Native study of the natural world is thousands of years old and exceptionally nuanced and deep. When our body of knowledge excludes that expertise, we distort our understanding of ecosystems and put species at risk.
By Jeanine Pfeiffer
Republished May 23, 2023
Why do we need indigenous science? Take a swim through Clear Lake, North America’s oldest (and California’s largest) natural body of fresh water, and you’ll encounter the outsiders: bass, catfish, crappie, and a dozen other predatory fish with no ecological basis for being there. The fish began arriving in the 1870s when state agents, ignorant of the local ecosystem, recklessly introduced wave after wave of invasive animals that permanently wrecked the lake’s aquatic balance. These predators drove local extinctions, devastated food webs, and destroyed tribal fishing culture. Four endemic fish species were ultimately wiped out, and a fifth—the Clear Lake hitch—is nearly extinct.
For some 150 years, authorities managing the region introduced alien species, never consulting the Tribal bands who had successfully managed the lake for millennia. Likewise, scientists studying Clear Lake’s toxic mercury levels and harmful algal blooms failed to alert Indigenous communities to the looming threat. Local involvement came only when Tribal experts began monitoring the waters, sharing their findings, and joining lawsuits
to protect native species in the lake. Fish kills on Clear Lake are persistent and frequent, but only the Tribal EPA office of the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians records the assaults.
Ignorance of native science and the centuries of knowledge it represents is hardly limited to Clear Lake. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s historical inability to distinguish among seven separate species of abalone (well known to coastal Tribes including the Chumash, Ohlone, and Yurok) led to successive waves of overexploitation. All seven species are currently in trouble; the one remaining viable fishery—red abalone—was shut down in 2017 and will remain so until 2026. In the western United States, which is experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years, government-mandated fire suppression plans replaced millennia of indigenous wildland stewardship that included vegetation management and the intentional burning known as “good fire.” Instead, every year, millions of acres burn, homes are annihilated, and people die in catastrophic wildfires that cost billions of dollars.
With climate change escalating superstorms, heat waves, mega-floods, and drought, indigenous science can no longer be ignored. For almost two millennia, beginning with local inhabitants of the Mediterranean who provided baseline data for the 600 plants described in Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica in 77 A.D., Indigenous peoples have furnished substantive source material for scientific research. Even the system of scientific nomenclature—categorizing living things by using Latin genus and species names, such as Homo sapiens
(human) and Canis lupus (wolf)—is derived from uncredited indigenous science. The 18th-century Swedish scholar Carl Linnaeus, often referred to as “the father of taxonomy” for his work codifying species classifications, based his taxonomic nomenclature on indigenous knowledge from the Indonesian–Malaysian archipelago documented by 16th- and 17th-century explorers. In other words, Linnaeus plagiarized the Natives’ naming systems and claimed them for his own when describing “new” botanical specimens. (Side note: The Linnean Society of London now describes Linnaeus as one of the founders of scientific racism
because he associated positive character traits [wisdom, inventiveness] with the “Europaeus” classification of humans and “monstrous” traits [sluggishness, greed] with the “Africanus” and “Asiaticus” groups.)
As it turns out, indigenous knowledge is exceptionally nuanced and deep. It is cumulative, place-based, and acquired largely through observation and experimentation on both large and small scales. Indigenous science—including contributions highlighted in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Indigenous Climate Hub—is crowd-sourced citizen science taken to the next level, constructed over multiple generations in close relationship with the species, habitats, bodies of water, weather patterns, and other natural phenomena surrounding the observers. It is not superstition or isolated observation or pseudoscience, all misinterpretations stemming from the racist and classist assumptions of Western explorers and ethnographers starting in the 17th century and persisting to the present day.
The languages of Native peoples overflow with scientific observations. In Northern California, Yurok place names include regok-o-yū u wro, meaning “trout run up a creek” and tskwe’ges-o-rike’n,
translated as “harbor seal where he sits,” describing a rock in a river. The Hupa term for sea lion is yida:ch’in-te’il, meaning “coming from downstream—they swim along.” The Tolowa Dee-ni’ name for the California condor translates to “whale lifter,” a nod to the fact that condors sometimes feed on the carcasses of humpback whales. However, because academia relegates indigenous knowledge to ethnic studies or files it under folklore or legend—thus confining its study to scholars in the humanities—vast reservoirs of historical expertise have remained untapped by the scientific community, especially in the United States.
