What Traditional Ecological Knowledge Can Teach Us

Published Aug 3, 2021

Dr. Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation, explains how Traditional Ecological Knowledge can work in tandem with science to help us understand the natural world.

In this episode

Colleen and Dan discuss

  • what Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is
  • how science and TEK can compliment each other to combat climate change
  • how indigenous communities continue to gather knowledge
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:22)
Intro (0:22-2:02)
Interview p1 (2:02-13:52)
Break (13:52-14:47)
Interview p2 (14:47-27:44)
Outro (27:44-28:50)

Related content

Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Colleen: I hope this doesn’t sound blasphemous from someone working at a science-based organization… but science isn’t the only way to make sense of the world. It’s just one way—that turns out to be pretty reliable. But there are other ways. And science can coexist and even complement these other ways of understanding our world.

One such way is traditional ecological knowledge, the evolving knowledge acquired by indigenous and local peoples over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment. I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Daniel Wildcat, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, speak about traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, earlier this summer. And I feel even luckier that as a podcast host, I was able to get him to continue this conversation with me.

Dr. Wildcat is the co-director of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center, an author, and an accomplished scholar who writes about indigenous knowledge, technology, the environment, and education. He’s a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, through a twist of federal tribal classification fate that we’ll get into in our conversation. He joined me to talk about people’s lived experiences and observations, TEK in concert with climate science, how much has been lost by the genocide and colonization and whitewashing of Indigenous people, culture, and language.. and how we should never pass up the opportunity to celebrate nature and its beauty.

Colleen: Dr. Wildcat, welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Wildcat: Well, thank you for the invitation.

Colleen: Yeah. It's really great to have you here. You're a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation.

Dr. Wildcat: Yes.

Colleen: What would you like our listeners to know about the Yuchi people?

Dr. Wildcat: Well, this is a...we could do a whole program on this, so I'll give you the short version. The Yuchi, as we would refer to ourselves in our language, Tsoyaha, I am Tsoyaha, a Yuchi person, a Child or People of the Sun, we were one of the small groups of people nations that were in the Southeastern United States, along with Chickasaws, Choctaws, Cherokees, Seminoles, and, obviously, our Muscogee relatives. And as you know from history, at the time of removal, we were pretty well decimated. We had really been hit by European diseases, victims of all the dysfunction that went along with the rum trade, and that kind of thing. And so, at the time of removal, we were really included as a part of this Creek Confederacy, the Muscogee Confederacy.

So we've never been recognized independent of the Muscogee people. Although we know we're different, we have our own language, we share some things, quite a few things, as you might imagine, culturally, given we came from the same area, and our cultures were very much embedded in the places we called home. But the Yuchis were never recognized independent of the Muscogee Nation or Creek Nation of Oklahoma. So I always jokingly tell people, they've heard of federally-recognized tribes, they've heard of state-recognized tribes. The Tsoyaha are a federally misrecognized tribe. We are recognized as part of the Muscogee Nation. And we got a lot of relatives, good relatives that we're thankful that we have. But we are a distinct people with a culture and our own language.

Colleen: Great. Well, thank you for that explanation, because I think it's important to recognize the differences and the many different tribes, and the richness of all of them.

Dr. Wildcat: Yeah, thank you for asking.

Colleen: Yeah. So I wanna talk today about traditional ecological knowledge. I wonder if you could give a definition.

Dr. Wildcat: Well, here's the interesting thing, I don't know that there's an agreed-upon definition, and that might not be a bad thing, but I'll give you a definition that I have distilled from the incredible people I've worked over the last three-and-a-half decades as a result of being at Haskell Indian Nations University, the kind of de facto tribal university in the United States. I always tell people that TEK is knowledge...traditional ecological knowledge is knowledge that was born of a long historical symbiotic relationship between a particular people and a particular landscape. There's no mistake about it that the way in which, particularly, our physical and material cultures were representative of, they came really from those places. Our food, our clothing, the materials in which we built our houses, and our forms of lodging, all came from a particular place.

