Tribal leaders and scientists met Dec. 3-4 at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, to discuss how tribal ecological knowledge (TEK) can inform environmental health and biomedical research. The Tribal Ecological Knowledge Workshop was organized by NIEHS in collaboration with tribal representatives and other federal agencies (see sidebar).
TEK incorporates observations about the natural world, connections between people and the environment, and responsible use of resources, explained Symma Finn, Ph.D., NIEHS health scientist administrator and workshop chair. “This local knowledge has been gathered over generations by tribal members whose lives depended on this information and its use,” she said. “This is valuable long-term data that can build a foundation for significant contributions to western scientific research.”
In opening remarks at the event, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., emphasized the NIEHS commitment to research that respects TEK. “The pressing need with our tribal communities is addressing health disparities and disproportionate risks,” she said. “We want to identify opportunities to incorporate more TEK into research.”
Tribal communities tell of environmental burdens
Many speakers talked about environmental pollution in their communities and the illnesses they experience, emphasizing that these environmental burdens can be especially devastating because they disrupt a way of life that has ensured their tribes’ survival.
Vi Waghiyi, of the St. Lawrence Island Yupik tribe, is a member of the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council. She described the challenges her community faces from global warming, pollutants deposited in the Artic by global air currents, and contaminants from abandoned military sites.
“We are some of the most highly contaminated people on the planet because of our traditional foods, and this is from actions elsewhere. These illnesses — cancer, diabetes, low birth weight babies — were never seen before in our people,” Waghiyi said. “Yet our knowledge is discredited when it comes to our health.”
Incorporating TEK into scientific research
Participants at the workshop described TEK and scientific inquiry as two different yet related methods that could be bridged to improve biomedical research, especially in Native American, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian tribal communities.
“A science-based system tries to quantify and intervene in the natural environment. Traditional knowledge follows the availability of the resource and conforms with the natural environment,” said Stewart Hill, a graduate student at the University of Manitoba and member of the Cree tribe. “Neither system is superior, and each has its inherent strengths and weaknesses.”
In her talk titled, “Woman Is the First Environment,” Katsi Cook, from the NoVo Foundation and the Mohawk Akwesasne tribe, spoke about the TEK theory that a mother’s health has a primary influence on the health of her children. She said that this theory overlaps with the concept of the exposome, or the totality of environmental exposures people receive during their lifetime, and its impact on health.
Combining respect with collaboration
Some participants recommended caution in blending the two systems, however, to avoid weakening both the value of TEK and the credibility of scientific knowledge. “Having 300 different ways to talk about ice, as the Yupik tribe does, is very descriptive, very precise. You take some of the real deep thinking words and put them in English, it will diminish right there in front of you,” said David Begay, Ph.D., of the Indigenous Education Institute.
The importance of respect and collaboration with communities was a common theme expressed by speakers. “Utilization of TEK must go hand-in-hand with empowerment and benefit for the people [who are] sharing their knowledge,” Hill said.
“We start and end our day thinking about our relationship with the earth,” said Mary Arquette, D.V.M., Ph.D., of the Akwesasne Mohawk tribe and the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force. “The answers we get depend on the questions we ask.”
(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)