Traditional Knowledge

On January 23, 1996, the Alaska OCS Region of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management began a series of roundtable discussions on traditional knowledge. As part of an ongoing coordination effort among Federal agencies, the Alaska Region brought together representatives from the Forest Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Park Service, National Biological Survey, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management to discuss how to incorporate traditional knowledge into Federal decision documents.

A consistent comment the bureau had received in outreach and public-participation meetings was that traditional knowledge from Native observations of the natural environment was not incorporated into agency decisions. More specifically, the Natives believe that their traditional information was not utilized because it was not validated by "Western" science. In hopes of finding a way to better use this store of knowledge, the agency brought its sister federal agencies together to focus on traditional knowledge

What is traditional knowledge?

Traditional knowledge is also referred to as indigenous knowledge, indigenous ecological knowledge, traditional ecological knowledge, and local knowledge.

Noted author Barry Lopez defined it as "vast and particular knowledge . . . garnered from hundreds of years of . . . patient interrogation of the landscape."

Canada’s Traditional Knowledge Working Group stated that " . . . traditional knowledge of northern aboriginal peoples has roots based firmly in the northern landscape and a land-based life experience of thousands of years. Traditional knowledge offers a view of the world, aspirations, and an avenue to truth different from those held by nonaboriginal people whose knowledge is based largely on European philosophies."

Tom Albert, biologist for Alaska’s North Slope Borough, defined traditional knowledge as "information about the natural world from generations of observations by Native people who could be killed if they acted on wrong information. With this in mind there is a strong tendency for traditional knowledge to lean toward the truth."

Ellen Bielawski, anthropologist and former director of the Alaska Chapter of Keeper of the Treasures has said simply that traditional knowledge is "practical strategies -- what’s worked and what hasn’t."

Polarizing perspectives frame traditional knowledge and Western science as incommensurable, i.e., traditional knowledge is anecdotal, unsystematic, highly localized, cannot observe across migratory pathways and nonempirical in its key, explanatory framework; while western science is fragmentary, fails to understand ecological relations, relies only on numerical data and ignores intuition. Both systems have broadly overlapping zones of information based on empirical observation; both have their empirical and non-empirical domains.

In both the traditional knowledge and Western-science systems, much of the accumulated knowledge is derived from empirical observation. Traditional knowledge is frequently the aggregate of many generations, gathered in oral form. Western science relies on the natural systems. Instead, observation is often comparatively short-term. For the gatherers of traditional knowledge, non-empirical elements are openly spiritual and give foundation for an ethical system of behavior between humans and animals. For Western science, the non-empirical elements are more subtle. BOEM's traditional knowledge round table showed much room for self-reflection, humility, tentativeness, and willingness to learn on the part of both gatherers of traditional knowledge and Western science advocates.

Where do we find Traditional Knowledge?

It has been suggested that Federal agencies have yet to engage in a broad and systematic collection of traditional knowledge. Instead, much of our ability to benefit from this information comes from being able to identify it within the context of diffuse public testimony. Consideration of traditional knowledge is built into the Federal subsistence management program. The opposition between traditional knowledge and Western science comes up very often, and Federal agencies are continuously facing this problem and finding new ways to integrate the two systems. We have come a long way from the time when "anecdotal" accounts were scorned.

To administer subsistence activities on Federal lands in Alaska, the Fish and Wildlife Service established 10 regional subsistence advisory councils representing 10 areas of Alaska. Members are subsistence users and respected leaders in their communities. Frequently they are bearers of traditional knowledge who also can work in the context of western science. Biologists and anthropologists serving as technical support to the regional councils are coming to understand that traditional knowledge is an indispensable component of environmental information. There is less surprise when traditional knowledge turns out to be right about an issue. The learning process continues between western-style scientists and managers and Native Alaskan subsistence users.

For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service has cooperative agreements in place with Native regional associations. The main purposes of these cooperative agreements are to allow for community-based harvest surveys and to promote cooperative management. Both of these purposes foster and even necessitate a respect for traditional knowledge. A basic assumption is that tribal associations are in a better position to discover and report traditional knowledge than government agencies.

Sources for traditional knowledge include written ethnographies, oral histories, interviews, land-use inventories, archived transcripts and recordings, public hearing testimony, "hanging out" in Native communities, local media, scientific meetings, subsistence questionnaires, and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) Office’s 14 h (1) collection housed at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. BOEM has recently initiated a 3-year cooperative agreement with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence, with major components for gathering ethnographies and oral histories in Alaskan coastal communities.

Protocol is a problem regarding the "ethical guidelines for research," as well as the growing initiatives by Native governments to have a hand in research design, research participation and collection, and the ownership of research data. The primary task of the Alaska Native Science Commission is to develop protocols on how research is conducted in Native communities that ensure the protection of indigenous cultures, as well as the protection of  traditional knowledge as intellectual property.

How do we use Traditional Knowledge in the decision process?

Native leaders have suggested that BOEM focus less on the goal of how to incorporate traditional knowledge in our analyses and more on the process of how to come together on the concept of traditional knowledge, to look at ourselves in more human terms and less at how we label ourselves. Several means were suggested for BOEM to pursue: (1) solicit intermediaries--a person who has a foot firmly planted in both the conventional and traditional worlds; ( 2) improve communications skills--both ways; (3) develop intercultural-awareness programs--so we can see how our respective cultural perceptions look at the world; (4) develop protocols--rules of contact, involvement, and engagement between the two cultures; and (5) develop demonstration projects--we need more research that is cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, gender balanced, and that utilizes more independent scientists.

Traditional knowledge is integrally linked to other issues. The attention to traditional knowledge by Alaska Native communities is often part of a larger debate about trust and dignity. It is critical that BOEM transcend the polarities, and openly acknowledge the potential for traditional knowledge to genuinely expand the collective understanding of natural systems. The debate about traditional knowledge is also tied to the debate over power, as it is raised in discussions of co-management regimes and ethics of research. In order for conservation efforts to integrate traditional knowledge, there must be formal institutions for power sharing--i.e., co-management, and a more resolute set of research ethics, formalizing the consent, participation, and right to research results of the affected communities. Don’t just ask for traditional knowledge to be input into Western decisions; ask for design formation as well. BOEM has integrated Inupiat Elders’ statements about sea ice, fish, birds, polar bears, marine mammals, bowhead whales, caribou, and subsistence into the text of the Beaufort Sea Sale 144 environmental impact statement and other decision documents. These statements come from lease sale public hearings and workshops conducted in North Slope Borough communities, village outreach trip report notes, synthesis meetings, and a variety of other written sources.

On June 5, 1996, the Alaska Region held its second round table discussion on traditional knowledge. In addition to the Federal agencies invited to the January 23, 1996 meeting, BOEM invited the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. Collectively, the focus was on the status of the BIA ANCSA 14(h)(1) collection and how to make this huge traditional knowledge resource more accessible to Federal and State agencies.  To assist the ANCSA Office in this task, BOEM has a cooperative agreement with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence, for them to prepare a draft protocol for inventory, indexing and cross-referencing of the collection.