Traditional Knowledge

Traditional Knowledge and Science in Decision Making
Poster | Study Information

BOEM’s predecessor agency, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), first started discussing traditional knowledge in 1995 when the Alaska Office met with the newly formed Alaska Native Science Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to share views and explore how to effectively incorporate traditional knowledge into government decisions. The Alaska Native Peoples expressed concern that their knowledge about the natural environment was not incorporated into agency decisions, and other comments highlighted that, in general, government agencies were not utilizing traditional knowledge on the basis that it was not validated by agency-funded scientific studies. In 1996, the Alaska Office held a series of roundtable discussions with other Federal agencies to discuss traditional knowledge and increase coordination.

Since then, BOEM and its predecessors have taken steps to access, understand, and incorporate traditional knowledge to improve environmental analyses, scientific research, and decisions. BOEM strives to treat traditional and scientific knowledge as complementary knowledge systems. The Bureau has learned that using both perspectives can provide a more complete understanding of the environment and result in better management decisions. Today, BOEM applies traditional knowledge from four primary sources: tribal consultations, public comments, scientific research, and collaborations with indigenous communities.

What is Traditional knowledge?

Traditional knowledge can be defined as a body of evolving practical knowledge based on observations and personal experience of indigenous residents over an extensive time period. It can be described as information based on the experiences of a people passed down from generation to generation. It includes extensive understanding of environmental interrelationships and can provide a framework for determining how resources are used and shared.

BOEM acknowledges that traditional knowledge is the following:

  • Holistic
  • Local and highly contextual
  • Shared through kinship that promotes survival and well-being
  • Dynamic rather than rigid
  • Based on experience
  • More than a collection of observations
  • An important sociocultural component that anchors community values and can be part of a community’s spiritual and cultural identity
  • A framework that emphasizes a fundamental sense of unity in which people are viewed as part of the environment.

Why is Traditional Knowledge Important to BOEM’s Mission?

Traditional knowledge can help BOEM scientists and policymakers better understand the environment and potential impacts of activities BOEM manages in offshore waters. In turn, this directly enhances BOEM’s ability to manage energy and mineral resources on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) in a more environmentally and economically responsible way. Traditional knowledge can be incorporated into BOEM’s environmental analyses, scientific research studies, or decisions. BOEM’s approach has evolved into applying traditional knowledge at all stages in the decision-making process (see diagrams on the Traditional Knowledge and Science in Decision-Making poster for more information). Traditional knowledge now informs scientific research, planning for lease sales, and environmental impact analyses.

Where Do We Find Traditional Knowledge?

Sources for traditional knowledge include written ethnographies, oral histories, interviews with Elders, land-use inventories, archived transcripts and recordings, public hearing testimony, local media, scientific meetings, subsistence harvest surveys, and more. At public meetings, BOEM receives traditional knowledge in written letters and verbal comments. In preparation for environmental analyses, BOEM scientists review social science publications for traditional knowledge findings and incorporate this research where appropriate. BOEM also receives traditional knowledge through its government-to-government relationships with federally recognized Native American and Alaska Native Tribes and through consultations with Native Hawaiian Organizations and other non-federally recognized indigenous communities. BOEM formally consults with tribal leaders to hear their advice and concerns and gather traditional knowledge.

How Do We Use Traditional Knowledge in the Decision Process?

Incorporating traditional knowledge improves decision-making through more complete and inclusive information and increases involvement of people in resource management decisions that may affect their way of life. Even after decisions have been made, BOEM continues to use traditional knowledge through an adaptive process of monitoring, collecting, and analyzing additional knowledge, allowing for adjustments to management decisions when appropriate (see diagrams on the Traditional Knowledge and Science in Decision-Making poster for more information on BOEM’s process).

BOEM has learned that applying traditional knowledge makes decision-making more inclusive by generating understanding and acceptance among a wider group of partners while also enhancing respect for, and understanding of, indigenous perspectives and ways of life by scientists, resource managers, and decision-makers.

In Alaska, BOEM has established a unique and valuable dialogue with the people of the North Slope. This dialogue has led to an awareness among BOEM and its partners about the important role traditional knowledge can play in expanding mutual understanding and addressing areas of potential conflict. Through this dialogue and awareness, BOEM was able to participate in fostering agreement between whalers and the oil and gas industry to develop a conflict resolution process. BOEM and its partners frequently discuss issues of concern and work toward implementing measures that may address potential impacts to subsistence whaling.

In the Pacific Region, BOEM has worked with Native Hawaiian communities and Native American Tribes along the West Coast to develop consultation best practices that integrate traditional knowledge into a cultural landscape approach. Indigenous communities hold a unique breadth and depth of understanding of the landscape(s) to which they are connected. Using landscape as the unit of understanding, a cultural landscape approach combines science with historical, archaeological, and traditional knowledge to ensure a full coverage of interest areas. It provides an opportunity to present a holistic understanding of a place and its resources from the perspectives of potentially affected indigenous communities. Best practices developed through these independent efforts are almost identical and demonstrate their applicability for all indigenous communities and regulatory agencies.

An Ongoing Process

BOEM has received feedback from traditional knowledge holders about how to advance communication and collaboration. These suggestions encourage BOEM to focus less on how to incorporate traditional knowledge in analyses, and more on the process of how to come together on the concept of traditional knowledge by looking at ourselves in more human terms and less at how we label one another. Several means were suggested for BOEM to pursue: (1) partner with individuals who understand both traditional and non-traditional cultures; (2) improve two-way communications skills; (3) develop intercultural-awareness programs, so we can see how our respective cultural perceptions influence how we look at the world; (4) develop protocols to guide cross-cultural engagements; and (5) ensure scientific research is designed to be cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, and gender balanced. BOEM also looks to other organizations for advice and best practices, and refers to guidance in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and from the West Coast Ocean Tribal Caucus on Guidance and Responsibilities for Effective Tribal Consultation, Communication, and Engagement.