Notes from an Open University Course – Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

Photo One by By Nanopixi - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Qinngorput-Nuuk in Greenland (Photo One)

Dear Readers, regular followers will know that I have a particular bugbear about the way that the knowledge of indigenous peoples around the world is ignored when explorers and scientists descend on a community. Often, new plants and animals are said to be ‘discovered’ when the local people have known about them all along. The information that is held by communities about how things are changing in their areas is not considered as important as that gathered through western scientific methods. I can see that this is changing, and just as well.

This week we have watched two sets of documentaries on the BBC. One, ‘Operation Iceberg’, dates to 2012 and involves a set of scientists looking at how icebergs form and are broken up, and the impact of climate change. It features a host of favourites, including Chris Packham and  Helen Czerski. Nobody who actually lives in Greenland is interviewed, and their only visible presence is when an Inuit guide goes ashore onto the iceberg with the scientists because there are no fewer than five polar bears living on it. You would think that if anyone had been noticing climate change it would be the folk who live in Greenland, but the only ‘experts’ are flown in from the UK.

Fast forward to this year, and ‘Waterhole’, in which Chris Packham and Ella Al-Shamahi present a trio of programmes about an artificial waterhole created in the Mwibe reserve in Tanzania. Here they do at least interview the black Tanzanian guides, who know the animals as individuals, and understand their behaviour and history. Even so, they are on screen for a vanishingly small amount of time.

My current Open University module is on the Arctic, and so I have been learning about sea ice and polar bears and ocean currents and the albedo effect. But what has fascinated me has been the lack of voices of Inuit people in my own view of the North Pole. Why do I know more about the voyages of Elizabethan and Victorian explorers than I do about the people who actually live in the region?

Which brings me to TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge). In the last few decades, scientists have finally begun to understand that people who live in an area might have an understanding of its patterns that a person from outside would miss. The elders in many communities have an in-depth knowledge of the history of their worlds, often handed down from one generation to the next. There are four ‘strands’ of TEK:

Firstly, it is usually oral – it was passed between people living in close proximity. Western ‘knowledge’ is usually written down and is available for dissemination to a wider audience. This also emphasises the importance of understanding the local language – as we know, there are many words and concepts that are not directly translatable from one tongue to another.

Secondly, it is both local and context-specific – one Inuit population, for example, will have knowledge that is not transferable to another community.

Thirdly, it is that much over-used word, holistic – whereas science loves to pop things into categories (wolf, caribou, grass), indigenous knowledge more often focuses on the relationships between them. TEK is shared between members of a community, not ‘hoarded’. It is seen to be part of the social fabric of the society that generates it.

Finally, TEK is highly adaptive, and will change over time as circumstances and conditions change. Although this type of knowledge is labelled as ‘traditional’, it’s the ways of knowing that are often carried down through the generations, rather than the content, so that if the caribou change their migration route, or the sea ice becomes more treacherous, these details can be incorporated into the ‘knowledge base’.

For so long, the knowledge of indigenous people has been seen as ‘quaint’, interesting but not actually very useful. With typical Western arrogance we have assumed that we have nothing to learn. However, let’s have a look at some of the child-rearing practices that were used by Inuit peoples during the recent past.

In the dialects of Inuit, there are two words for teaching: ilisayuq and isummaksaiyuq.

Ilisayuq means ‘to lecture, to correct answers by drill, to invite students to memorise, to cause learning’. It is used for the kind of school-based learning introduced by teachers from North America.

Isummaksaiyuq, on the other hand, means ‘to cause thought’ – it is about encouraging the student to observe, to experiment, and to think about the problem at hand. Here are some examples of issummaksaiyuq:

  • Inuit children are questioned and tested by adults when they go on a journey. They are asked to point to the direction of home, to say whether they’ve ‘been here before’, to notice landmarks. Navigation in such a difficult landscape, where landmarks can look very different according to the time of year or the weather conditions, is key to survival, so these children are expected to pay attention from a very young age.
  • Children are woken early and told to observe the wind and sky conditions – this daily assignment would then be shared with elders and other members of the community. Gradually even very small children learn to understand what the likely weather conditions will be.
  • Instead of forbidding children from taking part in dangerous activities, adults explain what the likely consequences are, and let the environment teach its own lessons. Because communities tend to be quite small, there would often be adults who could keep a watching eye on children while appearing to be uninterested, illustrating the old saw about ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.
  • Children are not admonished and lectured, but they are questioned about their actions from a very young age. One common question to a small child who is misbehaving is ‘are you a baby’? If the child says ‘no’, then the consequences are clear – they shouldn’t behave like one. Interestingly, if a child says ‘yes’ and pretends to be a baby, the adults consider that she is growing and learning – she knows what the difference is, and what the advantages and disadvantages of each state are.

I find this fascinating, and it makes me think about how much the controlled, programmed childhood of many western children blunts their spirit of adventure and their ability to reason things out for themselves. I wonder, these days, if I would have been shunted from one ‘activity’ to another as a child, instead of being allowed to come home and ‘muck about’ in the garden, observing caterpillars and spiders and getting covered in dirt. I suspect that I would not be as curious about the world if more of my time had been spent being ‘organised’.

However, it’s also important to note that as Inuit societies are changing (all these examples are from the 1970s and 1980s), so is the teaching style – many young people, worried by what they see in their environment, are joining scientific research programmes: there have been projects around eider duck nesting and indigenous plants. The blending of scientific method and TEK seems to me a most hopeful amalgam, a way of helping two very different communities to understand one another and achieve synergy.

There is undoubtedly a long way to go before the people who live in the areas most affected by climate change have an equal seat at the table, but it seems to me that listening and valuing their perspective, including them in positions of real power and dropping our attitude of ‘we know best’ will all help to move things in the right direction.

6 thoughts on “Notes from an Open University Course – Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

  1. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    Beautifully written. I’m sure the western world can learn a lot more from the native people than they can from us! As you say, there is an arrogance to ‘our’ behaviour which assumes others are ignorant or in the wrong.

  2. Ann Bronkhorst

    Very wise words.
    A widely-read novel that touched on these issues is Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, in which the subtleties of Inuit words for significant characteristics of snow-formations helped to solve a crime. The Greenland-born Inuit central character had knowledge that was dismissed by her Danish colleagues and superiors.

  3. Anne

    There is a strong movement towards incorporating what is known here simply as ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ in research as well as a base for school teaching, especially in rural areas. I have edited numerous education theses on this subject and find it an interesting one. I fully agree with your opening comments about the ‘experts’ being flown in and the locals being ignored and am glad this is changing.

  4. Pingback: Natural Navigation – How Do We Find Our Way Around? | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

Leave a Reply to AlittlebitoutoffocusCancel reply