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Deconstructing TEK: An Introduction to Indigenous Knowlege Systems

By Hannah Johnson


Published May 12, 2014

Western scientific knowledge is the dominant approach to interpreting ecological systems, informing management, interpretation, and the future of resources. This approach often leaves out crucial dialogue and fails to acknowledge other knowledge systems that can give insight into adaptive strategies, resilience, and risk-mitigation (Fernandez-Gimenez et al. 2006; Friendship and Furgal 2012). One body of knowledge that attempts an inclusive approach is traditional ecological knowledge. TEKs are systems that seek to both reconcile the division between human and environment, and understand the functional components of gathering food, creating shelter, and other basic human needs. TEK as defined by Berkes (2012) goes further than this by incorporating all elements of humanity including, “environs where the sites of play and laughter, courtship and passion, disputes and animosity, death and sorrow [occur]” (Gaul 2007:132). TEK is an empirical approach based on long-term observations (Berkes 2012; Mazzocchi 2006) used to construct information, develop skills, and create interactive systems that change and adapt to perturbations. These knowledge systems are developed over generations, incorporated into lifeways, and are reflected in an intimate relationship with the land. TEK is not stock information that can be readily transferred from one group to the next, being carried along by the “universalism” of western science or the homogenous perception of Indigenous identity (Charnley et al. 2008; Ingold 2004).

“Traditional” in this sense does not mean “of the past” as it is commonly understood, but rather time-tested and wise (Berkes 2012). Although most scholars of TEK make this point, “traditional” nonetheless carries with it the more common connotation of “past,” or outmoded. This understanding of traditional is not only held by the public but has worked its way into the academic understanding of TEK (Hunn 1999; Hunn 2003). This mis-attribution of the word has led to Indigenous practices being challenged as non-traditional since people did not do them in the distant past (referring mainly to pre-EuroAmerican contact). This definition of traditional allows for no adaptation of traditional practices to changing social, political, economic, or ecological phenomonena. A stasis such as this undermines human resilience in the face of ever-present change. Resilience allows knowledge systems to be successful and enduring. Because of the limitations that arise with the use of the word “traditional,” this thesis will use the term indigenous knowledge systems (Berkes 2012; Cajaete 1994).

Similar to TEK, indigenous knowledge systems emphasize the understandings, skills, and philosophies developed over an extended period of time that govern human interactions (Nakashima et al. 2012). Many indigenous knowledge systems have an inherent balance and interplay between nature and what western science refers to as “spirit.” One arises from the other in a continuous ebb and flow (Cajate 1994) that permeates all elements of life. An example of this is the Kenaitze Dena’ina Peoples’ perception of the world as a dynamic place that is animate and alive. The world traditionally did not only consist of the Kenaitze People, but of rocks, mountains, glaciers, water, and plants that had equivalent life forces (Boraas and Peter 1996). This is shown in the use of the term “people” when referring to the essence of these beings, acknowledging a personhood not often considered in western culture (Kalifornsky 1991; Alexan 1965; Boraas and Peter 1996). This interconnection prohibits a division between human and nature, spirit and empirical, subjective and objective.


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