In The News

Buffalo Blogs: Learning TEK — Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Buffalo Blogs: Learning TEK — Traditional Ecological Knowledge

By Dr. Trudy Ecoffey, Tanka Fund Executive Director

September, moon of the falling leaves or brown leaves…

I recently attended the Ecological Society of America conference to give a presentation about the Tanka Family. It was in Montreal, Canada, homelands to many Indigenous people including the Mohawk Nation. (I have learned and appreciate when people tell me where they live that they also recognize or acknowledge the Indigenous Nation that used to occupy that area, or in some cases still occupy it. It’s called land acknowledgement.)

But before the conference began, I attended a two-day workshop on TEK or Traditional Ecological Knowledge. This workshop brought together scientists, scholars, and teachers that want to try to understand how TEK might fit into a European concept-based science model. But we already knew that it, TEK, can’t fit, not like we think it might. We as scientists have been trained in a linear way. Think about how Western science views research with a hypothesis or theory, and then it’s all straight-lined from there. Only a very lucky few, like myself, have had the opportunity to think outside that realm of thinking on what science is or what it might be outside of just the Western concept.

Group photo from TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge).

Some of the people at the workshop live TEK in their everyday lives, they are Indigenous to that “place.” But for me, I came about it by just my own curiosity and the willingness to think outside of the Western science model. As a wildlife biologist/range ecologist, I understand and was trained in scientific theory, methods and models. But being a child of great curiosity when I was younger, and possibly because I spent a great amount of time on the land which was my family’s farm and ranch (traditional homelands of the Pawnee, by the way), I may have had a more open mind to TEK. My younger years made me want to understand and learn how things functioned in a more holistic way. And as I have lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation for the last 25 years, I had many great opportunities for both formal and informal training on ways to understand and appreciate TEK.

I was also grateful to have teachers, mentors, and friends willing to share a little bit about what they knew of traditional knowledge. Knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation, or rediscovered or relearned or given back by divine intervention or through prayer or through ceremony or through dance or through song or through painting or just by listening to nature and Mother Earth.

Maybe at the conference, which most all of us attended from the workshop for at least one day, we were looking for a little respect or acknowledgement that TEK does exist. Several others gave presentations and there was a panel discussion on what TEK is. Maybe  we wanted to look into our inner selves to try to grasp why we, some lucky few, have been compelled to look deep into TEK. Almost like a rebirth of a new age of science, but really it’s just an older version of learning and understanding that people of every place had to know to survive in nature. To understand that there was not just this aimless wandering about by Indigenous people trying to find that right place to hunt or gather or camp before Europeans came to the continent. There was a strategic and deliberate focus of survival to everything.  It was centuries of trial and error and learning and praying and observing and knowing that if you estimated wrong on something, it might be the life of your people and a loss of your place…

Again, some by birth, who they are, are genetically already part of TEK and TEK is just part of their nature. It is second nature for them (or maybe first nature?). It was first nature for a people that inhabited an area for millennia, who must know how to survive in nature and with nature in a world that was a lot more diverse and uncontrolled by humans at that time.

Now with a world so occupied and so controlled, it seems TEK lost its flavor when Western science moved forward with the European invasion. An idea of place and knowing that was even lost to the people that knew it at one time, not allowed to be passed down from generation to generation because people were forced to use a new way of thinking. To think like those that now controlled the land. TEK, like many things, was “reprogrammed” or discounted so that that land could continue to be used as the new occupiers saw fit.

Western science fixed it all, right? Or did it? Now as we walk into a world of climate change and overconsumption, we must consider going back to an older way of thinking for survival.  Not that Western science can’t still be part of the equation and help us understand, it’s just that we need to start thinking outside that box more and quickly. We need to think more holistically and more circularly. Everything is connected and everything is related.

Image of slide with diagram of circles: Western written culture on one side, Indigenous oral culture on other side, Ethical Space in middle with arrow pointing and words Cultural Safety.

Whatever the purpose of our gathering, we did not necessarily walk away with a clear path as of yet. We did agree that there is a place in science for TEK and that there has always been a place, but maybe it was forgotten, or it was forced to be forgotten or bottled up or locked up or just kept secret until the general world would allow it to be seen and remembered and acknowledged again. You cannot separate the spiritual and physical world in TEK; some things are seen by the eye and some things are just known. Sometimes just with faith and a belief. Western science tries to explain all of the spiritual aspects away. Maybe it should try to embrace that not all things can be explained or known?

Ecology has not lost that knowing of TEK. The world both below and above keeps moving, living, dying, decomposing, and that energy is never used up. We must begin to decolonize ecology and rethink how we use the energy of this earth, or it may be lost to us or we lost to the earth…

So what does that all have to do with the buffalo? I would recommend you read “The Ecological Buffalo” by Wes Olson and Johane Janelle. It isn’t an Indigenous book or written by an Indigenous author, but it does show that there are inner workings in the ecological world, and the impact bison as a large grazing herbivore has upon an ecosystem. What function it plays and when removed, what balance has been lost in an ecosystem that evolved with a keystone species that is no longer on the landscape as it was.

I also suggest you read “A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape” by Candace Savage, which paints beautifully yet tragically how a people and a land were interrupted when lust for land came into north central Montana and southern Saskatchewan. It is a story of  what becomes of a land or people because a large herbivore was killed off and left a people without their economy and place. It describes in great detail that land, leaving you wanting to go see that place and see what became of it. The book reminds you that there is much more to a “place” than what you see on the surface.

None of the authors need my endorsement, but their humble, detailed, and graceful manner of how they present knowledge does need to be recognized and shared. Both books have a great amount of knowledge on how we go forward. Both books have given me a summer filled with a greater understanding of our mission at Tanka and what Tanka hopes to achieve.

Slide from Leroy Little Bear keynote.

The TEK workshop also has granted me a new energy and thought on buffalo restoration, not only for Indigenous families and communities, but for a natural world needing change and quickly. Like our keynote speaker of the conference, Dr. Leroy Little Bear (author, scholar, TEK elder, founder of Buffalo Treaty) reminded us, maybe we should think about “people” being the new kid on the block in this world of animals and evaluation of only around 10,000 years. Maybe we should have a better understanding and respect for the world if we are to survive another 10,000.

Some key words I am left with from the TEK workshop:  

  • Indigenous Geography — how Indigenous people see geography and not how Western science sees it
  • Science of the Sacred — learning about the world as if it is sacred and needs to be regarded as such, and not just  something we use and take advantage of
  • Land Acknowledgement — who occupied that land before you “owned it” or occupied it and why that is important