Cat Urbigkit: Who Has Traditional Ecological Knowledge?

Cat Urbigkit writes: “The Biden administration has adopted the concept of traditional ecological knowledge, but narrowed it to exclude all but ‘indigenous knowledge.’ While attempting to eliminate racial disparities, the administration has a tendency to marginalize or exclude others in the process, furthering inequity rather than resolving it.”

Cat Urbigkit

April 25, 20238 min read

Cat Urbigkit
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Within the last few decades, papers in scientific journals began earnestly considering the terminology and scope of “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK).

As Italian scientist Fulvio Mazzocchi explained, TEK is a “cumulative body of knowledge, practices and representations that describes the relationships of living beings with one another and with their physical environment, which evolved by adaptive processes and has been handed down through generations by cultural transmission.”

I loved this broad vision of TEK and its possibilities for contributions to management of natural resources, as well as Mazzocchi’s acknowledgment that, “cultures from all over the world have developed different views of nature throughout human history” and that this knowledge “embodies a wealth of wisdom and experience of nature gained over millennia from direct observations, and transmitted — most often orally — over generations.”

This broad definition of TEK is inclusive and acknowledges the value of local, traditional and indigenous knowledge instead of exclusively on information gained from the use of Western science.

For an example of how this works, we can look to a project by scientists in southern Spain who used two types of knowledge to estimate the abundance of a land turtle.

Following the Western science model, they used lineal transects, but they also conducted interviews with sheepherders for their “local ecological knowledge,” or LEK.

“Interviews with shepherds yielded abundance estimates in a much wider range than linear transects, which only detected the species in the upper two-thirds of its abundance range,” they report learning. “Abundance estimates from both methodologies showed a close relationship.

“Analysis of confidence intervals indicated local knowledge could be used to estimate mean local abundances and to detect mean population trends. A cost analysis determined that the information derived from LEK was 100 times cheaper than that obtained through linear-transect surveys.”

While many papers in this field of human ecological knowledge focus on indigenous knowledge, others recognize that local ecological knowledge (LEK) should be included as well.

The University of California’s Heidi Ballard and Lynn Huntsinger wrote about how land managers in the United States are increasingly asked to include “local stakeholders” and “public participation” in natural resource management planning, yet “the question of who falls into the categories of ‘local,’ ‘community’ and ‘stakeholder’ is a critical one.

“An alternative paradigm for natural resource management and the science that informs it is based on the premise that a participatory or community-based process, integrating traditional, indigenous and local ecological knowledge with conventional scientific knowledge, will better achieve sustainable natural resource use and biodiversity conservation,” they suggest.

Ballard and Huntsinger drew attention to the possibilities offered by nonindigenous groups, including local communities and even migrant workers who rely on natural resources for their incomes.

“Livelihood dependence on the resource and the ecosystem has been shown to result in extensive local ecological knowledge in long-resident communities, as well as management practices that parallel and often enhance the conventional scientific knowledge of local government managers and scientists,” they wrote.

I appreciate this broad recognition of knowledge sources.

I personally benefit from agrarians who moved from the Old World to the United States, bringing their knowledge and traditions in agriculture, animal husbandry and resource management. I also benefit from working with foreign herders who share knowledge from their home countries, and we transfer that knowledge to work here on the Western range.

For example, the use of livestock guardian dogs to deter predators is a knowledge and tradition that began thousands of years ago in Eurasia but is critically important to sheep production in the western United States today.

In November 2022, the Biden administration issued a governmentwide directive elevating “indigenous traditional ecological knowledge,” but ignoring inclusive TEK/LEK definitions by narrowing it to simply encompass “indigenous knowledge.”

How did this broad field of traditional ecological knowledge become limited to indigenous knowledge?

As plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote, “Traditional ecological knowledge is not unique to Native American culture but exists all over the world, independent of ethnicity. It is born of long intimacy and attentiveness to a homeland and can arise wherever people are materially and spiritually integrated with their landscape.”

President Joe Biden’s desire to strengthen the relationship between the federal government and tribal nations is laudable, but his exclusion of other knowledge sources is not.

There was no additional directive for federal resource managers to tap valuable ecological knowledge from other local or traditional sources – only indigenous knowledge (ITEK) is invited and will be used in “federal scientific and policy decisions.”

The governmentwide guidance memo issued by the Executive Office of the President states that: “ITEK has evolved over millennia, continues to evolve and includes insights based on evidence acquired through direct contact with the environment and long-term experiences, as well as extensive observations, lessons, and skills passed from generation to generation.”

The memo continues: “ITEK is owned by Indigenous people — including, but not limited to, Tribal Nations, Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.”

The guidance memo also states that, “The Administration recognizes that the Federal Government should engage with ITEK only through relationships with Tribal Nations and Native communities …”

As I read these words, I’m reminded that the federal government decides which tribal nations it will officially recognize.

While I understand this administration’s desire to include historically marginalized peoples and eliminate racial disparities throughout the administration, it has a tendency to marginalize or exclude others in the process, furthering inequity rather than resolving it.

For example, the administration’s farm debt relief program to provide direct payments to “socially disadvantaged” farmers, which it defines as anyone “belonging to groups that have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice” including “famers who are Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian or Pacific Islander.”

White farmers were excluded from the program, and courts found that this race-based debt relief is discriminatory. The administration then shifted the program from its race-based criteria to one that would issue payments to “economically distressed” farmers (as it should have been originally structured).

In one of the numerous discrimination cases filed against the program, a judge wrote: “The obvious response to a government agency that claims it continues to discriminate against farmers because of their race or national origin is to direct it to stop: it is not to direct it to intentionally discriminate against others on the basis of their race and national origin.”

Likewise, when Biden’s Small Business Administration rolled out a COVID-19 relief program to help restaurants meet payroll, it prioritized applications from “socially disadvantaged” applicants based solely on their race or ethnicity, with priority consideration for “Black Americans,” “Hispanic Americans,” “Asian Pacific Americans,” “Native Americans” and “Subcontinent Asian Americans.”

In ruling against the SBA, a federal appeals court wrote: “We start with race. Government policies that classify people by race are presumptively invalid.”

The court noted that the “way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

But the Biden administration’s ITEK guidance follows the same vein.

“The Administration recognizes that the Federal Government should engage with ITEK only through relationships with Tribal Nations and Native communities and in a manner that respects the rights of knowledge holders to control access to their knowledge, to grant or withhold permission, and to dictate the terms of its application,” it says.

That the administration will elevate the use of ITEK is commendable, but to agree to terms that “dictate the terms of its application” is stunning.

Only in a dystopian world would a government allow a person, or a group of people, to dictate the terms of the application of knowledge. I simply cannot fathom how the administration believes this will work.

The United States is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. Indigenous people have valuable ecological knowledge, but they are not the only people with valuable ecological knowledge.

As Mazzocchi wrote: “Traditional environmental knowledge is an important part of humankind's cultural heritage — the result of countless civilizations and traditions that have emerged over human history. This cultural diversity is as important for our future as is biodiversity.”

It’s unfortunate that the Biden administration can’t understand that.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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Cat Urbigkit

Public Lands and Wildlife Columnist