TEK Notes

Slide 1: Title  This lesson or module addresses the issue of knowledge that is acquired by examining the natural world and shows that the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Indigenous peoples is powerful and exists as a way of knowing  that can be linked to Western scientific studies of nature. Neither system is privileged or exclusive, in some cases these two traditions reveal insights that are very similar but in other areas they can lead to very different insights.

The reason I use Wolf and Raven as my exemplars for this module is that these two species have coexisted for millenia, with each making special and unique contributions to the relationship between them. They also exemplify one place in which Indigenous TEK and Western Science converge strongly in their insights. TEK holds that these two species share a strong relationship that is sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile. In a similar vein Western Scholars who have studied these species find that they are closely linked in that ravens depend upon wolves to provide food for them and that wolves also rely upon ravens as guides to sources of food. Image: http://www.mullardyoung.com/pics/wolf1

Slide 2: Raven is especially important to peoples of the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic.

In these parts of North America Raven is regraded as both a creator and a trickster, which speaks to the complex behavior of ravens, which are probably the most intelligent species of bird on the planet.

In this story of creation told by the great Haida artist Bill Reid, Raven assumes its role as creator, finding humans by breaking open a clam that it finds on the beach, and inside the clam there are strange little creatures that become the first Haida people.

For more on Bill Reid click here http://theravenscall.ca/en

For more information on Raven as creator click here

For more information on Raven, the bird click here

Slide 3: Ravens and wolves are often found together in nature because Ravens may guide wolves to prey or to carcasses and the presence of wolves at a carcass lets ravens know that it is safe to come and feed.

The quote in the slide is from the famous ecologist and student of animal behavior Bernd Heinrich, who studies ravens. Heinrich found that, given a choice, ravens prefer to join wolves at food, rather than feed on a carcass when there are no wolves around.

 For more on Bernd Heinrich and his work click here: http://www.uvm.edu/~biology/?Page=faculty/heinrich.php&SM=facultysubmenu.html

For an overly dramatic presentation of the link between raven and wolf click here

This relationship is even recognized by the Torah (sacred book) of the Jewish people, to learn more click here

For a First Nations perspective on this relationship and how it used to define their culture click here

This image The Trackers is by Arapaho artist Brent Learned and shows instruction and cooperation between human and wolf that is similar to the relationship between ravens and wolves

Slide 4: We choose to start the core of this presentation by discussing the Enlightenment, which was a major intellectual movement in Western Europe during 18th and early 19th century.  To read more about the Enlightenment and its philosophical roots click here

For a website that deals with the Enlightenment in detail click here

The Encyclopedia Brittanica defines the enlightenment as "an European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and man were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide assent and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and the celebration of reason, the power by which man understands the universe and improves his own condition. The goals of rational man were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness."

The goals of the Enlightenment were  to free humans from the narrowness of religious thought and celebrate humans. In reality it functioned to remove humans from nature and to set the scene for the Industrial Revolution and Capitalism.

Slide 5: We can seek the origins of the scientific revolution in the European re-discovery of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Aristotle entered the European Middle Ages by means of the Islamic world, which had preserved both Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy after Europe had completely forgotten it. Originally, Aristotle based knowledge on a kind of empiricism: he would investigate a question by a) examining what everyone else had said about the matter, b) making several observations, and finally, c) deriving either general or probable principles on the matter from both a and b. This method of thinking, which is the theoretical origin of empirical thought, formed the rudiments of a new revolution in human thinking in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The earliest Aristotelians were burned as heretics (in a medieval university, when they fired you, they really fired you; have you ever wondered where the expression might come from?). 

Francis Bacon: The grounds for a mechanical universe, that is, a universe that operated like a machine, was laid down by Galileo's insistence that the universe operated by predictable mathematical laws and models. In addition, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), added a key element to the genesis of the mechanical universe in his attacks on traditional knowledge. Bacon wasn't a scientist in our sense of the word, but he did take great joy in telling everybody why they were wrong. In particular, he argued that all the old systems of understanding should be abandoned: he called them idols. He believed that knowledge shouldn't be derived from books, but from experience itself. Europeans should move beyond their classics and observe all natural and human phenomena afresh. 

