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Tribal Wisdom & Western Science: A Holistic Approach to Conservation

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative are learning how Traditional Ecological Knowledge can inform our collective understanding of climate change — and how communities in the Pacific Northwest can adapt.

By Amanda Fortin (USFWS) & John Mankowski (NPLCC)


Photo: The S’Klallam Tribe mans a traditional canoe, Credit: Jonathon Ratcliff

Since time immemorial, indigenous peoples have understood the inextricable link between climate, landscapes, watersheds, and plants and animals. Tribes understand that the health of people, plants, and wildlife is tied to the health of the environment.  Indigenous knowledge – often referred to as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) — can offer important perspective to inform resource management in a time of rapid environmental change.  Increasingly, resource management agencies are looking at how natural resources respond to climate change.  Using the scientific method, their tools typically favor analytical and reductionist approaches.  This western science methodology can miss the complex interactions between people and the broader ecosystem.  When TEK is considered along with western science, we can gain a more holistic understanding of our natural environment, enabling us to create a more resilient future for the Pacific Northwest.

Traditional knowledge is sacred and often held in close confidence within tribal communities.  In an effort to capitalize on the strengths of TEK and western science, Pacific Northwest and Alaska Native Tribes, First Nations in Canada, and agencies launched seven unique pilot projects throughout the Pacific Northwest’s coastal temperate rainforest.  These projects will support tribally-led approaches to bring carefully considered traditional knowledge into climate change initiatives.  Through these pilot projects, Tribes, First Nations and agencies will work together to find culturally-appropriate ways for traditional knowledge to help inform resource management decisions.   The North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NPLCC), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Region, and the Northwest Climate Science Center (NW CSC) recently announced $300,000 in grants to support the TEK pilot projects.  These tribally-led projects occur along the Pacific Coast throughout the range of the NPLCC, from south central Alaska to northern California – areas where climate change is already impacting natural and cultural resources.

These innovative grants are intended to address a wide range of climate-related challenges.   They will examine the potential risks of climate change on cultural resources and develop dynamic management options at a landscape scale.  From the local changes to plant and animal species, to the broader effects of changing ocean conditions on coastal communities, these projects demonstrate how TEK and western science inform decision makers as they grapple with understanding and preparing for the impacts of climate change.


Photo: Hands on learning for the next generation at Salmon Camp hosted by Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS

“We want to create a unified starting point,” says Dennis Nickerson, environmental planner for The Organized Village of Kasaan. “We want state and federal agencies to collaborate with Tribes and this funding from the NPLCC and Fish and Wildlife Service allows us all to work together and protect resources for our grandchildren.”

This collaboration among Tribal, state, and federal entities grows increasingly important as both western science and indigenous knowledge point to a rapidly changing climate and diminishing resources. As NASA tells us that 2012 was the warmest year on record for the United States and the ninth warmest year for the planet, Tribal oral tradition tells us that glaciers have melted and shorelines have changed[i]. These conclusions may have been arrived at by different methods but their message is the same – our climate is changing and we must learn to adapt.


Learning to adapt often requires a radical shift in thinking. “Scientific research and Tribal elders both suggest the presence of glaciers here in Bella Bella [British Columbia] and the presence of a vibrant maritime culture,” says Jenifer Carpenter, culture and resource manager for Heiltsuk Nation. “People’s existence was tied to getting around in small boats to gather important resources to sustain us.  Now it is not that way….we talk of marine adaptation as if the water will adapt to us and I think it is the other way around.  We must understand and plan for changing conditions.”  

The foundation for this kind of change is knowledge. These TEK grants strive to find culturally-appropriate ways for indigenous knowledge to inform the adaptation strategies that tribal and non-tribal natural resource managers are beginning to develop.  “I am hoping the TEK study will let us sit down with elders and find out what it used to be like – the traditional ways of supporting indigenous people in the region,” says Greg Collins, cultural resources manager and archaeologists for California State Parks. “We need to understand how climate-related changes like shifting PH levels in our oceans   will affect resources important to native subsistence, cultures and traditions.” Collins isn’t alone on his quest for understanding and he is excited about the chance to examine modern problems with indigenous knowledge.


