On Incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Ocean Conservation

This Native American Heritage Month, we’re reflecting on the importance of Indigenous knowledge in our work

After many weeks of rain here in the Pacific Northwest, we are officially deep into fall. I always find that a change in seasons is a natural time of reflection—particularly now as we approach the end of another year. 

November is significant because it’s when we celebrate Native American Heritage Month. This November, once again, I find myself reflecting on many things, including history, culture and our relationship to the natural world.

I lived in Alaska early in my career and still feel a deep connection to that special place. It was in Alaska that I began thinking more deeply about my connection to the land and the ocean and my responsibilities in stewarding the places that nurture and support us. I was deeply fortunate to learn alongside Alaska Native mentors who modeled an example of living in close relationship with the natural world. 

I invite you to read a recent piece by my colleague Jonathon Ross, Ocean Conservancy’s new director of Arctic Indigenous-led conservation. In this post, Jonathon speaks to the importance of trust, respect and stronger partnerships between conservation organizations and Alaska Native entities. Doing this requires many in the ocean conservation space—including many of us here at Ocean Conservancy—to understand and support diverse ways of thinking about conservation.

There has been a growing—and necessary—conversation in the western science and conservation fields about incorporating traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in our work. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defines TEK as the “knowledge acquired by indigenous [sic] and local peoples over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment.” This vast network of information includes relationships among plants, animals, processes, climate and humans and is passed from generation to generation. Although definitions of TEK can vary based on the source, at its core TEK is about collaboration, stewardship and understanding of our natural world.  

Although TEK is, quite obviously, not new, western science and resource management have historically been slow to incorporate Indigenous and local knowledge in research and policies. Even as use of TEK has grown in western science over the last few decades, the process has been far from seamless, with examples of western science incorrectly applying or oversimplifying TEK. But there are also many instances of effective incorporation of the two. When trying to determine if the Alexander Archipelago wolf should be listed under the Endangered Species Act, for example, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists interviewed nine Alaskan knowledge-bearers about the cultural significance of the wolf. Now, Indigenous knowledge is included in the final report, addressing both the biological and cultural significance of the animals. Read about another recent example of using Hawaiian TEK to design a National Estuarine Research Reserve.

With both Indigenous-led conservation and the application of TEK in western science, the goal is to use knowledge to conserve the natural places and communities we love and depend on. TEK addresses a critical link—we are not just observing natural processes where nature is reduced to data and separated from people but seeing people as part of a natural community. 

As Jonathon puts it, TEK is about embracing “ways of thinking about the world in which people and nature are intrinsically linked and in relationship.” This approach to reciprocity will help us pursue wise solutions—solutions that benefit both the ocean and people. 

If you’re looking for additional ways to reflect during Native American Heritage Month, I recommend this deep dive about how you can practice “two-eyed seeing” (a term first shared by Mi’kmaw elder Dr. Albert Marshall). “Two-eyed seeing” provides a way to understand nature and come up with durable conservation solutions by looking through the lens of both Indigenous and western knowledge. 

Thank you for joining me in taking time to reflect on this important topic and joining me in celebrating Native American Heritage Month. 

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