Slide 6: The eighteenth century was a century of mind-boggling change; when Europeans entered the nineteenth century, they lived in a world that barely resembled the beginning of the eighteenth century. In the one hundred years in between, European thought became overwhelmingly mechanistic as the natural philosophy of Isaac Newton was applied to individual, social, political, and economic life. The century saw the development of the philosophe movement,which articulated the full values of the European Enlightenment, including deism, religious tolerance, and political and economic theories that would dramatically change the face of European society. Europe itself changed from a household economy to an industrial economy. This change, perhaps one of the most earth-shattering transitions in human history, permanently altered the face of European society and the family. Finally, the century ended in revolution. The ideas of the philosophes were translated into new governments--one in France and one in America--that shook the old order down to its very roots.

Europeans were emerging from a time of ignorance and assumed that Indigenous peoples they encountered were automatically ignorant. They associated the place-based, relationship driven worldview of Native peoples as ignorance and superstition.

Slide 7: One of the major differences between these worldviews is that Indigenous peoples did not develop the idea that they should be dominant over the natural world. Instead they had come to an accommodation with nature that allowed them to live well without trying to change or dominate the nonhuman world.

Indigenous people practice what is described as an Animistic world view. Animism is not a religious or philosophical doctrine, neither is it an ‘error’ made by people too young or too primitive to know better - animism is nothing less than the fundamental mode by which human consciousness regards the world. Consciousness just is animistic. For a variety of definitions of Animism click here

This perspective is a consequence of evolutionary history. Humans evolved sophisticated brain mechanisms for dealing with the complex social situations that formed a dominant selection pressure throughout primate evolutionary history. In animistic thinking these social mechanisms are flexibly applied to interpret complex aspects of the world in general. Information on animals, plants and landscape are fed-into a system that codes them into social entities with social motivations, and models their behaviour in social terms

[The hunter gatherer child] learns that many animals have to be given water when they are killed to ensure that some of their number will be willing to die again when she and her family need food. She discovers that animals and humans must be at peace with one another. [Her language] has no words for ‘vermin’ or ‘weed’. There is no demarcation between the life of an animal and that of a human - no word for ‘it’… Bit by bit she will come to understand that the world around her is shared both among people themselves and between people and the other creatures that belong here.

Human consciousness is therefore essentially a social intelligence, designed by natural selection for dealing with people, but also highly applicable to understanding, predicting and controlling a wide range of phenomena. Unless suppressed during upbringing, this way of looking at the world is spontaneously generalised beyond the social sphere, so the significant world is seen as composed of 'agents', having dispositions, motivations and intentions. Humans see the world through social spectacles.

Slide 8: These 7 Basic Needs were defined by the cultural anthropologist Eugene Anderson in his 1996 book, Ecologies of the Heart (Oxford University Press), which deals with how humans can live with nature by caring for it.

It is easy to see from looking over this list that nonhumans and humans are much more similar in the needs in their lives than is often recognized in the contemporary world.

Today humans are often ready to sacrifice #7, Control over their own lives, for #3 health and physical safety. This can be seen in what happened in the US after 9/11 when the President made a serious effort to take away control from people in exchange for the illusion of safety. In fact people are much more likely to die in a car accident or to be shot or stabbed by a family member than they are to become victims of terrorists.

Slide 9: Fear and Ignorance dominated much of Euro-American attitudes towards the nature of North America as they invaded in the 17th and 18th centuries and expanded their invasion during the 19th century.

The Animistic worldview of Native Americans provided a much more nuanced and sophisticated view of nature than the Enlightenment and its concepts of dominance over combined with fear of, nature. This means that in terms of concepts understood by the contemporary scientific community that Native peoples had a much better understanding of natural phenomena and how they functioned.

The image shows the Shoshone Sacajawea guiding the "Journey of Discovery"  led by Lewis and Clark through the Rocky Mountains or Tosa Toya (The Shining or White Mountains) as they were called by the Shoshone people who had lived there for millennia. 