Photo: Warm Springs tribal members harvest lamprey at Willamette Falls, Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS

The perspective offered by TEK, according to Ron Reed, Cultural Biologist for the Karuk Tribe is invaluable in its own right. “Our ancestors had their own paradigm for managing cultural resources that they practiced for generations and this offers us a wealth of knowledge on which to draw.” When paired with the research of scientists and academics, Reed explains, “a more holistic paradigm is created and we can break down barriers to understanding and manage our natural resources more effectively in the face of our shifting environments.” As Reed notes, the place-based nature of TEK, coupled with its long and effective history in managing the natural resources of the Pacific Northwest, makes it a vital knowledge system in addressing climate change concerns and other barriers to management.

Wise stewardship of natural resources is something the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, a key funding agency of these TEK grants, strives for.  In a world in which climate change has become what Stephen Zylstra, Director of Science Applications for the Service, calls “the new normal,” the agency is committed to “working with tribes to develop a more holistic approach to understanding environmental changes and assisting with adaptation to those changes in ways that benefit our environment and our communities.”

TEK provides the opportunity for just that – a more universal understanding of the ways climate is changing and the ways people - agencies, Tribes, and communities - can adapt for the better. This human element of climate change has long been a focus of indigenous peoples like the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community who rely on the natural environment for subsistence and autonomy. The Swinomish have identified their relationship with the local environment, their ability to fish, hunt and gather, as a central component of both their community’s health and ability to self-determine. Both the health and the sovereignty of the Swinomish are determined by their continued relationship to the land upon which they live.  “It is a way to think about climate change and community health with priorities already in place,” says Jamie Donatuto, Environmental Health Analyst for the Swinomish Tribe. “The climate change concerns of the Swinomish are reflective of many Tribal communities in the Northwest …  an increasing concern about the future of our social, cultural and environmental stability.”


Photo: Wenix Red Elk with the Umatilla Tribe demonstrates to students how to make Tule mats at Salmon Camp hosted by CRITFC Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS

Also focused on cultural sustainability, Terry Williams from the Tulalip Tribe in Washington State is driven to bring attention to climate change and its impacts on the region.  One way he does this is by partnership with the NPLCC.  “The partners of NPLCC respect and value indigenous knowledge — and do a good job responding to tribal priorities in the region.”  Climate change knows no political boundaries and a central focus of the NPLCC is to pool resources and share what is known from a variety of perspectives to get a handle on what the future holds.  

Sharing what is learned from these pilot projects is of interest to tribal and non-tribal entities locally, regionally, and nationally.   The Pacific Northwest Tribal Climate Change Project (TCCP) is helping track these pilot projects and communicate their progress throughout the country through online project profiles.  TCCP is a collaboration between the University of Oregon Environmental Studies Program and the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. The TCCP is aimed at building an understanding of the ways in which climate change may impact tribal culture, sovereignty and traditional ways of life.

Western science is one way to gain knowledge about environmental change it is equally useful to learn how traditional knowledge can help explain the changes we see around us, anticipate what it means to our future, and adapt to a changing world.  This combined approach will help indigenous and non-indigenous communities alike cope with the uncertainty and unpredictability we see in the environment of the Pacific Northwest.  


Photo: Pacific Northwest Tribal Art, Credit: Seattle Aquarium

Special thanks to Carson Viles and Kathy Lynn from TCCP for input, review, and collaboration. 

Visit the following resources for more information on TEK and climate change: 

Grossman, Zoltan; Parker Alan (2012) Asserting Native Resilience -Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis. Oregon State University Press. ISBN 978-0-87071-663-8. Paperback, $24.95.

Lynn K, Daigle J, Hoffman J, Lake F, Michelle N, Ranco D, Viles C, Voggesser G, Williams P (2013) The Impacts of Climate Change on Tribal Traditional Foods. Climatic Change. DOI: 10.1007/s10584-013-0736-1

Vinyeta, Kirsten; Lynn, Kathy. 2013. Exploring the role of traditional ecological knowledge in climate change initiatives. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-879. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 37 p.

Whyte K (2013) Justice Forward: Tribes, climate adaptation and responsibility. Climatic Change. DOI: 10.1007/s10584-013-0743-2

-          NPLCC web site

-          USFWS Region One Climate Change web site

-          TCCP web site

-          Northwest Climate Science Center web site


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