Traditional Environmental Knowledge
Develop an understanding of First Nations, Métis and Inuit perspectives on respectful use of the land and resources.
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Traditional environmental practices followed by Indigenous peoples over the ages have yield traditional environmental knowledge (TEK), which is valued by industry, education and government. Elders knowledgeable in this area offer perspectives and wisdom that can ensure a healthy environment for coming generations. In this part of the journey, you will be introduced to a diverse sampling of TEK practices, as well as the contemporary perspectives that connect these teachings to the modern world.
She tells Henry she is intrigued by his session description of an upcoming traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) field trip for the school district’s professional development day. Henry explains that he has access to two great resources: Joseph, a local Elder, and Vanessa, an anthropologist, who are both consultants for an engineering and development company working in the area. Joseph’s traditional environmental knowledge comes from a lifetime of living on the land. Vanessa’s background and training allow her to connect Joseph’s cultural perspectives to contemporary applications of TEK in the fields of environmental science, land management and sustainability.
Bonnie, who is familiar with Elders as co-educators, decides to sign up for the session to gain a better understanding of TEK and its specific connection to the curriculum’s foundational attitudes of mutual respect and stewardship. Henry tells her he will explain the necessary protocol at the session and that all participants will have an opportunity to make field notes as they listen to Joseph and Vanessa.
Joseph: In this area you can see many signs that indicate good habitat for moose and deer.
The white poplars and heavier spruce protect the cows and calves during the birthing season, and the pond is close by for drinking water. The willow shrubs offer an easy food source in the winter when the snow covers the grasses.
Vanessa: As a TEK researcher, I find the main aspect of my job is to record traditional knowledge as described by the project Elders. I also arrange their data into a searchable format. With Joseph’s information, we are able to map important sites and record activities that have traditional uses.
Joseph: In our culture, the moose is the most important animal in the deer family because of its many uses. We try to use the moose to the fullest extent by processing hides and sinew for moccasins, using the rawhide for drums, and using the bones for tools and scrapers.
Vanessa: I have learned through working with Joseph that hunting and trapping are the traditional foundations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit life and worldviews. Intimate knowledge of animal behaviour, habitat and seasons of activity is essential to a traditional person’s survival. Joseph’s deep understanding of the land is very helpful in making current land-use decisions.
Joseph: Hunting and preparing the meat is very hard work, and we do this together. We also share the meat, as this helps to maintain our family and community relationships.
When properly cared for, the land will provide for us forever.
Vanessa: Passed through the generations, traditional harvesting knowledge is an equally important hands-on experience. Young adults learned how to use what was caught, how to process hides and cure meat, and how to craft tools and implements. On a personal level, I am very grateful to Joseph for sharing his knowledge with me, and professionally I am able to respect and support this transfer of knowledge.
Aquatic perennial herb
Joseph: This well-known plant is called Rat Root. Can you guess why, and who it is named after? As a commonly gathered traditional Native medicine, the Rat Root rhizome is chewed to treat aches and pains, including colds, coughs and sore throats.
Vanessa: When I was a little girl, I remember gathering medicines with my grandparents. They would identify the special plants and tell me their names in their original language. In Cree, this plant is called wîhkês/wacaskomîcisôwi, aptly named after a very busy and clean little animal ... the muskrat.
Joseph: One of the best places to pick blueberries is back in the bush. Close to the berries is a stand of diamond willow, which gives us a very special fungus. We harvest both of those plants for use in our ceremonies.
Vanessa: As an anthropologist, I understand that the TEK knowledge base is the intellectual property of First Nations, Métis and Inuit and should not be exploited. I have learned to respect the processes and proper protocol for knowledge transfer.
The document of TEK research is primarily directed by First Nations, Métis and Inuit. With my background, I can help them by providing technical advice and administrative support.
Joseph: Part of our traditional knowledge comes from observing and learning from the animals that live among us. Mother Earth provides us with all we need to live and to keep us healthy.
Vanessa: Joseph and I work together with industry and government to help protect the ecologically sensitive areas, such as wetlands. We also protect plant resources, specifically natural medicines that are important to all people and to generations to come.
Joseph: This shallow pond is connected to a creek that is a spawning route for jackfish. In the summer you can see those little minnows swimming close to the shore. We let these little fish grow, and when they mature, they can return to the spawning beds.
Up toward the shoreline, you can see migratory water birds. They use the bulrushes to line their nests. Every year, the ducks return, and a new batch of ducklings learns to swim here.