The quote is from Chapter 1 of Pierotti (2010) Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology (Routledge Press).

Slide 10: Even Euro--American philosophers recognized the lack of sophistication and understanding in the American worldview, during the period of Westward expansion,as can be seen in this quote by Henry Adams. To learn more about Adams click here

For more on Adams click here

The image is of the Jersey Devil, a fearful apparition that appears in the wilder parts of the State of New Jersey and apparently did not exist until Europeans came to American and brought this entity, or at least the idea of it, with them. This shows that Europeans not only feared the wilds of North American, but invented their own bogeymen to make sure that fear was a continuing part of their legacy. For more on the history of this entity click here

The state seems proud of this story and their professional National Hockey League team is named the Jersey Devils. A more detailed description can be found if you click here

Slide 11: Worldviews of different individuals or cultures are tied to philosophy. This means that looking at the different components of philosophy can help you to understand your own world view or that of the cultural tradition from which you come.

Philosophies traditionally start with metaphysics: a theory of the essence of things, of the fundamental principles that organize the universe. Metaphysics is supposed to answer the question "What is the nature of reality?" For a brief discussion of the meaning of metaphysics click here

Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? To read further on this topic click here

Ethics refer to how an individual behaves or chooses to behave. In the Western tradition ethics exist only in the realm of human interactions. In Indigenous thinking ethics involves interaction with all of the world.

Logic is the study of reasoning and is used in most intellectual activities. It is studied primarily in philosophy, mathematics, and science. Logic examines general forms which arguments may take, which forms are valid, and which are fallacies. It is one kind of critical thinking Logic is an entire subdiscipline within philosophy linked strongly to epistemology, which asks: "How do we know what we know?". If you wish to explore this topic click here for an online textbook.

Slide 12: Indigenous peoples employ a different metaphysics than do Europeans. One feature of Indigenous metaphysics is taking seriously any event or testimony about an event.

In this image we see the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman who is a very important figure to tribes of the American prairies and Great Plains because it is said that she brought the Buffalo to the people. Bison were so important in the lives of tribes who lived on the plains that their links with humans required powerful stories that explained why this species had to be treated with utmost respect and care.

For a Lakota version of this story click here: http://www.kstrom.net/isk/arvol/lamedeer.html

Slide 13: Western Science relies heavily on data, which are typically multiple observations of the same phenomena that are recorded and analyzed. In this approach, single observations of unique phenomena are not given as much weight because they are not generalizable. The book shown, American Bison: a Natural History, by Dale Lott, a Professor at the University of California at Davis, describes a good deal of information about Bison, but it does not deal with their metaphysical importance of Bison to Indigenous people who based a way of life around this species.

Indigenous people and their traditions also rely for the most part on repeated observations, but these are not usually quantified in the same way as Western data. 

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. The Western approach is good for looking at physical objects, but it is weaker on relationships and the importance of individual organisms. In contrast, Indigenous knowledge is strong on relationships and the role of individuals, but does not look at the structure of matter, as in chemistry and physics.

 One limitation of definition of Traditional Ecological Knowledge is that it is only possible to know a limited area in the kind of detail required for true Indigenous knowledge. Thus by definition many of the specific results obtained can only have local application.  In contrast, the Western “scientific” tradition seeks “global” solutions, i.e. results that can be generalized across all localities. This leads to a problem in that solutions and results that are often assumed to be global in scope turn out instead to be local. (From Chapter 1 of Pierotti 2010)

Slide 14: As was mentioned above, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? To read further on this topic click here

The emphasis on metaphysics in Indigenous knowledge, led western thinkers and scientists like Carl Sagan to view their world view as "demon-haunted", which implies that they were fearful because of their emphasis on spiritual aspects. This is odd, be cause as in the case of the Jersey DEvil (above) it was Europeans who were fearful of the natural world, whereas the Indigenous people knew how to function without being paralyzed by fear. 

A good discussion could be had concerning how knowledge is constructed and conceived of in different cultural traditions. Sagan himself died alone and frightened because he had no spiritual principles and he was convinced that with his death he and everything he stood for would disappear. Students might compare Sagan's experience with their own attitudes.

