Dene Traditional Knowledge

by Martha Johnson

For thousands of years, indigenous peoples around the world have utilized the natural resources of their local environments , in an ecologically sustainable manner. Only in the past decade has this traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) been recognized among the western scientific community for its value to contemporary environmental management. Today, a growing body of literature attests not only to the presence of a vast reservoir of information regarding plant and animal behaviour, but also to the existence of effective systems of self-management of natural resources.

At the forefront of this burgeoning field of research are indigenous peoples, who are demanding primary involvement in the direction of studies which serve their needs. "Participatory community" or "action" types of research have become the accepted approaches to the study of TEK. According to this approach, the host indigenous community participates directly in the design and implementation of the project, receives training to allow them to administer and conduct the research themselves, and retains control over the results. Outside agencies or individual researchers may collaborate with the community; however, their role is to provide technical advice and administrative support.

The Dene Cultural Institute Pilot Project is one example of a participatory community project designed to document the traditional environmental knowledge of the people of Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake. For the past two years, a team of local researchers, a biologist, and an anthropologist have been developing methods to document TEK. The ultimate goal of the research is to integrate TEK and western science for the purpose of community based natural resource management. The pilot project has only begun to uncover the wealth of ecological information available and to understand the traditional system that governs Dene use of natural resources. However, these preliminary results do reveal important similarities and differences between Dene TEK and western science. They also identify some of the problems of trying to integrate the two knowledge systems.

From a purely scientific perspective, the pilot project demonstrates that those Dene who have spent a large part of their life on the land possess as much (if not more) information about wildlife and fisheries ecology as western scientists. Conservation strategies exist and are based on an understanding of the important indicators of the condition of game populations which play a key role in maintaining a sustainable harvest. When western science and Dene TEK are compared, it is evident that both knowledge systems require thoughtful and systematic observation to understand ecological processes and that both seek to utilize resources in an ecologically sustainable manner. The main difference between the two systems appears to be in the different types of information gathered, how this information is interpreted and expressed, and the approaches to resource management.

For example, western scientists stress the use of quantitative measures while the traditional Dene harvester is more concerned with qualitative information. Western scientists gather quantitative data to build mathematical models of population dynamics. The models are used to calculate sustainable yields of a resource. The yields are then recommended for implementation to decision makers as wildlife harvest regulations. The Dene harvester is more concerned with conditions in general (e.g., species scarce or plentiful for his use) or in trends (e.g., increasing or decreasing) than he is in precise numbers and averages. As one Fort. Good Hope elder explains:

 A person always has to observe the animal population. Even if there is a slight decrease, it's best to go somewhere else for the time being. If an area doesn't have a healthy (large) population, it should be left for about two years or even three.  Population predictions are based on detailed behavioural observations and the principle of harvesting at a level in accordance with individual and community need:  You just shoot what you can make use of. If there's lots of people you can shoot more than one moose. If there's just one family, you would usually just shoot one moose. You never take more than you need. In this way you prevent over-hunting.  Western science and Dene TEK also differ in their explanation of environmental phenomena. Dene TEK consists of a spiritually based moral code or ethic that governs the interaction between the human, natural, and spiritual worlds. Like many other indigenous cultures, Dene view the earth as a living organism. All life forms have kinship and are interdependent. In many instances there is reference to a higher power-the "Creator" who ensures that overall order is maintained in the system. Above all, humans do not have any special power or authority over other life forms. Resources are available for human use, but they are to be used in moderation and with care taken to ensure their continued existence for the benefit of future generations.

This lies in direct contrast to the western scientific explanation of environmental phenomena, which is based on the generation and testing of hypothesis and the establishment of theories and general laws. The scientific mode deliberately breaks down data into smaller elements in order to understand whole and complex phenomena. Social and natural phenomena are viewed as separate components, and humans are believed to be superior to other life forms.

These different perceptions are at the heart of much of the conflict and debate between state and wildlife managers and indigenous peoples today. Western scientists are often reluctant to accept TEK as valid because of the spiritual explanation for environmental phenomena. What they often fail to recognize, however, is that the spiritual explanation conceals conservation strategies and does not necessarily detract from the reality of a situation and the making of appropriate decisions about the wise use of resources. It merely indicates that the system exists within an entirely different cultural experience and set of values, one which paints no more and no less valid a picture of reality than the one which provides their own frame of reference.

By the same token, indigenous peoples are sometimes hesitant to accept western science because of what appears to be its overriding need to control and interfere with nature. Scientists are viewed as constantly tagging and capturing animals or digging holes in the ground. There can be no denying the socially and ecologically destructive impact western science and technology has had on indigenous cultures. However, in some instances, western science may be able to provide information that is otherwise unavailable through TEK (e.g., the ability to view ecological phenomena at the microscopic level or over large distances).

