When an elder dies, a library
Traditional Knowledge Systems
in the Arctic
An Eskimo hunter once saw a polar bear far off across flat ice,
where he couldnít stalk it without being seen. But he knew
an old technique of mimicking a seal. He lay down in plain
sight, conspicuous in his dark parka and pants, then lifted and
dropped his head like a seal, scratched the ice and imitated flippers
with his hands. The bear mistook his pursuer for prey.
Each time the hunter lifted his head the animal kept still; whenever
the hunter ěslept, the bear crept closer. When it came near
enough, a gunshot pierced the snowy silence. That night, polar
bear meat was shared among the villagers.
A traditional hunter plumbs the depth of his intellect - his capacity
to manipulate complex knowledge. But he also delves into his
animal nature, drawing from intuitions of sense and body and heart;
feeling the windís touch, listening for the tick of moving ice,
peering from crannies, hiding himself as if he were the hunted.
He moves in a world of eyes, where everything watches - the bear,
the seal, the wind, the moon and stars, the drifting ice, the silent
waters below. He is beholden to powers greater than his own.
What is traditional knowledge?
An understanding of traditional knowledge and how it differs from
non-indigenous knowledge is an important basis for determining how
to use it. Knowing what it contains and how it is acquired
and held is fundamental to being able to make good use of the knowledge
and to encourage all parties to be aware of the added value its
use will bring.
The Director General of United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization (Mayor, 1994) defines traditional knowledge:
people of the world possess an immense knowledge of their environments,
based on centuries of living close to nature. Living in
and from the richness and variety of complex ecosystems, they
have an understanding of the properties of plants and animals,
the functioning of ecosystems and the techniques for using and
managing them that is particular and often detailed. In
rural communities in developing countries, locally occurring species
are relied on for many - sometimes all - foods, medicines, fuel,
building materials and other products. Equally, peopleís
knowledge and perceptions of the environment, and their relationships
with it, are often important elements of cultural identity.
Most indigenous people have traditional songs, stories, legends,
dreams, methods and practices as means of transmitting specific
human elements of traditional knowledge. Sometimes it is preserved
in artifacts handed from father to son or mother to daughter.
In indigenous knowledge systems, there is usually no real separation
between secular and sacred knowledge and practice - they are one
and the same. In virtually all of these systems, knowledge
is transmitted directly from individual to individual.
How do Native people define traditional knowledge?
- It is practical common sense based on teachings and experiences
passed on from generation to generation.
- It is knowing the country. It covers knowledge of the
environment - snow, ice, weather, resources - and the relationships
- It is holistic. It cannot be compartmentalized and cannot
be separated from the people who hold it. It is rooted in
the spiritual health, culture and language of the people.
It is a way of life.
- Traditional knowledge is an authority system. It sets
out the rules governing the use of resources - respect, an obligation
to share. It is dynamic, cumulative and stable. It is truth.
- Traditional knowledge is a way of life -wisdom is using traditional
knowledge in good ways. It is using the heart and the head
together. It comes from the spirit in order to survive.
- It gives credibility to the people.
Comparisons between indigenous and scientific knowledge
The temptation to compare scientific and traditional knowledge
comes from collecting traditional knowledge without the contextual
elements. For example, Native people have a far richer and
more subtle understanding of the characteristics of ice and snow
than do non-indigenous people. In fact, some Native classification
is available only by virtue of its relationship to human activities
and feelings. These comparisons sometimes incorrectly lead
science practitioners to trivialize traditional understanding.
Whereas scientific practice generally excludes the humanistic perspective,
traditional understanding assumes a holistic view including language,
culture, practice, spirituality, mythology, customs and even the
social organization of the local communities.
For many indigenous people today, the communication of traditional
knowledge is hampered by competition from other cultures that capture
the imagination of the young. They are bombarded by technology
that teaches them non-indigenous ways and limits the capacity of
elders to pass on traditional knowledge to the young. As the
elders die, the full richness of tradition is diminished, because
some of it has not been passed on and so is lost. It is important
therefore to find ways of preserving this knowledge. One of
the most effective ways to embody it in the decisions about projects
that affect the communities.
Too often, traditional knowledge is incorrectly made parallel only
to ěscience. Science is but a small part of non-indigenous
knowledge. Similarly, to suggest that traditional knowledge
is only the equivalent of science is to diminish incorrectly the
strength and breadth of traditional knowledge. Thus, the suggestion
that traditional knowledge should be characterized as ětraditional
science diminishes its breadth and value.
While it is not appropriate to compare scientific and traditional
knowledge as equivalents, the use of traditional knowledge in scientific
knowledge in science means that the two knowledge bases will be
in contact with each other as practitioners attempt to weave the
To see a comparison table of traditional and scientific knowledge
styles and uses, click HERE.
To view or go to the Traditional
Knowledge & Native Foods Database (website), click HERE.
Role of women and children in traditional knowledge
Traditional knowledge that is held by women needs special consideration
for a number of reasons. Native women, as the primary harvesters
of medicinal plants, seed stocks and small game, are keepers of
the knowledge about significant spheres of biodiversity in their
own right, and as such, are the only ones able to identify the environmental
indicators of ecological health in those spheres.
