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Exploration of Modern Indigenous Knowledge and the Power of Indigenous and Western Science

ESA Water Cooler Chat ~ November 13th, 2020

Celebrate Native American Heritage month with James Rattling Leaf, Sr., Rosebud Sioux Tribe, University of Colorado-Boulder, and Robert Newman, the University of North Dakota from ESA’s Traditional Ecological Knowledge Section as we explore: What is Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)? How does the power of indigenous knowledge contribute to Western science? What insights can TEK provide into the way we teach our students to connect with the world? Bring your favorite beverage and join us for an inspiring Water Cooler Chat.

James Rattling Leaf, Sr. Rosebud Sioux Tribe, University of Colorado-Boulder
Robert Newman, University of North Dakota

Note from the ESA Traditional Ecological Knowledge Section

The ESA Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) section leadership recognizes the importance of listening and learning from Indigenous people so that respectful, reciprocal and effective relationships can be developed to further understand the importance of TEK and its contribution to our world.

This language is to highlight the role of the TEK section and its rebirth so to speak.  We want to do the TEK work is good and helpful way to all people who want to work with us and ESA.

Introduction to Water Cooler Chat

This Water Cooler Chat celebrates Native American Heritage month with a tribute to Indigenous Knowledge in science and education. We are honored by the presence of James Rattling Leaf, (Rosebud Sioux, Lakota) and Robert Newman as our guests, both leaders in the ESA Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Section. We are sincerely grateful for the presence of many participants who are indigenous. We thank Gemma Lockhart for her prayerful blessing for this webchat.  

It has been very inspiring to see the groundswell of interest in indigenous knowledge and its many applications in the world we live in today. We thank all the participants who shared resources and ideas of where to start to connect with indigenous peoples.   

This session was recorded and we have added Closed Caption as well as the transcript.  

Questions and Contributions from Participants 

The recording of the chat addressed questions and comments voiced by participants. Additionally, many also added their perspectives in the Zoom chat.  

This section contains many questions and contributions that have enriched the discussion or may not have been addressed by our guests in the time we had Please do listen to the recording or review the transcript for a full picture of the conversation. 

The conversation, along with these questions and comments provide much food for thought. We hope we will be able to pick up some of these themes to deepen the conversation in the near future.   

  • Does relationships/systems thinking help us find that shared space (between indigenous and Western science) that James mentioned? If so in what way?  
  • Colorado and Ryskulova (2016) wrote “Terms such as traditional knowledge, local knowledge, and even traditional ecological knowledge are inaccurate and maintain western scientific colonialism. Knowledge can be extracted and exploited whereas pluralism in science necessitates communication, sharing of resources, and relationships.  The ‘Science of Indigenous’ people addresses multiple dimensions while simultaneously secured data based on observation.” How would you respond to this statement? 
  • Are there successful ways to apply for grant funding with traditional practices written into the processes of research?
  • The Status of Tribes and Climate Change (STACC) Report also indicate ways to appropriately convert that holistic view and nature of TEK to non-Tribal peoples/groups. 
  • I think it reflects how many people look at the ecological world as something we study whereas TEK looks at it as something we are part of. 
  • At Sitting Bull College, we recognize and encourage Native languages and culture in all our courses. Our graduate students and seniors introduce themselves in Native language before when starting any presentation. Even saying hi in the Native language is a step forward. 
  • This is my first exposure to TEK, despite studying forestry at the M.Sc. and Ph.D. level.  How do we bring TEK into our curriculum?  How can practitioners like myself catch up and learn how to integrate TEK into our work? 
  • I know that one major problem that can happen in situations where Western science and traditional knowledge come together is that there is a real danger of exploitation of indigenous peoples. Can anyone speak to how to specifically avoid this, especially in an academic context? 
  • How do great plains tribes feel about bison ranching? 
  • Many Tribes are exploring climate change’s impact on Ceremonial First Foods that investigates where they grow currently and how the change will affect them. 
  • Can anyone talk about traditional knowledge and healing systems and how mainstream or western knowledge systems continue to discredit them?  How do you honor and respect traditions, but also advocate/promote this science, and make sure that credit is given and sacredness is maintained, and make sure they are not just monetized? 
  • Curious what ecologists should think about in terms of data sovereignty and research ethics as they think about engaging with TEK and sovereign nations and Indigenous communities broadly. 
  • I’m curious are there best practices and/or literature on how to respectfully incorporate TEK into beginner researchers (i.e Ph.D. students) who are starting their projects and developing their research questions and want to possibly incorporate community-based participatory research? 
  • I am a first-year Ph.D. student, I know that one of my study sites occurs in a mountain range that local tribes hold sacred and use for ceremonies. I am very interested in collaborating with tribes and incorporating TEK into my research, and I understand that there must be reciprocity in order for it to be a fair collaboration. I don’t know who to reach out to or where to begin! Thank you for putting this meeting together! 
  • I think we tend to default to looking to literature for guidance when we have indigenous elders and scientists that we can involve in our research. 
  • One challenge for outsiders is identifying who to talk to and how to develop that relationship.  Find out who they are working with already. 
  • Since the best and fairest way to access TEK is an active relationship with a native expert, what are the ways in which they work and ideas can be spread more widely among people without those relationships? Authorship in publications, other published work, or does it work outside of a specific context? 
  • provides a map that one could use as a first resource to identify the indigenous people of the land you live on or do research on. However, it should act only as a first step and not the last in our attempts to incorporate TEK into Western “science” 
  • A lot of this requires deconstructing existing colonial ecological stories. At OU, there is the story of how the first president came here and “civilized” the land. There were people here already, what he did was plant trees. Folks don’t appreciate that the “normal” landscape here is nothing of the sort. It should be prairie. 
  • Ive worked with OMSI and CRITIFIC coordinating and organizing TEK science camp.  I think coordinating partnerships with local Tribe’s is the best practice. 
  • How can we get more involved with the TEK section?  
    [ESA]: The TEK section is open only to ESA members. ESA invites you to join as a member and be connected with our 8,000 strong community across the world.  


Foundational TEK resources/readings that those of us with a western sci background should absolutely read?  

Examples of projects where TEK and western science are combined 

Educational Materials K-12 and Higher Education