Dr. Dave Ostergren and Hannah Barg, Goshen College

Dr. David Ostegren, Goshen College
Dr. David Ostergren, Goshen College
Learning how to Navigate Ecological Landscapes Together: The importance of TEK in the ecological restoration field
by Dr. Dave Ostergren and Hannah Barg

Goshen College, United States

December 2, 2016

How do western trained restoration ecologists and people who hold Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) collaborate to conduct more holistic restoration or natural resource management? This is a challenging question with a complex array of responses. A promising number of people and organizations already work together, but many restorationists and managers are either unfamiliar with TEK, or have not worked through perceived obstacles to collaboration. We hope that this column contributes to more collaboration by addressing a few challenges and successes. We look forward to future columns that provoke thought and encourage better, more holistic natural resource management across North America with particular respect to the role of the National Park Service.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is more than its standard definition as a traditional understanding of the natural world; it informs creation stories, culture, religion, and one’s role in society (e.g. see the References tab on this web site). TEK is a life-informing knowledge base. Although many view the two sources of knowledge as compatible, TEK is sometimes inconsistent with a western scientific view of ecology (aka Scientific Ecological Knowledge or SEK). This possibility may not even be considered or known by western trained ecologists.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Potawatomi) explains that issue of incompatibility between TEK and SEK as two conflicting paradigms: the nature as subject paradigm versus the nature as object paradigm (Kimmerer 2016). According to Kimmerer, from an indigenous person’s perspective, nature is subjective; it lives and breathes, it teaches, it possesses power, and it is in relationship with humans and other living creatures. Nature is seen as central to communal and individual survival. From the western scientific perspective, nature is objective. It is something to be studied, observed and measured; this may be completely separate from daily life. Nature is understood as a set apart place that humans visit.

As Dr. Watkins in Guest column #1 illustrated, despite these differences, TEK and SEK do have aspects in common and together can strengthen the overall understanding of an ecological landscape. Both are grounded in observations made in the natural world, are rooted in a respective tradition, and can help predict natural trends/cycles. According to Kimmerer, “TEK does not compete with science or detract from its power but extends the scope of science into human interactions with the natural world” (Kimmerer 2002). Incorporation of TEK in scientific studies has become increasingly popular worldwide in the past decade. This increased interest, understanding, and application of TEK is of particular importance in light of the combination of social and climate pressures that threaten Indigenous languages and the ecological context for TEK. The time to integrate TEK at an international level of understanding and acceptance is now.

Collaborative land restoration initiatives have the potential to positively benefit both Tribal and non-tribal stakeholders. Preserving sacred lands in accordance with the tradition of Tribal nations, as well as incorporating generations of knowledge regarding stewardship of particular landscapes, flora and fauna are just a few examples of how TEK can enhance the historical and ecological authenticity of ecologist’s restoration plans. These relationships in turn benefit Tribal nations, providing an avenue to preserve TEK for future generations, not to mention proper care and protection of sacred places which have historically been intentionally and unintentionally disturbed/destroyed.

However, there are also many potential barriers to creating this type of collaborative working relationship, including but not limited to spirituality, familiarity with TEK and working with tribal nations, and access/ knowledge of local tribal nations. Determining which of these barriers is most prominent will help create solutions and build lasting bridges between disconnected entities that desperately need each other.

In 2014, Dr. Dave Ostergren (Goshen College) and undergraduate student Ben Shelly investigated these potential obstacles for collaboration between Tribes/ First Nations in North America and western trained restoration ecologists. The sampling population for this survey were individuals who attended the 3rd World Congress for the Society of Ecological Restoration. Out of 741 participants who received the survey, there were 147 respondents with approximately 100 full submissions. The demographics ranged from land managers (governmental and non-governmental) to academics, graduate students, scientists, tribal members, and other. A majority were Midwesterners, but the overall sample was geographically diverse. Consistent with earlier surveys (e.g.Henn et al. 2010), a majority of respondents (82.5%) reported being “very familiar” or “familiar” with the concepts of TEK or Indigenous Knowledge (Barg 2015).

The initial underlying prediction of this study was that SEK and TEK are incompatible because of the spiritual component in TEK. As part of a nation's culture, TEK is inherently part of the spiritual relationship uniting people with all of creation. SEK holds a more objective, separate relationship with nature. Despite this hypothesis, the findings from the 2014 survey indicate that Spirituality is not an obstacle. Only 1% of the respondents indicated that they were uncomfortable with the spiritual component of TEK. In stories from tribal members and managers who want to talk about collaboration, we've found that if Tribal members take time to pray, thank the land or ask permission to collect, there is time and patience from other participating parties to do so. In some cases, non-tribal stakeholders are even invited to participate in or observe these spiritual activities.

