Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Science

Integrating traditional ecological knowledge with science is one of the basic principles of the Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit, the Spirit of the Salmon Plan. In this Update we examine the role of this traditional knowledge more explicitly, even if briefly, than we did in the 1995 Spirit of the Salmon Plan.

Traditional ecological knowledge, often referred to as TEK, is the evolving knowledge, practice and belief about the relationships that exist between humans and the natural environment. Rooted in a familial relationship with the plants, animals and the environment, traditional ecological knowledge is passed down the generations through oral traditions, such as storytelling, songs and ceremonies. For tribes in the Columbia River Plateau, traditional ecological knowledge imparts cultural values and worldviews as well as specific practical knowledge such as techniques and stewardship principles for fishing and hunting, gathering plants, roots and berries and cultivating the land.

While traditional ecological knowledge has guided the tribes since time immemorial—and integrating it with science is one of the basic principles of the Spirit of the Salmon Plan—Western scientific tradition just recently began recognizing tribal perspectives for understanding and managing natural systems. Contrary to popular understanding, traditional ecological knowledge and Western science share several fundamental traits, including the need to make sense of a seemingly chaotic world, the desire to conduct both practical and curiosity-driven investigations, a non-static view of facts based on continuously updated information, and the use of experiments and quantitative thinking. Unlike Western science, which strives for a value-neutral perspective, traditional ecological knowledge incorporates an explicit moral and ethical content—a recognition that social, spiritual, cultural and natural systems are intertwined and inseparable. Also unlike Western science, traditional ecological knowledge emphasizes a local, place-based perspective rather than a comprehensive, global view and values concrete knowledge more than theoretical knowledge. However, the two viewpoints are regarded as a difference of degrees rather than type and are increasingly seen as complementary.

Indigenous people from all corners of the globe view traditional ecological knowledge not as a symbolic concept frozen in time, but as living wellspring of practical knowledge that can help protect and restore natural and cultural legacies. Principles of traditional ecological knowledge have been successfully employed in diverse ecotypes: tropical forests and fisheries, grasslands, mountainous regions and traditional irrigation systems in deserts, for example. Closer to home, examples have also been well-documented: the ritual management of salmon by tribes in northern California relying on a complex social system, including communicating allowed catch sizes among river villages; the use of a traditional calendar of natural events by the Nez Perce to document the phenology of natural systems; and the application of the First Foods concept (described below) by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in managing river systems from an ecosystem perspective.

The four CRITFC member tribes have a deep history of being connected to the earth, as reflected in their culture, spirituality and everyday lives. Their spiritual and cultural values and practices are grounded in tamánwit, the natural law or philosophy of the traditional Plateau peoples. Tamánwit describes the responsibilities humans have to give back to the earth that provides for them. Tamánwit requires an intimate familiarity with seasonal patterns in nature, including the flowering of plants, migrations of fish and birds and changing weather. These and other seasonal patterns are closely linked to cultural practices, such as gathering, processing and storing food or other materials for shelters and tool-making, and even prescribing the time for storytelling.

For example, we are crafting this restoration Plan in autumn, the season that Nez Perce call Sexni’m—the time for hunting, food preparations and moving to winter lodges. In the paradigm of Western science, the study of seasonal patterns is called phenology; the intersection between traditional calendars and phenological research holds promise for understanding the impacts of climate change. For instance, the Swinomish Tribe of Puget Sound consider its calendar of 13 moons to provide an early warning system for climate change, where departures from the expected timing of events are a red flag indicating disharmony in natural cycles.

TEK in Practice: A First Foods Perspective for Managing Riverine Ecosystems

In 2008 the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) published their Umatilla River Vision, an outline for managing rivers from an ecosystem perspective focusing on the minimum ecological products required to sustain their culture. The River Vision documents the serving order and importance of First Foods:

In the tribal creation belief, the Creator asked the foods “who will take care of the Indian people?” Salmon was the first to promise, then other fish lined up behind salmon. Next was deer, then cous, then huckleberry. Each “First Food” represents groupings of ecologically related foods. The First Food serving ritual in the longhouse is based on this order and reminds people of the promise the foods made and the people’s reciprocal responsibility to respectfully use and take care of the foods. The longevity and constancy of these foods and serving rituals across many generations and their recognition through First Food ceremonies demonstrate the cultural and nutritional value of First Foods to the CTUIR community…