Last year, a Bishop Paiute elder named Harry Williams, the last living encyclopedia of ancient Paiute hydrological systems in California’s Owens Valley, passed away. Understanding local hydrology is essential to solving critical ecological issues in the region, including mitigating the disastrous effects of massive water exports, saving the endangered Owens Valley pupfish, and protecting native plants that once flourished under Paiute irrigation. Prior to belated efforts to document Williams’s knowledge, the only study of Paiute hydrology had been performed by Julian Steward, an ethnographer who spent 12 weeks interviewing 13 Paiute people in 1927 and 1928.
The disparity between 12 weeks’ research by an outsider and a lifetime of fieldwork by a resident Paiute is immense. Yet a persistent lack of knowledge about—or partnership with—communities whose lands are studied by scientists is commonplace, running rife through the resumes of Euro-American researchers hailed as the founders of science disciplines and conservation programs: Linnaeus, John James Audubon, John Muir. Paraphrasing my colleague and Southeast Asia specialist Roy Ellen, what we now recognize as scientific knowledge of the natural world was constituted largely by researchers absorbing preexisting local folk knowledge while erasing whatever they weren’t interested in or willing to absorb—and, I would add, failing to credit the source of that knowledge.
Native communities successfully shepherded resources through a combination of belief systems and adaptive management technologies.
Indigenous peoples continuously occupying specific ecosystems for centuries or millennia maintain intimate familiarity with how those ecologies function. From the Yanomami in the Amazon to the Inupiat in the Arctic, Native communities successfully shepherded resources through a combination of deeply held belief systems and sophisticated adaptive management technologies, augmented by the pervasive accumulation, intergenerational transfer, and application of scientific knowledge. This is why Native peoples developed scientific terminology to categorize and characterize species and interspecies relationships—such as birds associated with specific fruiting trees, or the migration patterns of walrus and caribou—long before Western science invented academic fields like agronomy, animal behavior, ecology, climate science, restoration ecology, soil science, and zoology. Traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, is a scientific term used to acknowledge this wide-ranging body of nature-based expertise.
But a cultural blitzkrieg has tried to wipe that away. The era that saw invasive fish first introduced to Clear Lake was characterized by government-sanctioned massacres of First Peoples and the species most sacred to them. The devastation included rampant slaughter of apex predators (wolves, bears) and ecosystem engineers (bison, beavers, salmon); the enforced servitude of Tribal members and the removal of their children to boarding schools; and the “Code of Indian Offenses” that criminalized native beliefs and practices.
Disdain for, and erasure of, Indigenous peoples and their lifeways and culturally significant species paralleled Western myths that Americans of European descent would tame and improve wilderness and wild peoples. This is why national parks were founded and why Indigenous peoples throughout the world are still forbidden from residing, hunting, fishing, or gathering in their ancestral territories that lie squarely within those parks.
When science is dominated by a cultural subset, countless forms of bias prevail, influencing which questions are asked, who gets to ask them, how the questions are asked, and where scientific efforts are focused. For example, when I began graduate school in ecology, mutualisms—interspecies relationships in which both species benefit—were considered rare, and my assigned readings focused largely on competition and predation. We learned all about resource scarcity and predator–prey cycles, but nothing about trees sharing metabolic resources or belowground biochemical warning systems (“trees talking to each other,” which is widely recognized by Indigenous experts).
Twenty years later, the ubiquity of mutualisms in aquatic and terrestrial systems is widely acknowledged. How did scientists overlook such common ecological phenomena? Retrospective meta-analyses of scientific studies provide a clue: Seventy percent of published studies during the past generation concentrated on only one species or negative interspecies interactions, in a field where the overwhelming majority of scientists were males of European ancestry focusing
primarily on Europe and the Americas. Because of who decided which questions to ask, we didn’t investigate the sorts of things, or interact with the sorts of people, that would have enabled us to see and study positive multispecies relationships.
In stark contrast, traditional ecological knowledge and the origin stories of indigenous peoples are replete with positive multispecies relationships. In Karuk stories, Turtle gave fire to Frog, and Frog took fire underwater before spitting it into willow roots along the river. For Karuk firefighters, this translates into setting up nighttime burns to keep fire in the grasses, protecting turtles nesting in the willows. While the modern world is surprised by videos
of coyotes and badgers cooperating on hunting expeditions, stories of coyote–badger collaborations have been circulating among Hopi, Apache, Pueblo, and Klamath Tribes (among others) for centuries, possibly millennia.
