Traditional Knowledge

Years ago, I was a biology student working on a nuclear power plant site to create a baseline survey of the animals and plants. The trek from our camp to the site went past an area where used lumber was stacked and a very old man was employed to take out the nails. He was from the Ojibwe group and if he were alive today would probably identify himself as Anishnabe or First People. Each morning I was to take weather readings and each morning during our chat, the old man would ask what my predictions were for the weather. He smiled at my predictions, but never commented. Until one bright sunny morning, he asked what I was going to be doing that day. I described our task to lay an underwater cable extending offshore about two kilometers, and my role was to be the diver in the water being tended from the boat. He sternly suggested I consider some other job for the day and went back to his work pulling nails. He reluctantly explained when I pressed him that a huge fog would roll in about noon. At the met station, I could find no indication of a fog, but I decided to wear an underwater compass on my wrist, “just in case”. The morning was uneventful as I moved up and down from bottom to surface to retrieve equipment from the boat and lay it out on the lake floor. However on resurfacing just after noon, there was a solid wall of fog so thick I could hardly see more than a few meters in front of me and there was no sound of the boat. I waited for about 20 minutes at the surface, but then decided to head to shore — fortunately that was not difficult because I had a compass on my wrist. The three young men in the boat who had scoffed at the old man’s warning were lost and very cold until the next morning when the fog finally lifted and they were able to return to shore.

That was my first real introduction to the power of Indigenous Traditional Knowledge. Since then I have been privileged to work cooperatively with indigenous peoples from Canada and other countries and in situations where they contributed to my ability to carry out research, and I was able to reciprocate with some of my knowledge.

Over a period of years, I prepared guides for the Canadian International Development Agency, the World Bank, and other on how to include or interweave traditional knowledge in environmental assessments. They are reproduced in full can be downloaded as pdfs.

Traditional Knowledge of Indigenous Peoples can be a powerful adjunct to science in environmental assessments. Many countries acknowledge this potential but few make use of it. Furthermore, indigenous peoples have a right to make decisions using their traditional knowledge which in many situations is more capable of predicting outcomes of various environmental impacts than is science, primarily because in most cases, the local peoples have far more intimate and long term understanding of the ecological variables. At least at the time of writing no country acknowledges the right of indigenous peoples to make the final decisions over environmental impact decisions, and very few even allow indigenous TK holders to be a part of the final committees to define the recommendations that will ultimately go to decision-makers.

A series of Powerpoint presentations deals with the similarities and differences between Indigenous Traditional Knowledge and western science knowledge systems as well as the approach of interweaving, rather than attempting to incorporate one into the other. One manifestation of the idea is a presentation developed as a preliminary vision of a University of the North aimed at handling both western and indigenous knowledge systems.

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