ESI guest post: Traditional Ecological Knowledge


Emilia Gusdal, a 2023 Environmental Stewardship Institute (ESI) fellow

This is a guest post from Emilia Gusdal, a 2023 Environmental Stewardship Institute (ESI) fellow. ESI fellows design and carry out a capstone project during a six-week summer program. Emilia turned to two restoration specialists and stewards to learn more about Traditional Ecological Knowledge. (Note: Opinions expressed in ESI projects are those of the program participant and do not necessarily represent those of FMR.) 

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For my final project, I conducted a research project on Traditional Ecological Knowledge and interviewed two environmental stewards.

You can see my presentation slides here, and you can read transcripts of my full interviews below.

Why I chose this project

I am interested in the conservation field and for some people, it feels like a new science, but that's not true. I knew that there were traditional methods by many cultures that have been passed down through generations. I wanted to focus on Indigenous people's knowledge because they have always been stewards of the land. 

What I hope you take away

It is crucial for us to collaborate with Indigenous people in order to fix the climate crisis. They have been the stewards of the land for generations and know more than anyone about the interactions between humans and the earth.

My Traditional Ecological Knowledge interviews with Gabby Menomin and Kyle Gill

I had the privilege of speaking with Gabby Menomin and Kyle Gill. Gabby is the Restoration Manager at Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi and has a Master's degree in Tribal Natural Resource Management. She is an enrolled member of the Forest County Potawatomi community (bullhead clan) of northern Wisconsin. Kyle Gill is the Forest Manager and Research Coordinator for the University of Minnesota experimental forests. He has a M.S. in Natural Resources and Science Management and a B.S. in Environment and Natural Resources.

Each individual provided some resources they found important, and are linked throughout the article. Both interviews are edited for clarity.

Interview with Gabby Menomin

Gusdal: Why did you decide to go into the environmental field and what has led you here?

Menomin: I decided to go into the environmental field because between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I was having really big doubts about the major that I had chosen, and I remember being out in the woods with my dad and he was showing me a bunch of different trees. And I was like, hey, I bet I could do something in school where I can be out in the woods. So we kind of just started from there.

I mean, I've always loved being outside. I've always been interested in learning about different plants and ecosystems, so it just kind of all fell into place. I just tried figuring out what exactly I was interested in and I ended up here in the long run.

Gusdal: What have you recently been doing in the environmental field?

Menomin: I've been doing a lot of restoration work. In my position here at Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi I lead a couple different restoration and natural resource management tasks, the big one being Daylighting Phalen Creek.

Coordinating that project is super exciting. We're going through the design phase for that first quarter mile of the Creek right now and then we'll be getting into some of the nitty gritty about what kind of habitats we are going to restore for the area which I'm really excited for. The neighborhood is also really excited about it.

I've also been really busy with doing coordination and restoration at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, where the Wakan Tipi sacred site is. We've been doing a lot of coordination with the contracted work that FMR has subcontracted out to Land Bridge. Land Bridge is doing a lot of spot spraying, mowing and reining in some of the more invasive species. I've been coordinating with them and with the city because we do our own restoration activities with volunteers. I also work with our summer youth program to do seed collection. We just did a little pond seeding and we're going to do a pond planting tomorrow.

Gusdal: What does conservation mean to you?

Menomin: I'm going to be honest, I don't really like the word conservation. Historically, it's put people outside of the environment. It's not as extreme as the idea of preservation where we need to keep a "perfect ecosystem," but the idea of conservation and the way that Western science and Western viewpoints address conservation does take people out of the landscape. Because there's this idea that people are very harmful to ecosystems.

Indigenous people historically have always been a huge part of the natural ecosystem. We've never viewed ourselves as separate from it. We have an active role constantly trying to figure out how to balance our lives with the lives of other creations. Conservation is not something that I'm a big fan of. I understand where people are coming from and I understand the methods that go behind conservation. I don't think it's like this big awful thing, but there's just some world viewpoints that don't quite align with what I was taught traditionally.

Gusdal: What term would you use instead of conservation?

Menomin: I'm not sure, I haven't really thought about a better term to describe it. I don't like using a lot of flowery language, but something that I've heard other people talking about within the Indigenous community is being in relation with the land, working with the land, working on building those relationships with the different plants, with the different animals.

I don't have a specific word for it, but it's just that mindset of being a good relative to the non-human beings in this world and figuring out how we can support them. How can we help create balance in this world because there has been so much disturbance in this world that was caused by human beings? That's where my headspace has been lately.

Gusdal: How do you define traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)? Why is it important?

Menomin: The way that I would define it is simply just Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous science. It's what Indigenous people have known and built over generations about being in relationship with the land and having that really strong connection to land and being able to understand how the natural systems that they've worked with operate. It's basically just Indigenous knowledge.

I know it's been kind of like a buzz term lately, but Indigenous people have always been scientists. So TEK is just our traditional knowledge of how we view and interact with the natural world. Indigenous knowledge and TEK is super important to me because thinking about it from a climate change perspective, Indigenous people probably have the best insight as to what's going on in the natural system. The natural systems that they're part of, they have that multi generational knowledge. From all the [INDISTINGUISHABLE] traditions that give you an insight as to how the world has been changing: what the world used to be like versus what it is now. So that's a huge importance around the topic of climate change.

