Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

The Value of Traditional Ecological Knowledge for the Environmental Health Sciences and Biomedical Research

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

The Value of Traditional Ecological Knowledge for the Environmental Health Sciences and Biomedical Research

Article excerpt


Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) refers to a subset of indigenous knowledge, preserved though oral tradition and through cultural expressions such as arts, crafts, and ceremonies and the cultivation, collection, and preparation of traditional foods. The preservation of this knowledge is increasingly threatened by the loss of indigenous languages worldwide, which affects not only the transmission of TEK through narratives, storytelling, and song but also the understanding of the meaning and significance of other forms of cultural expression (Moller 2009; Montag et al. 2014).

Although TEK has evolved for millennia among many of the world's indigenous peoples, it was advanced by tribal elders in the 1980s as a conceptual framework to help promote a better understanding of the interdependent relationships between people and the natural environment (Bureau of Indian Affairs 2016). Since its introduction, interest in TEK has been growing among non-Native scientists, public municipalities, and government agencies as an indigenous counterpart to Western biomedical and environmental health sciences knowledge systems. Academic researchers and federal agencies have begun to recognize that such region-specific historical knowledge can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity, protected areas, ecological processes, and sustainability of resources on Tribal lands (Alcorn 1989; Gadgil et al. 1993; Johannes 1998). Aspects of TEK were subsequently adopted by academic and public health agencies working with indigenous communities worldwide to valorize a knowledge system that comprises rich, longitudinal data gathered by generations of observers whose lives and culture depended on this information and its use (Anyinam 1995; Ohmagari and Berkes 1997).

TEK does not, however, represent a focus on a single scientific or environmental factor and thus may be misunderstood by Western scientists who have traditionally been trained to carve out a unique and relatively narrow niche of scientific inquiry and who, despite the recent promotion of system science and transdisciplinary research, may relate to TEK only through a disciplinespecific lens. Instead, TEK encompasses a broader and more multilayered understanding of the interconnection of humans and the environment and is defined differently depending on its application to resource and ecosystem management, law, mental health and substance abuse, ethnobotany, and, more recently, to environmental health and climate change research (Alcorn 1989; Tsosie 1996; McGregor 2009; Flint et al. 2011; Gone 2012; Maldonado et al. 2015; Moorehead et al. 2015).

Furthermore, whereas data collection is common to both approaches, TEK is preserved primarily as an oral tradition and is passed from generation to generation through storytelling, ceremonies, arts, crafts, and song, media that provide rich context and can flexibly evolve to incorporate new observations and understandings. Western scientists also codify knowledge, but they do so through reductionist approaches and in written form through publications, media that strive to eliminate context and rely on limited variables from which to draw conclusions.

Common themes have emerged among the various definitions of TEK and in the comparison of TEK to Western scientific tenets. For example, most definitions of TEK refer to local experience and knowledge gained over time by indigenous peoples who learned to coexist with the land, waterways, and plant and animal life (Berkes et al. 2000; Chapman 2007) and who assume that humans are one of "many interrelated components of an ecological system" (EPA Tribal Science Webinar: "Research, Traditional Knowledge and Community Health," October 2015; https://www. Various models have been proposed to attempt to extend understanding of the interconnectedness of humans and the environment beyond common demographic and economic variables by emphasizing the various interactions and linkages that can exist within and between system elements. …

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