Perhaps even more central in importance is the fact that women
share with men the responsibility for stewardship of values in their
societies. They feel a keen responsibility to future generations
for action undertaken today that affect the world in which we all
live and for their descendants. It is women, for the most
part, who transmit to the next generation these values as part of
their stewardship role. Their multi-generational perspective
must be taken into account.
The Structure of Local Systems
of Native Knowledge
Traditional and nontraditional knowledge
Many Natives hold traditional knowledge handed down to them from
previous generations through oral tradition. This ětraditionalî
knowledge is the cornerstone of Native cultural identity and survival
as a people. Some aspects of traditional knowledge are common
and shared throughout the Arctic. Other aspects are more localized
and specific to certain communities, families and even individuals.
However, Native knowledge is not just traditional. Natives
also possess knowledge that does not have its origin in traditional
lifestyles, spirituality, philosophy, social relations, customs,
cultural values, etc. In other words, Natives have obtained
an extensive body of nontraditional knowledge through direct exposure
(e.g. cultural interaction and formal schooling) and indirect exposure
(e.g. television and other media) to non-Native values, attitudes,
ways of thinking, philosophies, institutions, etc. Together,
these two sources of knowledge, traditional and nontraditional,
articulate to produce a frame of understanding and validation that
give meaning to the world around them.
In fact, it can be argued that all Native knowledge, traditional
and otherwise, is contemporary. It has given meaning from
a frame of reference that is continually being updated and revised.
Viewing native knowledge as ětraditionalî and static invites denial
of the relevance and efficacy of the application of Native knowledge
to contemporary issues and problems. In other words, Native
sometimes feel that the use of traditional knowledge to denote all
that they know imposes a way of life on them that is shackled to
the past and does not allow them to change.
Ecological and non-ecological knowledge
Many Natives possess ecological knowledge that is traditional in
nature. They depend extensively on this knowledge for maintaining
their relationship with animals and providing food for their families.
But they have also gained extensive ecological knowledge from their
own experiences with the land and other sources (e.g. formal schooling
and contact with biologists). In fact, their experiences often
validate, inform and give new meaning and value to traditional knowledge.
Thus, Native ecological knowledge is composed of both traditional
knowledge and experiential knowledge (i.e. knowledge gained through
Native systems of local knowledge
Local knowledge systems are based on the shared experiences, customs,
values, traditions, lifestyles, social interactions, ideological
orientations and spiritual beliefs specific to Native communities.
These are forever evolving as new knowledge is obtained or generated.
But Native knowledge is more than the sum of its parts. These
parts articulate or merge to form unique, dynamic and evolving systems
of local knowledge. The richness and complexity of local knowledge
systems derive principally from the fact that they incorporate,
and are often the resolution of, two very different world views.
A researcher cannot separate out any one aspect or component of
Native knowledge (e.g. traditional ecological knowledge) to the
exclusion of any other without misinterpreting it as Natives see
and understand it. This is why Native want control over how
their knowledge is collected, interpreted and used.
Maintaining ownership and control of traditional knowledge
Natives own the intellectual property rights to their traditional
knowledge, even if much of it has yet to be written down.
No one has the right to document or use traditional knowledge without
permission. And, when their knowledge is recorded by others,
Natives have the right to insist that it not be taken out of context
or misrepresented. When traditional knowledge is cited by
others, Natives also have the right to insist that the source of
this knowledge be properly acknowledged. In other words, Native
have the rights to own and control access to their traditional knowledge.
Native possess both collective and individual traditional knowledge.
Most traditional knowledge is shared among community members.
But some traditional knowledge may be specific to an individual.
For example, some elders and resource-users will, because of different
life experiences, be the only source of certain types of traditional
It remains up to the individual to decide whether s/he wishes to
share his/her knowledge with outside parties. However, we
recognize that there is an urgent need to assume and maintain control
over how local and traditional knowledge is collected, interpreted
and used by non-local interests. Thus, we are in the process
of formally taking responsibility for, and control of, any traditional
knowledge studies to be carried out in Native communities.
This is not to suggest that biologists and other researchers are
not welcomed to participate in traditional knowledge research.
Rather, by having this type of research controlled locally, it will
- Community needs and interests will be served first, and
- The real contributions of local and traditional knowledge will
have the potential to be realized.
Traditional knowledge incorporates knowledge of ecosystem relationships
and a code of ethics governing appropriate use of the environment.
This code includes rules and conventions promoting desirable ecosystem
relations, human-animal interactions and even social relationships,
since the latter continue to be established and reaffirmed through
hunting and other activities on the land. Traditional knowledge
articulates with nontraditional knowledge to form a rich and distinctive
understanding of life and the world.
Many Natives view the extraction of their traditional knowledge
from its broader cultural context as a form of theft and, understandably,
have been reluctant to share the depth and breadth of what they
know with outside interests. They also fear that, because
many wildlife managers and decision-makers do not understand their
culture, customs or values, their traditional knowledge will somehow
be used against them (e.g. setting quotas and other hunting regulations).
At best, piecemeal extraction of traditional knowledge from its
larger cultural context invites misrepresentation and misinterpretation.
At worst, it represents a form of misappropriation and cultural
Alaska Federation of Natives Board Policy Guidelines