This was pre the mega big-box stores where you go to get everything. So we went out, into the land around us, into the forest, on the lakes, if you're on the coasts, on the oceans. So TEK, ultimately, is knowledge that is held by people because of their long-standing interaction with a particular landscape or seascape, and it is transferred intergenerationally through stories, ceremony, song, and actual ways in which people went about living, customs and habits. So really that's what traditional ecological knowledge is. It's very practical. It's very much centered around particular peoples and their relationship to a particular place.

Colleen: If there was a problem in your community, say, a blight on a species of tree or dying off of a species or animal, how would that be handled? Do you adapt to that, or do you take corrective action?

Dr. Wildcat: Well, I think that would depend. In the case where this is something that you've experienced before, it might be very likely that people will have figured out a way to address a particular blight, or maybe you've got a particular kind of insect infestation in some plants. People have ways of treating that. It's usually a result of, again, having this long-standing body of knowledge that gets handed down that, oh, in this case, you know, it may be just the issue of maybe you mix some water with a particular substance from another plant and use that as an insecticide. And so it really depends. There might be times when you face something that you've never seen before or have no record of. That's probably the kind of thing where, people have to just say, "Well, okay, we've gotta really think about this," and in some cases, the decision might be made to not do anything or just consult with the people in the university land grant institutions and their extension departments and say, "Hey, this is something we've never seen, but maybe you have."

So we're always...indigenous people are not afraid of looking for new information and new knowledge. That's kind of, I think, one of the things that we have to disabuse people of. I think one of the fascinating things about traditional ecological knowledges are that they are very practical, lifeway-oriented, and you're constantly prepared and taught to look for new evidence, new information that you can get. And, obviously, before we go to the library, we'll wanna look around that particular environment that we're in. So we might say, "Something's showing up in our plants, but what has happened in the larger landscape that our garden's a part of?" And so, again, it's that very systemic interrelationship that I think, to me, is very fascinating about traditional ecological knowledges.

Colleen: So is there a difference from how a scientist would do fieldwork or do observations in their fieldwork? How is it different?

Dr. Wildcat: You know, I think it's probably different in this respect. I think if you're in a classic fieldwork setting, you might be building your trisect areas of a particular grassland or a forest and you're counting species within a given area, what's the diversity, and this and that, and I think, for people, that might be useful for people who were unfamiliar with that place. But that would never occur as a "methodology" that a holder of traditional ecological knowledge would have because of their familiarity with the place, Colleen: So then, how would you describe the differences between traditional ecological knowledge and Western science?

Dr. Wildcat: My good friend and mentor, Vine DeLoria Junior, used to say, "Here's one of the interesting distinctions between western science and TEK. Western science is kind of looking always for those general laws, those general kinds of principles that you can apply, or what are the building blocks of knowledge that are commonly shared, or even with physical world.

And DeLoria said, because of the way we were related to the land, to the air, to the water around us, that our methodology was to pay close attention to the changes that we saw. Because changes, those things that were unexpected, anomalies, were the things we paid the most attention to, where he says...you know, Western science is always kinda saying, "Well, we don't care about the anomalies. Maybe that was an experimental layer. We're just trying to look for the general, the universal kind of knowledge that we can share here." And DeLoria was saying, "Well, you know, the attitude of indigenous knowledge holders was all experience is useful, but particularly when you saw those things that change that were different, then you made note because then you had to set about figuring out, what's going on? Is this good? Is it bad? Is it okay?" And I think that's really important, and I think there are probably, today, field scientists who do something similar to that.

Colleen: Yeah. It seems like the scientist will parachute in, grab some data, and then head back to the lab. And I think what you say makes perfect sense. They have no larger intimate context with the land and everything surrounding it.

Dr. Wildcat: Yeah, and I wanna say this because, you know, if I don't say it now, I'll forget before we're done, that one of the things that I think we really need to pay attention to is just that fact that the difference between people who are using satellite imaging, and again, don't misunderstand me, I'm glad we have people who use satellite images, they can see things that, you know, near outer space or outer space level of the Earth and its systems that we can't see when we're on the ground, but the converse is equally true. People who live on the ground in those places that satellite images are looking at and then climate modelers are using to try to make some kind of calculation about what we might expect in the future, I think it's a tremendous mistake not to, as I say, ground-truth the knowledge that those remote sensors gather with the knowledge, the experiential knowledge, the empirical knowledge that people who have lived there for hundreds, thousands of years have collected.

