Unity in Diversity


There is a term in science called Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). It is the knowledge about an environment that comes from the Indigenous people who inhabited that local area. This practice is novel in that for many, many, years western science has doubted the factual basis of oral teachings and/or “qualitative” studies. Quantitative studies, with the concise numbers and models to be replicated for manipulation, are the focus of most scientific models. In my view, however, oral histories have a way of still explaining the unknown, but they might do it backwards, like a lawyer, by first coming to a conclusion and then supporting it with evidence of why the variables react this way, or how natural systems (humans included) work together in intricate ways to sustain each other.

I travelled down to Puerto Rico recently, specifically to El Yunque National Forest for a leadership meeting sponsored by the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and their diversity program called SEEDS. Their motto is “diverse people for a diverse science.” While at the meeting I met wonderful, inspiring individuals who have become new friends. The new president-elect of ESA attended and gave a speech about the “Transfer of Ecological Knowledge” (TEK, see the similarity!) to ecologists in communities and in federal policy. Focusing on interpersonal relationships at a local level, he said, helps facilitate national cohesion. Specifics of the presentation included scientists taking a look at what individual needs were and the sharing of new environmental information and policies at a local level. When this happens you begin to see individuals outside of the “science” fields become more interested in their natural systems. Education and communication foster a willingness to participate in more institutional interfaces like ESA or the Wildlife Society and other conservation/preservation-focused organizations that engage in policy making at the tribal, state, and federal levels.

Now there I was, sitting there thinking “this guy is explaining my life and he doesn’t even know it.” I really empathized with these ideas, not only for my science-driven education, but also as a proponent of cultural preservation. Focusing on the needs of the people and sharing the knowledge about our environment to our little ones—carrying on traditions like these help guide the path of our future as tribal people, as tribal people outnumbered by those who do not see the intricacies of our society and belief systems. It blew me away really, and of course no one else in the room was applying it how I was, but it lightened my spirit to find someone completely removed from any tribal community just spreading the message, our ideals, for us as Indigenous peoples of the world. The experience was a glimmer of light shining on a mosaic, the unique pieces each having a facet that when this light popped on, the whole work of art just suddenly had a life of its own and it was full of inspiration for my own future endeavors. I’ll leave my readers with this thought: apply for these opportunities even if they are in the school year, because the impact can be immeasurable!

Celina Gray studies environmental science at Salish Kootenai College.

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