So What Is the Value of Traditional Ways of Knowing?
by Larry Merculieff
Summary: Merculieff relates the wisdom of Native peoples, their lifeways and ways of knowing and gives voice to the value and necessity of including these perspectives in science, educational fora so we can better understand the rapid decline in species populations in the Bering Sea.
Source: Bristol Bay Times. February 2004.
I have been in countless scientific forums where Alaska Natives were given ten minutes on a panel to discuss traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in terms of what it is and how it can be used in furthering scientific research of fish, wildlife, habitat, and environment. Scientists, I have concluded, are comfortable with the label TEK, and are very uncomfortable when one says Traditional Knowledge and Wisdom (TKW). Someone at a recent conference suggested that we could switch the terms and use Traditional Wisdom and Knowledge. Perhaps she is right…scientists will acknowledge that there is a traditional wisdom, separate from knowledge. As a result, conference organizers think that ten minutes to describe these ways of knowing is sufficient, but the elders and many other Alaska Natives know differently. These ways of knowing are sophisticated and complex…merging a deep and abiding sense of connection with all things in Creation with the discipline of the mind to secure information and guidance.
There are many things that science can benefit and learn from traditional ways of knowing. These ways see things with an understanding that everything is connected, and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In contrast, western science takes apart a piece to study and analyze, as if it is separate and apart from the whole. Only recently, with the advent of complexity and chaos theories in advanced physics, has western science acknowledged this age-old understanding. Chaos theory says, for example, that a butterfly’s wings affect the air, which in turn ultimately affects weather on the opposite side of the planet. The general public is learning that deforestation in South America affects the global climate. Everything is connected!
So, let’s apply some of principles of traditional ways of knowing to what is happening to the Bering Sea today. We know that harbor seal populations are down by 70 percent from historic high numbers; sea lions are down by 90 percent; that northern fur seals are down by 60 percent; that the king, common, steller, and spectacled eider populations have crashed; that sea otters are down by 70 percent; that capelin, a highly nutritious food fish for marine mammals and birds, are virtually gone; that certain species of salmon are in real trouble; that spotted seals and arctic loons are declining; that the population of certain species of crab have crashed. These are all scientifically acknowledged facts. What scientists do not know is why these fish and wildlife populations have plummeted, despite over twenty years of research in the case of steller sea lions and fur seals. They also cannot determine if there are any connections between the declines of any of these species. Additionally, they do not know the effects of the decline of one species on another.
The elders on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs noted that fur seals and sea birds are like honey bees. They send out “scouts” to find the food and transmit the information to the groups they come from. Scientists were skeptical of this until Pribilof Aleuts worked with a Russian ornithologist to test the information out. Making a long story short, the elder’s information was true, the birds somehow communicate where the food is. Later, radio telemetry tracking data shows that tagged northern fur seals do the same. So what? Well, what happens to the success in finding food when seabird and marine mammal numbers decline significantly so that there are fewer “scouts”? It is likely they are having a harder time finding food when food is hard to find in the first place because of global warming and sea temperature changes.
Likewise, with declines of urchin eating sea otters, there are more sea urchins. The more sea urchins, the more kelp is lost. The more kelp is lost, the less cover small fishes have to protect against sunlight and predators. More exposure to sunlight and predators means less small fishes. Less small fishes means less food for eagles, and so on. It also means less success in survival for key species of fish whose fry live nearshore. Everything is connected!
What about the overfishing on the Russian side of the Bering Sea? Does this not affect what is happening on the U.S. side? And doesn’t fewer numbers of marine mammals traveling in protective packs at sea mean more vulnerability to their predators? New questions like these arise when we see things in terms of connections. Perhaps we need the professors of the traditional ways…the elders, who see things in connected ways.