On “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” for the 21st Century

By Jon Christensen

There are different stories to be told about our relationship with nature, different understandings, different knowledge, still.

Tending the Wild, a new documentary on the traditional ecological knowledge of California Indians produced by KCET and Link TV, makes this abundantly clear. The documentary builds on the work of ethno-ecologist M. Kat Anderson and her book of the same title Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of Californian’s Natural Resources (University of California Press, 2005) through in-depth, personal, on-the-ground stories from around California about indigenous management of the essential trinity of fire, water, and food.

In my capacity as an environmental historian, I serve as one of the observers who helps provide contextual threads to weave together the documentary’s stories. Over the course of my life and career, I’ve had many friends, colleagues, mentors, teachers, and heroes who have been involved in traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), which is sometimes pronounced as an acronym “T-E-K,” and other times just like “tech,” which, in many ways, it is: technology and technique.  I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to go along with them on their journeys and learn about the history of indigenous environmental knowledge, its vibrant present, and its importance for our collective future.

My most intimate encounter with TEK was surprisingly cosmopolitan. I had met up with a group of California Indians, scholars, and researchers who had traveled to Australia to talk with Aboriginal people about “cultural burning,” or aboriginal and indigenous uses of fire to manage ecosystems. We were camped out in a ghost gum grove, in the red rock country of the Martu people deep in the outback of Australia’s Western Desert. Fires, set by our hosts, burned across the hillsides surrounding us as we feasted on kangaroo, bustard, lizards, and grubs harvested from the burned land and cooked over an open fire. If we had been in California, C130s would have been flying overhead dumping flame retardant on the fires, but they burned through the night just as planned. It was unnerving, thrilling, and inspiring all at the same time.

Indigenous people in California are also working to return cultural burning to our landscape to thin out overly dense forests and manage the land for wildlife and plants that provide food, medicines, and materials for basketry. TEK embraces the ecological and environmental knowledge that aboriginal and indigenous people have about the way ecosystems work, how people interact with them, and how they can sustain those ecosystems and the resources they produce. It is knowledge that we can learn from today and for the future.

In many of the early accounts of explorers, sailors, settler colonists, ranchers, farmers, and miners in California, the landscape was constantly burning. There were fires everywhere. In some of these historical accounts, the writers are very curious about why the landscape always seemed to be on fire. Now, with an improved understanding of cultural burning, we have an answer.

The traditional ecological knowledge of leaders such as Ron Goode of the North Fork Mono Tribe tells us in addition to managing forests, fire can keep mountain meadows clear so water doesn’t run off but instead seeps into the ground and is gradually released, which is beneficial for our whole water system. As our climate warms up, snow melts faster, and it’s harder to retain and manage water. That story is told in Tending the Wild, and several scientific studies of meadow ecosystems in the Sierra Nevada confirm this traditional ecological knowledge.

While TEK results from the transmission of knowledge in all kinds of ways, including stories and rituals, we should be careful about the “traditional” part of TEK. If people think that “traditional” means that this knowledge is from the past and it’s unchanged and unchanging, that can feed into the old settler-colonial myth that indigenous people are somehow the past, that they will or have disappeared, and that they’re not here living amongst us, adapting and changing. TEK is just as adaptive, just as changing, and just as modern as all of us alive today and just as modern as science and technology.

Here in California, we live in a state where people and nature are still too often seen as separate. This state was most vividly imagined by John Muir in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What Muir saw in California was really three distinct spaces. The first California is found in the cities where most of us live, and where trade and commerce happen. The second California is the surrounding countryside of farms, ranches, and mines, the economically productive landscape that has been tranformed for human use. The third California is found in the cathedrals of nature beyond, where nature is to be protected and where we go to worship nature, a California that is natural and separate from people and culture.

In the 20th century, a new California was created, with huge water projects and the damming of rivers for irrigation, hydroelectricity, flood control, and quenching the thirst of growing cities. A kind of hybrid landscape was created, a California that is both natural and engineered. That’s the California bequeathed to us by the 20th century, a California that we’re now thinking hard about to transform for a sustainable future in the 21st century and beyond. That is the great challenge that we’re living through now. It’s accompanied by increasing concern and respect for Native American rights, including water and fishing rights, and for endangered species such as salmon on the Klamath River in northern California.

The Klamath River and other rivers, like other landscapes around California, are storied. They have a deep cultural history. Those stories are too often forgotten, but they persist, thanks to traditional ecological knowledge. They are part of the change that is happening on the Klamath River, where dams will come down, reconnecting the river in a powerful way for salmon and people to thrive. Those stories drive the change and the caring as much as anything else, and they, too, are told in Tending the Wild.

Returning fire to the landscape and salmon to the Klamath River may seem remote from the lives of many Californians. But food, another subject of Tending the Wild, is one of the most intimate ways that we all relate to the environment. When settlers first arrived in California, they were concerned that the environment and what they ate would change them somehow. Later, as farmers tried to clear the landscape to produce food, to create modern agriculture and the rich bounty that the state now produces for the world, people began to conceive of their bodies as separate from the environment.

Now, in an interesting way, we’re coming back to the idea that worried the first settlers: that the environment can affect and change us. We no longer think that it might be best if our food is produced in vast fields of monoculture crops awash in chemicals. Part of this great turn in our thinking, to which traditional ecological knowledge is contributing, is the realization that our bodies are porous to the environment and that the environment can affect us, particularly through the food we eat.

Traditional ecological knowledge is not just one thing. One of the most important contributions of traditional ecological knowledge, for all of us, is that it opens up possibilities for different ways of understanding nature and people’s relationships with nature. In California alone, there are dozens of indigenous groups with dozens of different stories, histories, cultures, beliefs, ideas, and practices. It’s important to value, respect and understand that diversity. TEK shows us that there are many different ways for human beings to understand, respect, and have a relationship with nature. TEK reinforces the importance of cultural diversity globally, understanding the many different ways people are a part of nature, love nature, and want to create a respectful relationship with nature.

As evidenced in Tending the Wild and many other accounts, we need to listen to the different ways that people relate to nature to build a better, more sustainable relationship with the environment and other beings who share the planet with us for the future. Traditional ecological knowledge contributes to this listening project. There won’t be one simple answer, but through listening and learning, ways to change our relationship with nature can open up. We can begin to see ourselves not as separate from nature, but as part of nature, a part of a co-creation of people, nature, and culture all working together to create the kind of world that we want to live in.

You can watch Tending the Wild online on KCET’s website.

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