Slide 15: With regard to ethics, Western thought has traditionally followed the lead of Aristotle, and defined politics and ethics as occurring exclusively within the human realm. Aristotle proposed that human values are learned from our fellow community members. From the Indigenous perspective, Aristotle's basic reasoning was right, but his notion of community membership was wrong in that it was insufficiently inclusive, excluding the nonhuman portion of the community (see the module on Community, for further exploration of this theme). Indigenous thought defines politics and ethics as existing in the realm of ecological communities and ecosystems. Following this logic it makes no sense to limit the notion of politics and ethics only to human beings. By limiting the definition of "persons" to human beings, however, Aristotle created a false and narrow sense of community and the corresponding spheres of political and moral life. From Chapter 1 of Pierotti (2010)

Slide 16: In its alleged impersonal “objectivity,” Western science typically fails to consider the responsibility scientists owe towards study organisms. There is also little, if any discussion, of the obvious reciprocal relationship between investigator and subject. As described by a major philosopher from the Western scientific tradition: “Whatever the scientists’ feelings, or style, while working, these are purged from the final work” (Wolpert 1992, 57).

In contrast, in Indigenous traditions such reciprocal relationships are central to understanding the basis by which knowledge has been acquired through careful and detailed observation. For example, in hunting relationships it is essential that the hunters regard themselves as the equal of, rather than superior to, the prey organism (J. Marshall 1995; Anderson 1996).

Slide 17: Western Science is set up so that its discoveries are presumed to be "true" wherever similar sets of conditions occur. Thus the results of a study of wetland ecology is assumed to be applicable to all wetlands anywhere. Similarly a systematic study of the behavior of gull behavior is assumed to apply to all gulls anywhere.

This is true in a limited sense. For one thing conditions are never exactly the same and the differences may have profound impacts on what actually occurs.

As an example, I have studied the behavior and ecology of various species of gulls of the genus Larus all around North America. The basic behavioral repertoire of gulls has not varied a great deal, in that their calls and nesting activities are similar and the number off eggs they lay is the same, which supports the Western approach. 

What is equally important, however is that the ecological conditions have never been the same in any two colonies, and this has caused major differences in how the birds use their behavior. Diet choices have differed, both among colonies and individuals, habitat choices have varied, and even the nature of their social behavior and mating systems have varied. This variation is not part of the Western tradition, although the Western tradition is now making efforts to incorporate variation into its theories and concepts. 

Understanding local conditions and how they may vary from conditions in other areas lies at the root of Indigenous knowledge.

Slide 18: In Indigenous traditions all questions are valid, and knowledge about nature and other species is constructed within a tradition that incorporates ethical and metaphysical considerations.

This is different from Western approaches where some questions are considered to lie outside of science, especially issues concerned with ethics and metaphysics.

One result is that Indigenous people interact with other species while assuming a reciprocal relationship that incorporates ethical responsibilities that apply to all living creatures, and even to the land itself.  

Image: We are all coming full circle by Apache artist Gilbert Spotted Pony Robles

Slide 19: Use of the term “ecological” to describe Indigenous knowledge is important, because it establishes the links of these flexible and adaptable traditions to the natural world. At the same time, TEK is not so inclusive that it appears to incorporate all of the knowledge held by Indigenous peoples. 

Acknowledging the ecological component of such knowledge, however, establishes that TEK is scientific in most meaningful senses of the word. That is, TEK is based on empirical knowledge that has been collected over long periods of time, and then incorporated into an organized way of understanding how the world functions based on relationships observed and understood at a local scale.

Slide 20: One reason that Western Science and Western culture as a whole tends to devalue Indigenous knowledge is that they believe that knowledge must be recorded, i.e. written down in a way that can be read and evaluated.

As a result they tend to downplay knowledge contained in an oral tradition and treat the stories that comprise such systems as "Fairy tales" or "legends". 

This approach ignores that fact that oral traditions are very effective as teaching tools, because they are an effective way of communicating concepts and fundamental premises, in addition to providing information about how the natural world functions and how human beings are part of that world.

