Mixed greens

Traditional knowledge in a new light

Posted 11/9/21

Land acknowledgments are becoming customary at educational gatherings. As the participants introduce themselves they acknowledge the tribal people who once occupied the lands where they now live. The …

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Mixed greens

Traditional knowledge in a new light


Land acknowledgments are becoming customary at educational gatherings. As the participants introduce themselves they acknowledge the tribal people who once occupied the lands where they now live. The first time I encountered this practice I was just relieved that I could answer: The land where I live was home to the Lenape, Native Americans whose lands once ranged from present-day Massachusetts to the state of Delaware. But I felt pretty shallow doing it. I empathized with the spirit of the exercise, but in practice, it felt perfunctory and disconnected.

Then this past summer I participated in a seminar organized by PUSH Buffalo, to learn about grassroots strategies for revitalizing neighborhoods and reclaiming, renovating and repurposing older structures to create healthy housing and vibrant public spaces.

This time, the land acknowledgment introduced a presentation by three local historians who delivered a vivid history lesson, covering the colonial-era displacement of Native Americans to the creation of the racially and ethnically segregated city. From the siting of polluting industries in poor neighborhoods to the use of eminent domain to take land for projects that benefited private enterprises rather than the public good. From the impacts of redlining—the systematic denial of financing to minority home buyers—to gentrification efforts that have priced moderate-income residents out of their neighborhoods.

In this context, the tribal land acknowledgment was necessary to a broader understanding of the historic patterns of predatory land use and the marginalization of people who get in the way—the ultimate expression of entitlement. It reinforced an overarching imperative—the people who live in a place must be fully vested in the development decisions that affect them, and their local knowledge and aspirations be respected, whether we are talking about tribal sovereignty or neighborhood self-determination.  

I’ve also been reading a lot lately about climate scientists, ecologists, agronomists and other earth scientists who are working with indigenous and rural communities around the world to learn about traditional practices of stewardship, farming and land management that can help us adapt to climate change.

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The term they use, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK, describes this intensive knowledge of a specific place, based on phenomena observed over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. For example, the Skolt Sami people in northern Finland are contributing climate change data based upon multi-generational observations of the behaviors of insects. Aboriginal people in wildfire-ravaged Australia are sharing their ancient controlled-fire techniques to reduce wildfires and preserve biodiversity. The Naso people of northwest Panama recently won a court decision restoring their sovereignty over 400,000 acres of ancestral lands, where they practice traditional stewardship and will now have a legal basis to resist illegal logging, cattle ranching, forced clearings and relocations as well as massive hydroelectric projects that endanger fish populations.

The Swinomish people of coastal Washington State are reviving their traditional practice of creating “clam gardens” on coastal beaches, modernizing a technique that ensures ample shellfish as other food staples decline. They are also working to repair and protect salmon runs on the Skagit River and prevent proposed mining projects that would damage the waters their communities depend on for food. The tribe’s climate action plan, published in 2010, was one of the first such documents in the United States.

It’s a longstanding practice for anthropologists to collect ethnographic data from indigenous groups as a way of understanding cultures. The difference now is that these collections of knowledge are finally recognized as science, moving beyond old labels like “folk wisdom.” And while conventional science tends to compartmentalize knowledge in the silos of specific disciplines, TEK looks at relationships among diverse observed phenomena—changes in vegetation, water, ice, seasons, animals and insects—to illuminate interdependencies and long cycles of recurring events. The problem of climate change, with its complex interactions and cascading effects, calls out for this bigger picture synthesized across disciplines.

The next time I’m called upon to make that brief land acknowledgment, I will also be acknowledging with gratitude generations of irreplaceable knowledge, gathered and preserved using a different vocabulary and handed down in a different tradition, and shared so generously now that we are perhaps ready to listen.


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