There is also a tendency for both knowledge systems to be judged according to a rigid set of generalizations and a static image of the past. Much of the skepticism on the part of western scientists toward TEK stems from the belief that, while it may have been impressive in its earlier forms, it is being irreversibly eroded by the assimilation of indigenous peoples into western culture, and by the failure of elders to pass on their knowledge to younger generations. It is undoubtedly true that some erosion of TEK has taken place. However, both the research of social scientists and indigenous peoples themselves confirm the continued vitality of their cultures and note that TEK is changing or evolving rather than dying.

Similarly, critics of western science often ignore the significant changes taking place within its domain. Over the past 20 years the fundamental tenets of western science-rational analytical thought, objectivity, and the Judeo-Christian ethic of human domination of nature-have been challenged for being ethnocentric and anti-ecological, and for ignoring the cultural dimension of technological development. As a result, western science is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary in response to today's globally interconnected world, in which biological, psychological, and social phenomena are recognized as belonging to interdependent systems. The search for alternative environmental philosophies among the modern ecological movement has drawn inspiration from TEK - the ecosystem approach and the concept of sustainable development being jus two examples.

There appears to be agreement among most scientists, govern meets, and indigenous peoples that integration of TEK and western science is desirable given the pluralistic nature of modern society' and the ecological interdependence among nations. Despite considerable discussion regarding the need to integrate the two systems and a few attempts to establish co-management institutions, the effective use of TEK for decision making has yet to be fully tested Why are TEK and western science so difficult to integrate? There are several related problems that can be identified in response to this question.

The first and most urgent problem is the rapid disappearance of TEK due to the death of elders and the lack of resources available to document it. It is only through documentation that the usefulness of TEK can become apparent and an improved understanding can be gained of the practices and conditions which lead to the breakdown and re-establishment of TEK management systems. For example, what does TEK have to say about the use of modern technology for harvesting and commercial incentives? How would traditional institutions of authority operate and enforce traditional laws in a modern context?

The second problem, as the above discussion reveals, is the difficulty of reconciling two profoundly different world views. In order to break down cultural barriers and eliminate misunderstandings, collaboration between indigenous researchers and western scientists is necessary. This arrangement requires that TEK be gathered by local indigenous peoples in order to obtain an accurate interpretation of the information from the "insider's" view. At the same time, social and natural scientists assist in the interpretation of results from a western scientific perspective. As part of this collaborative arrangement, training programs which include hands-on learning experience must be made available to both groups to introduce them to each other's knowledge system. All too often it is the indigenous researcher who is taught the scientific method and forced to adapt his or her cultural reality to that model. Western scientists need the same exposure to TEK.

In addition to overcoming cultural and attitudinal barriers, the third problem facing integration is the difficulty of translating one knowledge system into another. Even among those western scientists who do acknowledge the value of TEK, they generally apply scientific categories and methods to collect, verify, and validate it. Too often information is translated directly into English, without making the effort to examine whether or not the scientific terminology accurately reflects the indigenous concepts being described. Often TEK is revealed through stories and legends, which make it diff~cult for non-indigenous people to understand. Even the younger members of a community may not know the proper way to approach an elder to discuss certain subjects, or they may be unfamiliar with all of the subtleties and sophisticated terms of the indigenous language.

Finally, the integration of TEK and western science is clearly linked to the question of political power. Under the majority of existing state resource management systems, TEK is usually subordinate to western science. At the present time, co-management regimes represent the most widespread attempt to integrate TEK and western science in northern Canada. These regimes vary in their structure and in the degree of power accorded the participating user groups. However, most have only an advisory capacity. It remains to be seen to what extent these regimes actually incorporate new innovative strategies to problem solving. It may be that TEK is used merely to provide data for a decentralized state system which continues to adhere to the western scientific paradigm-and to do the managing. The question for the future is whether these regimes will be adopted as a model for comprehensive wildlife management under land claims settlements. If they are, there are a number of problems to be resolved. The first is to design a framework that will govern decision making, including the measures that will be used to evaluate any data collected. The second is to decide who will have the ultimate authority, the state or the local resource users?

It is clear that the integration of TEK and western science remains a distant goal. Quite apart from the ethical imperative of preserving cultural diversity, TEK is a valuable resource for assessing the social and environmental impacts of development projects and environmental change. Its survival and ability to take its rightful place in future resource management depends upon the willingness of governments and the scientific community to develop an environmental management process which accepts western science as only one method of seeking and interpreting knowledge. Resource management programs that encourage the growth of both knowledge systems in new and innovative ways must be given the necessary financial and administrative support to allow them to flourish. Indigenous peoples must also be fully involved in their design and implementation and they must be recognized through their participation with equal authority and legal standing.

Martha Johnson is Director of Research with the Dene Cultural Institute in Yellowknife, N.W.T. A longer version of this paper will appear in Lore: Capturing Traditional Environmental Knowledge, edited by Martha Johnson, to be published by the International Development Research Centre this fall.


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