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Integrating Indigenous Perspectives in Forest Policy through Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Trinity Minahan


  • Discusses how integrating Indigenous perspectives can serve as a lens in developing effective forest policy.
  • Describes Traditional Indigenous Knowledge as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings with one another and with their environment.”
  • Indigenous insights will provide a liminal, inclusive ecological approach to living in harmony with the earth and ensure sustainability of our forests for years to come.
Integrating Indigenous Perspectives in Forest Policy through Traditional Ecological Knowledge
Jason Doiy via Getty Images

As society undergoes decades of recycled forest policy and climate change, one foundational perspective to managing forests still seems to be missing. That perspective centers around looking to those that have been here since time immemorial. Integrating Indigenous perspectives can serve as a lens in developing effective forest policy. 

In working toward advancing forest policy for the future, remembering those that were here first is important. Despite colonial views and impact, “Nothing was discovered, everything was already loved.” Indigenous peoples’ culture developed in this place we call the United States. When explorers first came to the United States, they viewed this place as one of untouched, unused resources; however, those resources were not unused, but instead thoughtfully managed through intentional stewardship. Intergenerational knowledge of the environment occurs through experience coexisting with nature successfully over time.

Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) refers to the relationship of Indigenous people to the landscape and the manner in which they cared for and connected to the landscape. TEK does not create segregation and silos of ecology like some other areas of science. Instead, TEK is “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment.” In addition, TEK encompasses place-based knowledge and can differ between each tribe and location.

The tribal perspective incorporates a deep tie to land, place, and ancestors. Such a perspective includes the gathering of traditional plants and foods for consumption and medicinal purposes. Tribes interacted with the forests by hunting, fishing, and participating in customary gathering for traditional basketry materials, housing materials, and other tools. For millennia, people have used plant fibers to meet the needs of daily life. Natives crafted traditional tools from a variety of materials, such as antler, bone, stone, shell, and plant materials, and used them for such things as scraping animal hides for clothing, grinding nuts and seeds to eat, and splitting planks to make houses.

In addition to traditional practices of hunting, gathering, and crafting tools, TEK includes understanding and living with the seasons, tides, and moon cycles. Classifications of TEK encompass knowledge about the environment, knowledge about the use of the environment, values about the environment, and the knowledge system itself. To most Indigenous people the relationship with nature is a reciprocal one of interdependency: not taking more than you need and replenishing that which you take. Tribes and Native peoples implement TEK as a day-to-day lifestyle as opposed to sporadically or on a temporary basis.

The attitudes of many biological scientists and natural resource managers to TEK has frequently been dismissive. However, TEK offers a means to improve research and resource management as well as environmental impact assessment. TEK is not only a tool for management of forests and landscapes but also a worldview of appropriate environmental ethics and cultural values of respect, sharing, reciprocity, and humility. Traditional knowledge extends far beyond understanding identification of distinct species of animals or their feeding, reproductive, or migratory behavior. Instead, it seeks to understand and explain the workings of ecosystems, containing many interacting species of animals and plants, and the role of key biological and physical parameters in influencing the behavior of the total biological community.

Traditional ecological knowledge has substantial value not only for the wealth of biological information it contains but also for the cultural framework of respect, reciprocity, and responsibility embedded within it.  Instead of working toward only keeping people off the landscape to “conserve” it, Indigenous people interacted with the land in a way that was meaningful and reciprocal. They have a unique relationship with the landscape and understand the integral role of people in the ecosystem. The use of TEK informs decision-making about species and habitats, provides longitudinal knowledge for climate change and planning projects, and builds relationships with Indigenous peoples around topics of common interest.

Consultation with those that have been here since time immemorial can guide frameworks for necessary change in U.S. forests. Native American land holdings in North America today collectively contain more wildlands than all of the national parks and nature conservancy areas in North America. Additionally, 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is on Indigenous lands. Native peoples manage these holdings and in doing so have incredible insight not only to what is occurring ecologically today but also in making the connection to the history and science that ancestors have passed down for generations.

As we confront periods of catastrophic wildfires and global climate change, we need to shift the dominant scientific paradigm to one of cyclical thinking, which is common to most Indigenous cultures. Within this view, an understanding exists that the world flows in cycles and what one does today will affect one in the future. For example, the  Muscogee Creek tribe and others believe that the migration patterns of animals and our seasons are part of the natural order of life. As a society and as forest policy makers, we can benefit from the important connection among land, food, nutrition, and energy that many tribes recognize.

TEK can assist in enhancing knowledge that some believe has been studied exhaustively, as TEK often creates a three-dimensional approach to climate change and offers an integrated system of environment and timing knowledge not examined previously. The holistic view of the ecosystem supplies an avenue to understand climate changes. For example, technological developments such as remote sensing can detect climate changes but cannot explain what happens as a result, and that is where TEK comes in.

To incorporate Indigenous perspectives, we must invite these voices to the decision-making table. This process involves building and sustaining meaningful relationships with tribes and Indigenous communities. In the words of Norma General, Elder of the Wolf Clan of the Cayuga Nation, “True consensus is built through talking, listening, and considering different ideas until a new understanding takes place, and the decision makers come to ‘one mind’ about what to do.”

Government agencies and/or organizations can work to establish government-to-government relationships through memorandums of understanding with tribes. Beginning steps to effective relationships involve reaching out to local tribes before developing forest policies and practices. Most tribes have Natural Resources or Tribal Lands departments with staff that are often willing to provide feedback and guidance on conservation, restoration, or forest management techniques. In approaching tribes, one must be respectful and realize that they have a history of deep distrust of government due to federal laws and policies that broke treaty promises, forced assimilation and removal of tribes from aboriginal homelands, mandated boarding schools, terminated tribes, and enacted intentional genocide of Native people

In undergoing forest policy efforts, agencies will sometimes cluster tribes’ input into the public comment period. However, tribes are sovereign nations that deserve a distinct space for contributing their perspectives separate from the general public comment period. Tribal sovereignty in the United States refers to the inherent rights of Indigenous tribes to govern themselves within their borders. Many tribes have their own public natural resources management plans in which they outline their distinct history, goals, and objectives for forest practices and habitat restoration efforts. These plans provide a starting point for recognizing tribal perspectives.

In managing the land, Native people believe in keeping places open; otherwise, encroachment of non-native species will occur. Tribes use the tool of fire as a way of actively managing the forests and landscape. Over time, the dominant culture has underestimated the Native Americans’ ability to modify their environment as well as their knowledge of the environment. Going back to the 1920s, the federal Forest Service viewed fire as a threat and opposed the practice of light burning, even though many ranchers, farmers, and timbermen favored it because it improved land conditions. Eventually, federal land managers began to see the positive role fire plays on forest ecology. However, in undertaking scientific research, colonial experts did not look to or give credit to the people that have always been in the landscape: Native Americans have actively used fire to manage the land and remove resources for basketry, hunting, and gathering seasonally.

Oak habitats in the Willamette Valley of Oregon have dwindled over the past 230 years, primarily due to the lack of low-intensity wildfires. Organizations such as the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and others are working to restore oak habitat areas for their value as food and cover to wildlife habitat and to forest ecology as a whole. These kinds of efforts allow for the incorporation of diverse conservation values into restoration work and employ tribal methods and approaches to forest management.

As society engages in work to improve current forest policy for future generations, we must open our minds to include traditional ecological knowledge and invite the voices of those that have been here since time immemorial to share their perspectives. Indigenous insights will provide a liminal, inclusive ecological approach to living in harmony with the earth and ensure sustainability of our forests for years to come.