TEK: Another Way of Understanding Our Natural World

TEK: Another Way of Understanding Our Natural World

I had the privilege last week to participate in an interesting workshop hosted by Chugachmiut, an Alaska Native nonprofit agency that serves seven villages in the Chugach region: Port Graham, Nanwalek, Qutekcak, Chenega Bay, Valdez, Tatitlek and Eyak. It was originally planned to be a meeting between tribal elders and Local Education Coordinators to discuss how best to introduce Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) into school curricula. However, several local scientists, including a few from Outside who happened to be at the Kachemak Bay Science Conference in Homer, were invited to review their work.

Particularly in a world with global warming, where data sets for ecological systems are rarely long enough to address what is real change over long-term natural variation, TEK is advocated as a body of observational knowledge that can complement scientific knowledge. Western science is typically argued to be more rigorous, but consider that TEK is learned through trial-and-error over thousands of years. And, occasionally, if you get it wrong, you end up dead. Outcomes that severe are likely to pass whatever test for rigor you might come up with.

Sure enough, the natural resource issues brought up by elders were very much in-line with ones that a group of ecologists would likely have discussed for our local area. Tribal Chief Pat Norman from Port Graham discussed the importance of maintaining forested buffers along streams for salmon and around muskegs for moose when logging. Bill Smith, an Eyak elder, pointed out that the Valdez Glacier was once visible from the airport in Valdez, but it has now retreated too far up its terrestrial fjord to be seen. And hooligan used to run in that river but reportedly don’t anymore.

Patrick Selanoff, both tribal elder and commercial fisherman, mentioned that the mesh size of his net is now 4.25 inches for sockeye salmon, rather than the 5.25 inches he used not so long ago. Whether fish are getting smaller from harvest management or changing conditions at sea remains to be seen, but those kind of observations can serve as a working hypothesis in a more conventional scientific investigation to answer the why.

This same elder also mentioned his concern about marine ballast dumping from visiting cargo and cruise ships. He told a good story about a 125-pound grouper that showed up in the waters around Valdez, far north of its normal range … and how good it tasted. Mark King, from Cordova, spoke of a sighting of a sunfish in Hinchinbrook Pass, another fish species normally in the tropics. And last February, salmonberry was blossoming along with devil’s club in the Cordova area, both species out of phenological sync with each other and the season.

Western science sometimes struggles with these place-based observations because it is difficult to know if these anomalies are part of a larger spatial pattern or temporal trend. One way to call attention to all of these observations is by tracking them through an Alaska-centric online database such as the Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network (https://www.leonetwork.org). In 2012, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium launched the LEO Network to help the tribal health system and local observers share information about climate and other drivers of environmental change. In 2015, the LEO Network was recognized by the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council as a model program to help raise awareness and improve communication about climate change in the circumpolar region. Consider joining this network — data can be submitted via your smartphone through the LEO Reporter mobile app.

These are indeed strange times. We need to be receptive to other ways of knowing, such as TEK, particularly as communities and society at large adapt by necessity to a rapidly changing climate. Asked what message needs to be passed to the younger generation, Chief Norman suggested that we “use traditional values in our responsibilities toward the environment” rather than money as the primary metric. What a great lesson to learn and share!

Dr. John Morton is the supervisory biologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more information about the Refuge at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/kenai/ or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge

More in News

Nate Rochon cleans fish after dipnetting in the Kasilof River, on June 25, 2019, in Kasilof, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
King closures continue; Kasilof dipnet opens Saturday

The early-run Kenai River king sport fishery remains closed, and fishing for kings of any size is prohibited

An "Al Gross for Congress" sign sits near the driveway to Gross’ home in Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, after he announced plans to withdraw from the U.S. House race. Gross has given little explanation in two statements for why he is ending his campaign, and a woman who answered the door at the Gross home asked a reporter to leave the property. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Alaska judge rules Sweeney won’t advance to special election

JUNEAU — A state court judge ruled Friday that Alaska elections officials… Continue reading

Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion 
Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen listens to a presentation from Alaska Communications during a meeting of the Soldotna City Council on Wednesday, March 9, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska.
ACS pilots fiber program in certain peninsula neighborhoods

The fiber to the home service will make available the fastest internet home speeds on the peninsula

Nurse Tracy Silta draws a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the walk-in clinic at the intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling Highways in Soldotna, Alaska on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. COVID-19 vaccines for kids younger than 5 years old are now approved by both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Camille Botello / Peninsula Clarion)
COVID shots for kids under 5 available at public health

Roughly 18 million kids nationwide will now be eligible to get their COVID vaccines.

Megan Mitchell, left, and Nick McCoy protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning of Roe v. Wade at the intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling highways on Friday, June 24, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
‘Heartbroken’, ‘Betrayed’: Alaskans react to Roe decision

Supreme Court decision ends nearly 50 years of legally protected access to abortion

Demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, June 24, 2022. The Supreme Court has ended constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place nearly 50 years, a decision by its conservative majority to overturn the court’s landmark abortion cases. (AP Photo / Jose Luis Magana)
Alaskans react to Supreme Court overturn of Roe v. Wade

The Supreme Court has ended constitutional protections for abortion.

Tara Sweeney, a Republican seeking the sole U.S. House seat in Alaska, speaks during a forum for candidates, May 12, 2022, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/ Mark Thiessen)
Lawsuit says Sweeney should advance in Alaska US House race

The lawsuit says the fifth-place finisher in the special primary, Republican Tara Sweeney, should be put on the August special election ballot

Gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker stands in the Peninsula Clarion office on Friday, May 6, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Alaska AFL-CIO endorses Walker, Murkowski, Peltola

The AFL-CIO is Alaska’s largest labor organization and has historically been one of its most powerful political groups

A portion of a draft letter from Jeffrey Clark is displayed as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues to reveal its findings of a year-long investigation, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Federal agents search Trump-era official’s home, subpoena GOP leaders

Authorities on Wednesday searched the Virginia home of Jeffrey Clark

Most Read