Strategic Uses of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

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.


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.

6 thoughts on “Strategic Uses of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

  1. Question: How old is this idea of TEK? I’m curious because this discussion reminds me of when the James Bay Cree took Quebec to court over the latter body’s invasion of their lands. Reading the court transcripts proves quite interesting, especially when the Cree’s knowledge of their land and waterways is questions in a very non-Cree way. It is also interesting with respect to how non-Aboriginal conceptions of the use of land and resources far from corresponds to Aboriginal ones. For instance, through non-Aboriginal eyes, the low population size with respect to the area of land available represented improper use or exploitation of the land. For the Cree, however, this made sense: the animals need room to travel.

    I guess what I’m wondering if this idea of TEK could have been useful in this case to help non-Aboriginals understand Aboriginal conceptions of their relationship to the land. I realise that this understanding would have not made QC back down seeins as they had $$ in their eyes through the whole ordeal but still . . .

  2. How old is the question of indigenous intellectual property rights in general? At least 1920 — check out Robert Lowie’s discussion of ‘incorporeal property’ in chaper 9 of Primitive Society: “Contrary to what might be supposed, the notion of patents or copyright is well-developed in the lower reaches of civilizaion, and its prominence among certain peoples reduces the dogma of a universal primitive communism to absurdity…”

    Also, the first chapter of Savage Mind couldn’t have been written without a long history of anthropologists sitting down with informants to elicit a list of plant names and then spending the next 8 hours writing them down.

  3. As I read Nancy’s question … which I find really useful to ask particularly in light of specific situations … I was leaning towards Rex’s concluding thought. My sense is that TEK is a relatively recent form (iteration) of what ethnoscientists were doing in the 1960s and 1970s. That work, building from Conklin’s plant research among the Hanunoo, characterized by Sturtevant, refined by Berlin and Kay in their work on colour terms, sought to identify categories of knowledge as cultural insiders understood them.

    TEK seems to have developed more recently in bureaucratic circles as a tool for consultation. (It certainly has in Canada …) I differentiate them in terms of THEIR application and use. Both orientations raise questions about the production of knowledge and the importance of and need for identifying the contexts in which elicited terms are used by insiders. Do insiders actually think in terms of lists of fish names? Or, rather, what contexts are fish names used locally, if at all?

    Finally, in terms of the Cree, Nancy points to precisely the problems with TEK. It is hard to ‘translate’ Cree knowledge of the world into court-room-eze and it appears TEK is used as a shortcut to talking in a non-native idiom without having to understand the knowledge systems in which ideas about the world were generated. Back to my question — what’s wrong with this? Anything? Or is ‘speaking-TEK’ a tool available to aboriginal people pursuing claims in non-aboriginal settings.

  4. I am interested in the relationship, if any, between TEK and other indigenous knowledge systems and the use of participatory methodologies like PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal) among applied anthropologist. As a grassroots development professional, I have been using PRA in Paraguay with rural farming communities and generating a great deal of insider knowledge and constructs with regarad to perspectives on ecology and the environment and uses of natural resources, in a historical context, past to present. It sounds to me that this would be similar to what is currently being called “indigenous knowledge” or TEK with regards to ecology and natural resource management. Any thoughts or experience on this connection?

  5. Regarding TEK in the courtroom, I refer those interested to the work of Eugene Hunn. He’s done a lot of noteworthy TEK research, and represents a sort of bridge between the evolutionary and cognitive theory in 60s/70s ethnobiology and the contemporary domain of participatory natural resource management. He’s got a chapter on Pacific Northwest (Snohomish? Salish?) fishing rights, specifically about serving in court as the anthropological interlocutor turning oral histories and fishing practices into legal precedent. Interesting point for this discussion, I think: that for the knowledge and practices of indigenous people to have standing in court they must be turned into “TEK” by a credentialed representative.

  6. Anna … PRA is a new label to me, but a quick internet search combined with your helpful characterization of the term suggests to me that PRA and TEK studies are very similar. What I don’t quite know is whether or not practitioners of PRA have created a larger research and project management framework into which TEK (studies of indigenous knowledge generally) fits as a component. I’m pleased you alerted me to the term.

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