During my career as a university lecturer, whenever scientists in my field alluded to place-based or experiential knowledge, they described it as “anecdotal” or derived from an “informant,” downgrading local expertise as nonscientific or ancillary to “real” science. In every natural resource management agency meeting I attend as a consultant, decisions are ostensibly based on the “best available science.” Translation? Anything written by someone with degrees accompanying their name, even if it was published decades ago or is the sole article on the topic, will take precedence over the unpublished expertise of a Native or local practitioner.
But when we begin our scientific analyses with place-based expertise and TEK, our theoretical world is expanded, enabling richer and more rigorous science. Researchers working in the Peruvian Amazon with the Matsigenka Tribe documented 98 distinct habitats in the traditional Matsigenka classification system; another Amazonian group, the Matses, recognizes 178 rainforest types. One team of scientists concluded
that traditional ecological knowledge “represents a vast and underutilized database about habitat diversity, species distributions, ecological interactions among organisms, economically important species and sustainable management practices.”
If we define wealth as the concentration of irreplaceable human and natural capital, then regions with the highest concentrations of languages and species, known as biocultural diversity hot spots, constitute the richest areas on the planet. Protecting that wealth must be a collaborative effort, beginning with the founders and original cultivators of that wealth, whether we refer to them as First Nations, First Peoples, Aboriginals, Indigenous peoples, or Natives.
As Max Liboiron, a Canadian researcher, recently tweeted: “Protip for environmental scientists: when writing about gaps, say ’nothing/little is published on this topic’ rather than ’nothing/little is known about this topic’ because it’s almost certain that local people and Indigenous people know.” To this pro tip I would add another suggestion: Say “We have yet to connect with local experts” because in most cases, sadly, my fellow researchers don’t even think to try.
Why, despite current reckonings with justice, equity, diversity, and inclusivity in the 21st century, does indigenous science continue to get short shrift? The reason is that what we credit as “science” continues to be embedded within a hierarchy of knowledge produced in the English language by university-educated and -affiliated academics. Anything produced by a European or an American of European descent is automatically awarded a higher status, despite that preference being biased and therefore unscientific.
The world is waking up to the need for change, and the tide is slowly turning. My own doctoral thesis, completed in 2004, focused on Indigenous Indonesian communities with encyclopedic knowledge of thousands of species and farmers who incorporate sophisticated understanding of variations in microclimates, soils, wildlife behavior patterns, and rice genetics to maintain and enhance agrobiodiversity. On the other side of the Pacific, thanks to expert testimony from myself and dozens of Tribal members before the California Fish and Game Commission, native science informed the creation of marine protected areas and led to the appointment of Tribal advisers at every level of the California Natural Resources Agency.
These examples, alongside the increasing recruitment of Indigenous scholars in universities and research institutions, are spurring paradigm shifts in conservation policies. With the help of Tribal co-management, indigenous conservation practices are now being applied across a range of national, state, and county wildlands, including Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota, Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, and Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. The same input is helping to conserve culturally significant species such as salmon and steelhead in Washington State.
The natural world is best understood through long-term, repeated, intimate contact with ecosystems and their associated experts, a practice that remains in short supply among most scientists. Local communities and Indigenous peoples, on the other hand, have accumulated generations’ worth of scientific data and expertise, much of it overlooked as Native peoples lose access to homelands; elders die; languages are extinguished; historical documents languish in rarely consulted microfiche files or white papers; and local experts, fed up with being excluded and ignored, boycott agency meetings.
Environmental problems that took generations to become entrenched cannot be resolved by transient researchers or long-distance government staff. Now is the time for all hands on deck, especially the expert hands (and minds) of Native peoples whose lifeways, cultures, and identities are irrevocably intertwined with their ancestral territories. Enrolling local Tribal experts as science advisers, partners, and co-managers in addressing biodiversity loss, climate change, legacy pollutants, and other pernicious issues not only makes sense, but is the only way to effectively turn things around.
Jeanine Pfeiffer Ph.D. (@JeaninePfeiffer), is an ethnoecologist and essayist focusing on biocultural diversity, the intrinsic connections between nature and culture. She is a leading advocate for inclusion of indigenous science in Northern California coastal communities, in Indonesia, and worldwide. Her latest essays have appeared in Slate and High Country News.