Vanessa: For First Nations, Métis and Inuit, the sanctioning of TEK has resulted in access to natural resources, such as water and timber. Participation in resource management gives knowledgeable Elders a voice in decisions in such areas as harvesting of wildlife. It also allows for participation in national and international conservation initiatives, such as sustainable forestry development and UNESCO water conservation.
Joseph: In the old days, we travelled on the waterways with birchbark canoes that we made ourselves. We used spruce pitch to seal them so they were watertight. Through these experiences, we learned the flow of the waters and the lay of the land.
Vanessa: In Alberta, we are very fortunate that traditional Knowledge Keepers share their wisdom and advocate for the rest of us. Through TEK and the government’s duty to consult, Elders are able to help protect and conserve our waters.
Dark brown roots
Joseph: Look closely, and you will see where some muskrats have pushed up the moss and dug into the root beds to get at their food sources.
When you look at the stand of poplars, you can see where the beavers have knocked down some of the closest trees. This area is where they live.
Vanessa: Based upon First Nations rights, the Alberta government made a commitment to consult with First Nations when land management and resource development initiatives may impact Aboriginal and treaty rights and traditional uses of Crown land. In part these consultations are comprised of TEK studies of habitats of endangered species, such as dens and nests, and locations of traditional medicines and burial sites.
Joseph: In our family our father worked a commercial trapline. Due to an administrative error we lost our trapline when he passed away.
Today we continue to harvest furs for our own use. Known as a domestic economy, this lifestyle remains socially and culturally relevant to our people. The domestic economy consists of harvesting (hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering) and processing activities where people provide food, fuel, and other materials and services for their household needs. Many Elders prefer to live this way.
Vanessa: Although the Constitution protects the rights of First Nations Peoples to hunt, trap and fish for food on unoccupied Crown land, changes are occurring. For example, domestic economy traplines have given way to commercial traplines, which may give way recreational use.
Joseph: In our worldview, we see ourselves as part of the environment, not above it. This belief is central to our connection to the land. In our way of life, the wind and the rocks are our Grandfathers. The moon is our Grandmother. To express this bond we call to “All My Relations.”
Vanessa: When I first began working with TEK studies, I believed our role to be one of stewardship. Through the TEK process, and working with the Elders, I learned to really love the land, to love all the life upon it and to act in harmony with it.
Joseph: As young people, you must know that the decisions made by our ancestors before us are now our responsibility. Like a pebble tossed into this pond, the implications of a decision ripple outwards. Often we don’t recognize these implications until they happen.
Vanessa: During my first year of university, I became more aware of environmental issues and the state of urgency that we are facing. At that point I decided to change my major from Canadian History to Anthropology and to focus my efforts more fully on ecological concerns.
Joseph: Look at this flower, and you will agree that she is a beautiful plant. When the Purple Loosestrife was introduced to this land, the people considered her to be a splendid and hardy addition to their gardens. We have since learned that this loosestrife does not want to share the land and will choke out all her neighbours.
We need to work together to correct this decision and help the natural environment survive. The only way we can do this is to dig out and remove roots, one by one.
Do you see the importance of your own actions and how you contribute to the health of the natural world?
Vanessa: As an Aboriginal woman, I think the idea of cultural stewardship is a reflection of my maternal nature, of taking care of and having compassion toward tiny and delicate beings.
Traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) is a synthesized understanding of the natural world that is based upon experiences and observations transmitted through oral tradition. Traditional environmental knowledge has been accumulated by Indigenous Peoples over thousands of years. TEK is integral to ecological knowledge, environmental sustainability and the survival of humankind and life on earth. TEK makes important contributions to biological and earth sciences and to our environmental awareness.
How will your increased understanding of traditional environmental knowledge and practices influence your teaching and the relationship you foster with both your students and the local environment?
Mary Wells speaks about Cree lessons that were inspired by nature.
Speakers in these interviews express their respect for the environment as they talk about living in harmony with the land.
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Billy Joe Laboucan | Woodland Cree | Little Buffalo Lake
Billy Joe Laboucan, Cree linguist and storyteller, talks about the traditional concept of reciprocity in relationship to the land.
Clifford Cardinal | Plains Cree | Saddle Lake Cree Nation
Cree Elder Clifford Cardinal talks about the traditional Cree way of interacting with nature with intentionality and forethought.
Cree is adapted to English:
The Cree are the keepers of Mother Earth and we treat Mother Earth with respect. If, for instance, we wanted to cross a creek, we would to pray and ask for permission. If we want to cut down trees, then the Elders first need to pray and give tobacco to Mother Earth.