The 2014 survey had several open ended questions that revealed more questions for further study. When comparing organizational type to familiarity with TEK, 76% of respondents working for a governmental organization reported being familiar with TEK concepts. This was the highest percentage among all organizational types, indicating that entities such as the State and National Park services are already doing an effective job of educating their employees about TEK concepts. However, there was a much lower percentage of respondents working for a governmental organization that reported ever having worked on a project involving TEK (38%). These results indicate that there is a disconnect between being familiar with TEK and knowing how to apply it to specific projects (Barg 2015).

The short answer section of the survey showed potential barriers responsible for this disconnect. Among many obstacles, the biggest issues appear to be trust, working in different time frames, and the western trained ecologists simply knowing how to appropriately connect with local or regional Tribes. A challenge for many western trained ecologists in federal or state resource management agencies, academic institutions and private companies is that doing collaborative restoration takes time. Taking the necessary time to meet with Tribes may not be a high enough priority during the restoration process. An even bigger obstacle arises when the local agencies doing restoration projects are unaware of which tribal groups to contact and have no preexisting relationship. This barrier exposes the need for more resources/ databases in the restoration field to connect restoration groups and Tribes together. Ultimately, all of these obstacles depend on effective relationship and network building between entities.

Case study: Collaboration between a Tribal Nation and Non-profit Land Trust

Collaboration between tribal nations and ecologists is not a new concept. Examples of collaboration can be found in the Oregon DNR (Cronin & Ostergren 2007) the National Park Service (Weber 2010; Henn et al. 2010), and elsewhere on the NPS TEK website. There are countless examples of this across the restoration field. A current example of relationship building between multiple stakeholders exists between the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation (JDCF) and the Ho-Chunk nation.

In present day Jo Daviess County, Illinois (NW Illinois), native peoples have dwelt, traded, fought and traveled along the Mississippi River for thousands of years. This is the location where the hierarchical Mississippian cultures met the oligarchical woodland nations, creating a unique hotspot for cultural, spiritual, and environmental knowledge sharing. Sacred effigy and burial mounds claimed by the Ho Chunk nation still exist on what are now private and publically owned lands. JDCF, a nonprofit land trust located in Elizabeth, Illinois, has found close to 100 effigy and burial mounds on 5 separate properties throughout the county. These mounds are claimed by the Ho Chunk Nation, though the true ancestry of these mounds are disputed. The remaining mounds were most likely constructed by several different tribal nations who dwelt in the area between 800-1200 years ago, ancestors of the Ho Chunk being one among these.

JDCF has begun to form a relationship with the Ho Chunk in order to learn how to properly care for these sacred spaces during land restoration projects. JDCF’s relationship with the Ho-Chunk has sparked interest in TEK and the Ho Chunk elders who may possess valuable knowledge about the Northwestern Illinois landscape and how to care for the mounds. This is a wonderful example of how TEK can enhance the understanding of a landscape’s important historical and ecological features to create a more complete restoration plan for these places, and lead to lasting relationships with Tribal nations.

Both the success and failure of working together to restore balanced ecosystems depends on how we view, interact, and care for the environment together. There are obviously differences between how TEK holders and western trained restoration ecologists view the environment. Our ability to recognize and reconcile these differences is what has and will continue to create positive working relationships between these groups in the present and future of land restoration initiatives.

Works Cited

Barg, H. (2015). Ecological Restoration and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK): Hope for a Collaborative Future. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Biological Sciences, Goshen College, Goshen, IN.

Cronin, A., & Ostergren, D. (2007). Tribal Watershed Management: Culture, Science, Capacity
and Collaboration. The American Indian Quarterly, 87-109.

Henn, M., Ostergren, D., & Nielson, E. (2010). Integrating traditional ecological knowledge
(TEK) into natural resource management. Park Science, 27(3), 48-55.

Wall Kimmerer, R. (2002). Weaving Traditional Ecological Knowledge Into Biological Education: ACall To Action. BioScience, 52(5), 432-439.

Wall Kimmerer, R. (2016, October). The Fortress, The River, and the Garden: New Metaphors for Knowledge Symbiosis. Lecture presented at The Sustainable Wisdom Conference, Notre Dame, IN.

Weber, Samantha, ed. 2010. Rethinking Protected Areas in a Changing World: Proceedings of the 2009 GWS Biennial Conference on Parks, Protected Areas, and Cultural Sites. Hancock, Michigan: The George Wright Society.

David Ostergren, Ph.D.
Professor, Sustainable and Environmental Education Department
Goshen College
Goshen, IN 46526
260 799-5869

Last updated: August 7, 2020