What is Traditional Knowledge?

When an elder dies, a library burns.

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 ìslept, 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:

    The indigenous 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 between things.

  • 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 ìscience.  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 ìtraditional 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 two together. 

Comparisons between traditional and scientific knowledge styles

Indigenous Knowledge

Scientific Knowledge

assumed to be the truth

assumed to be a best approximation

sacred and secular together

secular only

teaching through storytelling


learning by doing and experiencing

learning by formal education

oral or visual


integrated, based on a whole system

analytical, based on subsets of the whole


model-  or hypothesis-based







Comparisons between traditional and scientific knowledge in use

Indigenous Knowledge

Scientific Knowledge

lengthy acquisition

rapid acquisition

long-term wisdom

short-term prediction

powerful prediction in local areas

powerful predictability in natural principles

weak in predictive principles in distant areas

weak in local areas of knowledge

models based on cycles

linear modeling as first approximation

explanations based on examples, anecdotes, parables

explanations bases on hypothesis, theories, laws


  • a mix of ecological and use

  • non-hierachical differentiation

  • includes everything natural and supernatural


  • based on phylogenic relationships

  • hierarchical differentiation

  • excludes the supernatural

Visit for information on traditional knowledge and foods.

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.

Back to Top

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 ìtraditionalî 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 ìtraditionalî 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 personal experience).

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 knowledge.

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 ensure that:

  • 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 exploitation.

Back to Top

Alaska Federation of Natives Board Policy Guidelines for Research

Advise those Native people who will be affected by the study of the purpose, goals and time frame of the research, the data-gathering techniques, the positive and negative implications and the impacts of the research.

Obtain informed consent of the appropriate governing body.

Fund the support of a Native research committee appointed by the local community to assess and monitor the project and ensure compliance with the expressed wishes of Native people.

Protect the sacred knowledge and cultural/intellectual property of Native people.

Hire and train Native people to assist in the study.

Use Native languages whenever English is the second language.

Include Native viewpoints in the final study.

Acknowledge the contributions of Native resource people.

Inform the Native research committee in a summary report, in non-technical language, of the major findings of the study.

Provide copies of the study to the local people.

Traditional Knowledge Issues

In addition to the Guidelines, these issues must be considered when acquiring, using or disseminating traditional knowledge.

Involve communities from scoping of research design; identify the stake holders and involve from the ground up.

Ensure the community concerns are heard and incorporate those concerns into the study products.

Determine what reporting will go back to the community and what form it will take; establish a community reporting schedule and keep it.

Processes are key to coming up with solutions.  Make your project process-oriented rather than goal-oriented.

Involve local harvesters as well as elders.  Landscapes change, so contemporary harvesters may know more about local conditions, while elders provide comparative information and other data.

Integrate youth.  The connection between youth and elders is an integral part of traditional societies and will yield many dividends.

Be gender-sensitive.  Womenís traditional activities and knowledge is different from that of men.

Make data orientation, gathering, analysis and applications locally-centered.

Make information usable and useful at a local level, then integrate into a larger data set.

Develop and maintain release forms for individuals and organizations.

Tie in as many geographical, species interaction, temporal and socio-cultural variables as practical.

Explicitly recognize the value of traditional knowledge, whether individual- or community-based.

Keep the entire gamut of socio-political ties in mind in developing contacts--tribes, clans, municipalities, corporations, non-profits, state and federal agencies and specialists.

Develop Memoranda of Understanding for clarity and trust purposes.

Develop methods and timelines for taking draft information back to communities for review and feedback, which would be integrated into products/reports for local, regional and wider use.

Look at models for protocols/guidelines developed by other agencies/organizations and borrow as appropriate.

Alaska Native Science Commission | P.O. Box 244305 | Anchorage, Alaska 99524