Managing from a First Foods perspective calls for a change from management practices employed in recent decades, which were often single-species approaches narrow in scope and with limited spatial and temporal extents. In contrast, a First Foods perspective for river management means integrating the entire ecosystem, a broader range of biodiversity, and broad spatial scales—from ridgetop to ridgetop. The River Vision highlights several processes in need of restoration and protection that extend beyond the immediate focus of anadromous fish: water quantity and quality (both groundwater and surface water), geomorphic diversity of the river channel (side channels, off-channel habitats, tributary junctions, etc.), connectivity across habitats and across the river network, and the community structure and health of the entire riverine biota and riparian communities. While the River Vision outlines a farsighted approach for a particular river, a First Foods perspective can be applied across the treaty tribes’ ceded lands and beyond, along with the principles from other sources of traditional ecological knowledge.

Principles of Traditional Ecological Knowledge for Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit

The principles that can inform Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit, the Spirit of the Salmon Plan, may be grouped into four broad categories. See Table 1 for practical applications and examples of real-world use of these principles:

  1. Documentation of natural conditions prior to Euro-American settlement, including knowledge about indicators of ecosystem change
  2. A framework for holistic management of anadromous fishes based on existing relationships between tribal members and natural resources
  3. An adaptive management framework, due to the tribes’ unique ability to accommodate environmental change in their social systems
  4. Recognition of the importance of place and the relationship between that place and the community it supports


TEK Principle Practical Application Examples
Documentation of conditions prior to Euro-American settlement Quantitative descriptions of the historical distribution and abundance of plants and animals Knowledge of the traditional distribution of fishing places for lamprey based on ethnographic interview of Yakama or other tribes’ elders
Qualitative descriptions of relationships among humans and plants, animals, and their environment Relationships described in Coyote (and other) stories, songs, rituals and ceremonies, and from ethnographic interviews
Indicators of changes in phenology due to climate change Timing of animal migrations and behavior, flowering, flooding and other seasonal variations such as those described by the Nez Perce calendar
Framework for holistic management of anadromous fishes Perspective that human and natural systems are intertwined—that ethical and moral principles cannot be divorced from natural resource management The Yakama Nation’s use of Interdisciplinary Science Protocol, a procedure for approvals and check-ins with other Yakama programs and leaders during each phase of a project
Incorporation of the concept of resilience (the ability of ecosystems to absorb disturbance, self-organize and adapt) into management plans The Umatilla River Vision emphasizes restoring the self-organizing components of river systems—including spatial and temporal diversity of riverine processes such as natural flow regimes and floodplain functions—rather than restoring to a determined state
Incorporation of a broad spatial extent or whole watershed perspective First Foods serving order is from water in the river to huckleberries on the ridgeline and includes everything in between
Recognition of a broad view of the biological community Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit recognizes impacts from human activities and bottlenecks to growth and survival at all life history stages—from spawning adults to developing eggs, emergence of fry, rearing of juveniles, migration to the ocean, and returning to freshwater to spawn
Application of a “gravel-to-gravel” approach to restoring anadromous fish The Umatilla River Vision emphasizes restoring the self-organizing components of river systems—including spatial and temporal diversity of riverine processes such as natural flow regimes and floodplain functions—rather than restoring to a determined state
Consider the impact of today’s actions on future conditions and society The tribes have successfully maintained their cultural practices and the resources supporting them in large part because they view the impacts of present actions for generations in the future
Framework for adaptive management Tribal culture as flexible and open to change, learning from and building upon direct observation and experience and rapidly accumulating social knowledge Tribal hatchery programs in the Columbia River Basin are becoming more ecologically integrated in contrast to hatcheries that are production-oriented
The direct application of adaptive management principles by tribes Multiple species management, resource rotation, vegetation succession management, landscape patchiness management and other ways of responding to and managing pulses and ecological surprises, including climate change
Importance of Place The importance of geography in stories In traditional stories, places were often the main characters, objects and subjects of the stories. Thus, sacred places are not interchangeable and cannot be bought and sold as such
Acknowledgment that restoration must employ landscape context— focusing connectivity and incorporating the role of non-interchangeable places in the larger picture The Umatilla River Vision states, “Key river characteristics are variable throughout the river network. Therefore, while some management goals can be set for the basin, different river reaches require different management and restoration targets depending on the context and structure of the reach.”
Recognition of the importance of evolutionary adaptations of organisms to their local environment The Nez Perce use of wild, 100% local-origin brood stock for supportive breeding
Back to Top Back to Top