in Traditional Ecological Knowledge (shortened often to TEK) and it is a topic that comes up with some frequency on SavageMinds. Paraphrasing Berkes, TEK is a body of knowledge, practice, and belief, transmitted culturally and identifying relationships between living beings and between living beings and their environment (Berkes 1999:6-8). My experience with TEK grew out of participation in TEK research projects as an applied anthropologist. Later, I developed an academic interest in critiquing the use of traditional knowledge in biological and geographical studies and in questioning the label itself; for me, conducting TEK studies created the academic interest.
Critiques of the TEK concept and its applications are not new. TEK studies can remove ‘data’ about the environment from the contexts in which it is used. TEK is noted to be a bureaucratic buzzword, particularly in places where consultation with aboriginal communities is desired or required; when such situations arise, documenting TEK is sometimes seen as the best way to engage an aboriginal community in conversations about local lands and resources. And, some have looked at the label, questioning what is meant by ‘traditional,’ ecological,’ and knowledge, particularly from the point of view of the community of people identified as users of TEK (see, for example, Nadasdy 2003; Cruikshank 1998).
With questions like these in mind, I was pleased to find Julie Cruikshank’s new book called Do Glacier’s Listen: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (2005). I respect Cruikshank’s experience with Yukon aboriginal people and her sensitive understandings of the place of TEK in relation to oral history. In the book, Cruikshank looks at glaciation in the area where British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska come together geographically. She uses evidence from oral history, traveler’s journals, geological investigations, and bureaucratic reports to develop a picture of the perspectives different cultures bring to climate change in the Western Subarctic. The subjectivities inherent in creating cultural and natural histories are explored and, in doing so, questions are raised about the production of TEK in colonial contexts and in contemporary bureaucratic processes.
Regarding TEK, Cruikshank writes:
In much of the resource management literature, there seems to be a growing consensus that indigenous knowledge exists as a kind of distinct epistemology that can be systematized and incorporated into Western management regimes … Recurring questions concern how knowledge gets identified and authorized in different contexts, and who gets to control it.
In [spaces like parks in the Southern Yukon], science and oral history are both kinds of local knowledge that share a common history. That history includes authoritative gains for one kind of formulation – science – at the expense of another (Cruikshank 2005:256-257).
I am wondering, then, about the place of TEK-research within native communities themselves, particularly as one tool in a set of options native people have for talking and interacting with non-native people. TEK studies allow discussion of traditional culture in the idiom of science, or modernization, or bureaucracy, or whatever. They allow affiliation with these processes and they allow for participation in certain kinds of discussions about lands and resources.
Likewise, participation in TEK projects permits distance from ‘traditional culture’ to be created. Communities and individuals may choose to speak ‘in TEK’ in venues where talking about local culture might be taboo, might not be possible, or might be stigmatized. TEK allows one the possibility of speaking authoritatively without sounding ‘traditional.’ Despite the perils of the term, the perils of reducing local knowledge to decontextualized facts, what are the strategically significant reasons for aboriginal groups to engage in TEK-related research?
Berkes, Fikret. 1999. Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis.
Cruikshank, Julie. 1998. The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.
Cruikshank, Julie. 2005. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Nadasdy, Paul. 2003. Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon . Vancouver: UBC Press.