Slide 21: What is important to keep in mind is that many of these stories function as metaphors that provide both insight into the dynamics of nature combined with instructions for humans on how to live properly.

Western science also depends heavily on metaphor, for example the tendency to refer to a "genetic code", or to the heart as a "pump", or to mitochondria as the "powerhouse of cells".

It is virtually impossible to teach or even talk about the natural world without employing metaphors from human cultures. Western science often relies upon mathematical equations that function in a metaphoric sense to provide simple ways of thinking about the world that allow learners to incorporate their own observations and insights within the simple framework.

Slide 22: Myth is story about the origins of natural phenomena or aspects of human behavior. They are neither true nor untrue, but they resonate within cultural traditions. There is a tendency in modern society to equate myth with superstition or ignorance, even though all cultures, including Western cultures are permeated with myth.

Science is not immune to myth, for example the story of Issac Newton discovering gravity when an apple fell upon his head, or of Archimedes in his bathtub discovering laws of physics.

A key point is that scientists try to avoid incorporating myth, which in essence means that they try to ignore the myth that permeates their own disciplines.

One of the dominant myths of Western Culture is that Columbus "discovered" America when in fact the first humans encountered America many thousands of years earlier. This myth allowed Europeans to treat America as if it were an empty land that they could mold according to their wishes and inclinations.

Slide 23: Many people, including scholars, of European heritage argue that traditional practices can only employ primitive technologies, such as bows and arrows, presumably using stone arrowheads, or canoes, presumably dugout or manufactured from birchbark.

Following such logic to an absurd extreme, it might be questioned whether the buffalo cultures of the plains peoples of North America, including the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Comanche people, can be considered as traditional. Hunting from horseback was a major part of this tradition, yet it is well established that Europeans introduced domestic horses into North America in the 16th century. 

A good discussion can be held concerning the use to the term "traditional" and what it means in the lives of various students.   

Slide 24: It is important to keep in mind that of all of the aspects of Western Science, the study of ecology is closest to the type of knowledge gathered and held by Indigenous peoples.

Like Indigenous concepts, ecology is based upon the study of links and relationships between or among species and how interdependent these organisms are both one another and upon their physical environment. This topic is examined in much greater detail in the module on Community. To connect to this module click here 

The length of time over which TEK has been collected is unimaginable to western science, however, where a study of ten years is considered long-term and a study lasting 100 years has never been done. This is because in many cases studies are constrained by time, such as the length of time in grad school (5-7 years) or even during an academic career (40-50 years at most).

Slide 25: Many people, especially scientists, consider it to be a problem that TEK lumps together empirically based observations and conclusions with spiritual/religious/ philosophical ideas. This has been described by the Canadian Anthropologist Adrian Tanner as “If we are going to set ‘Western scientific knowledge’ against TEK, then we need to specify and acknowledge an equivalent distinction within indigenous knowledge, i.e. that between those aspects that are more or less equivalent to ‘science’ and ‘religion’”

This statement reveals a great deal about the assumptions made by adherents of “Western science.” To begin with if spiritual equals philosophical, then the Western scientific tradition is full of such ideas and language.

Slide 26: Examples of Western myth base metaphors are Cartesian dualism and use of the machine metaphor to model nonhuman organisms, Platonic ideals in typological species identities, and the tendency to emphasize competition over cooperation in understanding ecological relationships. The Western scientific tradition depends heavily on models and metaphors that have philosophical ideas at their roots.

Slide 27: As we discussed above, reciprocity is a principle concept in Indigenous thinking about nature and relationship to other life forms. The Western tradition struggles with the concept of reciprocity because this idea is thought to conflict with the idea derived from Darwinian Natural Selection that life in nature is a struggle. Of course this idea is not really in Darwin, but is another Western Myth that has been extrapolated from Darwin’s ideas.

To Indigenous people reciprocity is a central concept, whereas to Western thought it is a controversial topic that is set up against the ideas of competition and selfish behavior.

