All posts by Tad


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.

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.
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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).
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Anthropological Identities

I was hoping that a discussion of my first post would push me to think harder about Canadian anthropology in light of American and European traditions and the comments have done that. Jesse pointed me to a fascinating article in the Canadian Journal of Sociology which sets up such intellectual disarray among Canadian sociologists (McLaughlin 2005) that I see the anthropology discussion more clearly as a debate. As Jesse notes, however, some of what McLaughlin says about Canadian sociology does resonate with discussions of Canadian anthropology; the impact of anti-Americanism, the small population in a geographically large country, are relevant to discussions of the distinctiveness of Canadian anthropology.

The question of a distinctively national anthropology in Canada can be addressed on a number of levels. Institutional links to sociology are common. A large amount of research has been conducted by scholars trained elsewhere. Anthropological support for aboriginal rights goes back to the early 1900s. These characteristics are not unique to Canada but they are emphasized here.
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Positioning Oneself in a National Anthropology

Thanks for the kind introduction, Nancy …

During a recent interview, I was asked where I thought the anthropology that I do fits within “Canadian anthropology.” It was a provocative question and one I was unprepared to receive. At times in my graduate student career, I have fancied myself familiar with the history of anthropology in Canada, but I have never spent time positioning myself in the traditions of academic anthropology in Canada. I have never felt ‘far enough along’ to do so.

In a short series of posts, I want to attempt an answer to this question and graciously accept reaction in hopes of fairing better the next time such a question is posed. But guessing that most of you do not want my biography to be the centre of this guest spot, I will try to organize my thoughts on this question around the idea of encouraging you to position yourself in your own national tradition (if one or many exist). And, perhaps more generally, I’d like to throw around interesting interview questions job seekers should be prepared to answer.
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