Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Native American Perspectives on Health and Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Native American Perspectives on Health and Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Article excerpt

Introduction: The Context of Health and Traditional Ecological Knowledge

The term traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) was first introduced in the 1980s as a means to raise awareness of the existence and value of Indigenous knowledge (IK) in conservation efforts and to ensure equity to its treatment, especially in the context of scientific theories and methods. The application of TEK within the environmental sciences, however, has been subject to an ongoing debate centered around the acceptance of fields of knowledge and expertise that are identified as either Indigenous or scientific. As this debate is well documented (Finn et al. 2017), we do not seek to revisit it, but rather build off that perspective to examine an understudied area--how TEK is conceptualized when applied by Native American (NA) scholars and communities to address environmental health disparities. We provide a brief precis to the origins of TEK, employing this as a way to outline the contemporary research landscape in which concurrent concepts operate, such as traditional and Indigenous knowledge, as well as ideas about well-being. In addition, we consider the exposome, which is the course of environmental exposures over a life span.

We also consider the interdisciplinary, cultural, scientific and environmental research realm in which these authors conduct research. This overview reveals particular intersections between different areas of cultural and discipline-based expertise and highlights where concepts about the environment, mental and physical health and well-being cross over and relate to each other. We subsequently address the potential of TEK as an interdisciplinary conceptual framework and systems-based approach that has the ability to advance insight into complex environmental health problems, especially when employed to bridge disciplinary and culturally diverse knowledge systems.

These specific perspectives on TEK communicated here have their origins in a series of workshops organized by what has become known as the Health and Culture Research Group (HCRG). This group was started in 2014 at the Smithsonian Institution and later expanded to hold workshops at Western Carolina University in April of 2015 and the National Institutes of Health in December of 2015. These workshops explored NA concepts of health and TEK in order to address how these could be used as mechanisms for improving Native health outcomes. Our aim for this working group was also to convene a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary research group whose combined expertise could potentially bridge the medical, earth, and social sciences with IK systems. The workshops revealed NA concepts of health were often not acknowledged or included in the research conducted in NA communities (Donatuto et al. 2016), despite the involvement of tribal-affiliated research partners. The group subsequently outlined the need and desire by a wide range of stakeholders for broader communication of Native perspectives on the relationship between culture and well-being across a wide range of disciplines such as psychology, biology, medicine, and environmental and public health, as well as the necessity of building bridges between federal and scientific agencies/institutions and Native communities. These discussions led to the impetus to disseminate NA views on health and TEK to the NIH, as well as to a larger field of researchers in the environmental health sciences (EHS) through webinars and interdisciplinary publications (Finn et al. 2017).

Based on our specific lines of research in NA environmental health and social contexts, we explore this distinct perspective on TEK based on its use by Native scholars and its adoption in community-based programming, focusing on the dynamics between distinct knowledge systems. We concentrate on the value of TEK as a conceptual framework that enables analysis of compound knowledge dynamics, firstly in the cross-cultural intersections between scientific community-based researchers and NA communities, and secondly in interdisciplinary contexts, such as the EHS. …

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