Western science places unreasonable conditions on any behavior that could be defined as reciprocal, because it has difficulty accepting that nonhumans have the mental capacity to create a network of reciprocity, whereas to Indigenous people this is a character shared by all life forms.

Slide 28: An important issue that can lead to discussion is "what is religion" and how does it affect the way we think about the world.

In the indigenous tradition there is much more spiritual engagement with the natural world and less need for churches or temples, i.e. buildings that are designated as sacred. Instead all of the world is sacred and spiritual experiences can take place in any location.

This issue is important in discussing an issue like the Haskell Wetlands, where Indigenous students feel that an area is sacred because they engage it in a regular basis and it provides them with spiritual comfort even though it does not contain any obvious alters or places where rituals were practiced. For more information and a video about the Haskell Wetlands click here

Slide 29: The emphasis on relationships is important because Indigenous people traditionally depended upon nature to provide for them in terms of food, clothing and shelter. As a consequence they worked to make sure that other species did not become angry with them for wasteful practices or behaving in a disrespectful manner towards other beings.

This attitude was taught to all members of a culture as a way of preserving a way of life and trying to make sure that the culture could persist.

Slide 30: These premises are important because even though they can be interpreted as spiritual or ethical, they are also core concepts to scientific knowledge.

Connection is a basic premise of Ecology

Relatedness is a basic premise of Evolution

Thinking of these concepts as linked to the natural world provides a natural means of incorporating science into Indigenous knowledge and vice versa

Slide 31: The issue of anthropomorphism is considered to be important in western science, i.e. that humans should not attribute human features and actions to nonhumans.

In recent years some Western scientists, such as Franz deWaal, Jane Goodall and Mark Bekoff have argued that such attitudes have limited our ability to understand nonhumans. These arguments are quite similar to concepts developed and emphasized through indigenous cultural traditions.

Slide 32: In ancient times humans probably had much closer relationships with nonhuman animals and were thus much more aware of similarities between human and nonhuman. As a consequence humans understood the ways in which animals communicated with one another both within and among species, including humans.

This is another way of addressing relationships with nonhumans. They are seen as equivalents of humans and their social relationships are taken seriously to function as metaphoric variants on human social obligations. In contrast, their weaknesses can also be used to show humans how not to act. 

Slide 33: The western traditions tends to either demonize or sentimentalize nonhumans, especially predators, which are perceived of being "enemies of Humans". This topic is delat with in considerable detail in our module on Predators and Prey (link).

This image shows a very strange conflation of images, linking Indigenous people and wolves in the guise of a werewolf or wolfman-like figure who seems to be capable of making trees bleed. This also illustrates the tendency in some western thought to portray Indigenous people as savages or beasts.

Slide 34: In contrast to the wolf as beast, we have this western image which sentimentalizes wolves, while alos using Native American imagery.

This conflicted attitude towards wolves is also reflected in the confused and conflicting views of Indigenous peoples held by many people of European ancestry.

The important thing is that both of these images do not represent the reality of wolves. The same is true of treatment of indigenous people who are often either demonized or romanticized in the way they are perceived by EuroAmericans.

Slide 35: All living beings have some sort of an impact on their environment, but the romantic sentimentalized view of Native peoples tries to pretend that these people did not impact their environment. This is a mistake and also leads to foolish conflicts where some conservationists want to believing that Indigenous people had attitudes just like their own. This is wrong because Native people do not sentimentalize other life forms, but respect them and their abilities and work to maintain a reciprocal relationship with these other species. 

Slide 36: The reason that Indigenous people do not sentimentalize their relationship with nature is because they depend upon it for survival.

This means that their goal is to reduce problematic interactions with nature and to minimize negative impacts. This was the basis of the ideas of respect, reciprocity, and connection, i.e. to insure that important species did disappear or avoid humans.

Thus, the stories that established this tradition can be thought of as management schemes that emerge from connection and relatedness, rather than maximizing income from hunting or fishing.

Slide 37: This quote from Osage Tradition expresses the ideas we have been discussing. Humans needed to understand nature because the better thy understood it the better their chances of survival, both as individuals and as a culture.