And I think that's what's changing now because I think a lot of scientists are beginning to get it and go, like, Oh, wow, that's right. These people have lived here for a long time. They probably know something about that place, and it's something that our satellite images can't necessarily convey. So we shouldn't pit one against the other. It's like we say, well, hey, both of these are useful, but, you know, in this case, more knowledge is better.

Colleen: How can Western science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge work together more closely than they have in the past?

Dr. Wildcat: You know, I'll be honest with you, that is a great question, and it's the most difficult one to answer. I think we're just starting to really negotiate, literally negotiate what that looks like. I've been real involved with a group out of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in UCAR, University Center for Atmospheric Research, called Rising Voices. We were coming up, I think, on our 10th anniversary. And that was seen as a way we envision this. This Rising Voices group is a way to bring climate scientists together with indigenous elders, those holders of community-held traditional ecological knowledges because, again, we thought, you know, it's like two separate universes, and they don't talk to each other.

So we started that discussion now for about a decade, and I think if you just look at what's going on in the National Science Foundation today, with ideas about, you know, interdisciplinary science, and now we're even talking about convergence science, this idea that science isn't just "the scientist," that you've got communities, you've got experts, you've got people who know something about a place that need to be involved. And I think that is all kind of part of what we can be hopeful about, that there does seem to be a realization that one of the missteps of science was a certain kind of ideology that, well, science is only for the scientist. And when I went to school, believe it or not, we were taught “the scientific method,” and that was, well, science is...the knowledge of science is born by a controlled experiment.

Well, guess what, most of the most serious problems we have today are what scientists would call wicked problems. We can't put them in an experimental box. We can't...there's no way we can control all the variables for the global phenomenon of climate change, but what we can do is we can say, you know, there are people on the Arctic Circle, there are people in the desert southwest, there are people in the equatorial zones of our planet who've been there for hundreds and thousands of years. They know something about what's going on, and so they need to be included in the science. And I'm hopeful about that, but I think we're still kind of struggling to see exactly how that works.

Colleen: I think for Western science, data collection is such a huge piece of that. How do we marry the two, the observational with the data?

Dr. Wildcat: You know, that's gonna remain primarily I think, an issue for the Western scientist because I think what indigenous people would tell you...I've got a good friend, Merv Tano, who'd been the director of the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management for going on 20 years now in Denver, Colorado, and Merv is great. He says, you know, " here's the issue, our knowledge isn't data." We talk about talking story, because so much of our knowledge is bound up in stories, in telling about something that happened, and how it happened, and what you saw, and of course, most importantly, where, and that this talking story is so critical in indigenous traditions, and I do think that's...see, that's one of the challenges.

Data, when you think about converting something to data, what's the advantage of that? Well, data is portable. It's usable. You turn it into something that you can carry with you. And I think there is a problem with that with indigenous people who say, "Well, our knowledge isn't to be carried off. Our knowledge, if you find it useful, you can take it the way we offer it, but we're not necessarily interested in making it fit the kinds of boxes, or graphs, or charts that you work with, or datasets." And so that's part of this negotiation that I think needs to take place.

Colleen: Are there any principles or values you would recommend to guide closer collaboration?

I would say the first principle or the first value would be...and I have to be honest with you, probably one of the greatest gifts I've received from being around people like the late Albert White Hat or the late Bill Tall Bull, Northern Cheyenne elder, the legendary Billy Frank Junior of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, is their incredible sense of humility. And so I wanna be very clear about this. I think we train scientists, , to this mindset where they're supposed to have the answer. And I think that it's all right not to have the answer and that it would be great if more scientists came, as you mentioned earlier, to communities saying, "We're here to listen. We're here to just find out from you what's important." And I do think that's a kind of humility about knowing that I don't think we do a very good job of inculcating in our formal institutions. No, you're supposed to know. And that's how you get a Ph.D., right? You come up with this one thing you're supposed to have discovered or know better than anyone else, and then you're the expert.