Dora Unka | Dene | Deninu Ku'e First Nation, NWT | Urban Elder
Dora Unka relates her understanding of First Nations historical practice of living in harmony with the land.
Wilton Goodstriker | Kainai | Blood Tribe
Elder Wilton Goodstriker talks about traditional Kainai teachings for living in harmony with the environment and explains the current roles Elders take in consulting with outside developers.
Narcisse Blood and Alvine Mountain Horse | Kainai | Blood Tribe
Husband and wife, Narcisse Blood and Alvine Mountain Horse, speak in Blackfoot about how knowledge of land is considered sacred.
English adaptation is:
Alvine: Narcisse, what is your knowledge of our land and the environment?
Narcisse: I will start by referring to those who taught us and the teachings we received from Elders who are no longer with us.
They always stressed that our Creator placed us here on this land along with our non-human relations, the four-legged and the birds. These animals have taught us how to live and survive on our land and in return we must be respectful to them.
Our Creator also gave us our Blackfoot language in order to fully understand and appreciate the vast knowledge of this land.
Now, it is my turn to ask you to share your knowledge of our land and the plants that we used.
Alvine: What I am going to share is what my grandmother raised us with and the importance of including this in our schools for the benefit of our students so that we don't lose this vital information. This is why teaching our language will ensure that the students will also grow up with this knowledge.
Narcisse: Teaching the students this knowledge helps them to know who they are and the teachings of their grandparents and ancestors. The knowledge of the land is considered sacred.
While Narcisse Blood passed in 2015, we are privileged and honoured to still have his words to share.
Alvine: This way, our students will learn the uses of these plants and at the same time learn our language and not lose either.
Narcisse: All the places in our land had names, the mountains, rivers and streams, hills and every place of importance.
Alvine: And there were many stories about each of these places and these stories teach us so much about our land and environment.
Mary Wells | Métis | Elizabeth Métis Settlement
Mary Wells speaks about Cree lessons that were inspired by nature.
Métis Trapper: Larry Big Charles
Elementary students from Hillview School, East Prairie Métis Settlement near High Prairie, visit with local trapper, Larry Big Charles. The students learn about various aspects of his seasonal life, including the building of his cabin and the changes that have occurred over the years. Larry Big Charles also shares stories of his lifestyle and of living alone without electricity or running water. Walking the trapline with him, students learn about “reading” the land. At the end of their visit, they celebrate with a wiener roast.
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While some First Nations, Métis and Inuit experts have recommended these documents, they are not authorized by Alberta Education.
Science and Technology Education from Different Cultural Perspectives. Glen S. Aikenhead
Glen Aikenhead of the University of Saskatchewan explores an alternative to the conventional mono-cultural science-technology curriculum. He considers the benefits from a school science curriculum that integrates the Indigenous knowledge of nature held by the school’s community culture.
Whose Scientific Knowledge? The Colonizer and the Colonized. Glen S. Aikenhead
Glen Aikenhead of the University of Saskatchewan discusses the use of Cross-cultural Science and Technology Units (CCSTUs) as a framework for teaching science. These units represent a form of science education as social action, and they encourage a change in the power relationships between a teacher and Aboriginal students in ways that promote mutual respect, and the ethic of survival for humankind.
Natural Resources and Conflict. Contemporary Issues
Demands for natural resources can conflict with the rights of First Nations, Métis and Inuit to live in harmony with the land. This excerpt from Contemporary Issues (Aboriginal Studies 30) examines industries such as tourism, mining, hydroelectricity, forestry and petroleum.
Traditional Knowledge. Peoples and Cultural Change
Traditional knowledge is a system of knowledge with its own philosophical and value base; it includes ecological teachings, medical knowledge, attitudes toward Mother Earth and a kinship with all creatures. This excerpt from Peoples and Cultural Change (Aboriginal Studies 20) examines traditional knowledge and education.
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Environmental Law: Because This Is Our Land
Environmental Law provides examples of First Nation people living in harmony with the environment. The video raises concerns about relationships with the land, past and present, in the Swan River First Nations traditional territory. Swan River Elders and First Nations environmental activists are interviewed. At a charter school near Wabamun, First Nations students are interviewed about learning to interact respectfully and traditionally with nature.
The resource focuses on First Nation perspectives and does not provide information from resource companies, who may or may not respect the environment and traditional cultures.
Bearpaw Media Productions of Native Counselling Services produced this video in 2007 with funding from the Alberta Law Foundation.