Well, I think in indigenous traditions, the notion would be that, no, you go into any kind of setting where you're trying to understand something with a position of humility and a keen awareness that the most important communication skill you need is that one of being able to listen and being mindful and attending to the people, to the place, to the world around you. And that's not something our fast-paced smart device society is very good at inculcating today, and so that's part of the challenge.

Colleen: How are tribal nations responding to the challenges of climate change? I mean, I’ve heard about salmon species in the Pacific Northwest that may go extinct because of climate change, and, I’m sure you’re seeing other impacts as well.

Dr. Wildcat: you can look at the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, they have been able to maintain, you know, to a large extent that salmon basis for their ancient traditions, that fishing basis. And I think, with the threatening of the salmon, they have done the best job of sort of really saying, "Okay, we have to start taking action to address the warming of waters, the changes in water flow that might threaten salmon runs." And I think that they have done some of the best illustrations of how we should be using traditional ecological knowledge and I think the analogue to that is what you see now going on with this incredible focus now on restorations of tallgrass prairies. So where I'm sitting in Eastern Kansas, this is a big deal, restoration of tallgrass prairies and the reintroduction of bison. And I think those would be examples of people saying, "We know we're not gonna go back to the way it used to be, but by trying to approximate some of the ecosystem conditions that we had then, we might actually have a healthier planet, restore habitats, have more biodiversity." And I think that's pretty good. Again, that, to me, is a good example of the way these traditional knowledges can be applied today to hopefully improve the life systems of our planet.

Colleen: So are traditional ecological knowledges still being accumulated in the ways that your ancestors observed and passed down knowledge?

Dr. Wildcat: You know, I think that's been really threatened. You know, we're living right now through this horrible...well, I shouldn't say...when I say we're living, I think the general public is beginning to be aware of what the boarding schools meant for indigenous people. So now, you know, indigenous peoples have known for a long time how horrific the boarding schools were, not just to our children, but in terms of really threatening our very existence as indigenous peoples.

Colleen: And this was a program, this was a policy or a concerted effort to take children away from the tribe and put them in boarding schools as a way to strip them of their native heritage?

Dr. Wildcat: Yeah. Build them in the white man's image, you know, educate them in the white man's image. And yeah, thank you for contextualizing that. That's important. But all I wanted to say, in light of that, that boarding school trauma, the intergenerational transfer of that trauma, I'd be naive to say that some of those customary ways of telling stories and traditions weren't lost. I think some were, and they were seriously interrupted. But I think it's also true that even in areas that were the hardest hit, it's amazing how some of that continued, the language, the ceremonies. And so we can't make a blanket assessment of the well-being of TEK today.

But here's the good news, if you understand TEK as our notion that Mother Earth has something to teach us if we're mindful, the good news is in spite of all the things that humankind has done to the planet, she remains incredibly resilient. And my good friend and mentor, the late Vine DeLoria Junior, would say, "She's waiting to find those humans who are ready to be mindful once again of their mother the Earth, and pay attention to what her life systems can teach us human beings about how to be better relatives to the balance of life we share this planet with."

Colleen: Wow, that was very moving and inspiring. Dan, is there anything else that gives you hope?

So I've been fortunate, this past year, I've been in several programs with K-12 teachers Now, I usually talk to scientists, right, people from NASA, people from NOAA, people from UCS. But talking to elementary teachers, I have really begun to sense that they have this opportunity to begin to work with very young children to start introducing them to the way in which, this world things are all related, all interconnected. And as they start teaching science this way and getting children to understand these relationships, right outside their door, okay, where they live, I think that's where the greatest hope is because I think having this appreciation for the complex totality of the life systems that this Mother Earth represents gives you a window into backing off from thinking that, the solution is going to be one solution for everywhere.

Colleen: Well, Dr. Wildcat, thank you so much for joining me. This has been a really fascinating conversation.

Dr. Wildcat: Well, san-lei, san-lei (Yuchi language). Thank you so much. It's been a joy to have this conversation with you.

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