I think that's why the UN has been reaching out more to Indigenous communities, trying to incorporate more TEK into climate change mitigation because people are finally understanding that Indigenous people know what we're talking about and we know how to work with the land and be in balance with the land. Bringing back some of the values of how Indigenous people used to and still do view the kinship system, which includes more than just humans, it includes the animals, the plants, the environment as a whole too. Bringing back traditional values I think is going to help people have a different mindset of the world.

Gusdal: Can you elaborate on how traditional ecological knowledge can be used in restoration efforts today?

Menomin: I mentioned how it relates to climate change, but one thing that I've been thinking about more and I know a couple of other communities have been thinking about is how we address invasive species. There's been some conversations within the Indigenous community about not referring to invasive species as invasive or foreign or alien, but rather as visiting or displaced relatives. This places a little more compassion on the plants themselves because they didn't ask to be here. Most of these species were brought over intentionally. Having a little bit more compassion by using language that ties back into kinship systems: referring to them as sisters, relatives.

And thinking about our kinship systems and how they traditionally would have been. The role of people in traditional kinship systems is finding out where they fit in the world, figuring out how to be in balance with the world around them. An elder from my community used to tell us that a huge role of people was trying to figure out what everyone's role is in the environment. And so that's kind of how I've been viewing invasive species because we don't quite know what their role is. From an outside perspective, they seem very destructive. They seem very aggressive in the systems that they come in, but if we approach it with a different mindset through a different lens, we can try to figure out how they can better fit in this world.

Working towards naturalization, or at least helping keep populations in check because a lot of management goals for invasive species have historically been eradication, which isn't economically feasible. It's not physically feasible either. It would take immense amounts of manpower just to be able to completely eradicate invasive species. And economically, it's just not realistic. So thinking about invasive species, how can we help them? Finding balance in the world that they're very unfamiliar with. That's something that I've been trying to work towards, something I've seen other communities trying to work towards also. It's all about finding that balance.

Gusdal: How will the land back movement affect restoration efforts?

Menomin: I think the biggest thing about land back is that a lot of people when they hear land back, they think of the physical return of land to native people. While this is kind of the case for some land back movements the majority of land back movements are more about regaining stewardship and being able to have a voice in what happens with the environment.

I think in terms of restoration the land back movement is really going to give Indigenous people a chance to be leaders in restoration efforts, be able to make major decisions. Because like I said with TEK, with Indigenous knowledge, our people have been part of these systems for so many generations, [INDISTINGUISHABLE] in some cases. And so being able to have our voice, being able to bring our values and our ethics and our lens into restoration work there are going to be a lot of different methods that are going to be coming out the more Indigenous people are able to be a part of the decisions.

Gusdal: How can individuals implement traditional ecological knowledge in their lives?

Menomin: This is really difficult because part of TEK is a multi-generational build-up of knowledge. It's hard to think about how that transfers to people outside the community. I think the biggest thing is just allowing Indigenous people to be part of decisions in leadership roles and allowing Indigenous people to have a voice.

Building meaningful and sustainable relationships with indigenous people, Indigenous communities, I think is also a great place to start. There's also lots of different literature out there about TEK. And I think just trying to read through that and understand and kind of digest, you know, the information that's being shared, I think that's a great place to start. But beyond that, I'm not sure. This is a really difficult question, honestly.

Gusdal: Are there a couple of pieces of literature that you would point someone to?

Menomin: I really like this book called Native Science by Gregory Cohete. He goes through a little bit about TEK and how native science has been historically. I think he speaks more from a Southwest perspective because I'm pretty sure his people are from the southwest, but he has great insight into TEK. And I mean, of course, Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, it's a very well-written book. It's very digestible for a general audience and it's a really great introduction to get people into understanding an Indigenous lens on environmental work and being in relationship with the land. I think those two are probably where I would start off.

I know there are a lot of different peer-reviewed articles written on TEK from other Indigenous people. There's also this compilation of different peer-reviewed and scientific articles that were written on TEK. This is another book I refer to a lot. It has a lot of different perspectives from a lot of different tribal communities from the northwest, from up in Canada, there's some from the East Coast tribes and southwest, and the midwestern plains. So a lot of different perspectives on the similarities and differences in TEK.

Gusdal: What can individuals do to help raise up Indigenous voices?

Menomin: I think just inviting Indigenous people into projects wherever it seems suitable and feasible. Again, being able to build meaningful and sustainable relationships and reciprocal relationships too — you don't want a relationship to be one-sided with someone. It does take a lot of effort. I'm not going to say that it's easy. It takes a lot of effort, even as an Indigenous person, I have to go through a lot of hoops myself just talking with other communities sometimes.

There's a really big distrust with some people on certain topics, so being able to take the time to build that trust, build that meaningful, reciprocal relationship, I think that's going to be the hardest part. But I mean it's the foundation to being able to start allowing Indigenous people to feel comfortable talking in different spaces.

Gusdal: What are one to two resources that you would point someone to wanting to learn more about Indigenous restoration and TEK?

Menomin: It's not exactly a resource, but something to consider is that each Indigenous community is going to have its own special knowledge, its own special and unique TEK. So if you want to incorporate TEK into a project, figure out which community is best to reach out to. I think that's the biggest thing, not really a resource, but that's something really important to consider because we all have our own unique communities.

Something that I have been looking into a lot is how other reservations are implementing their own climate adaptation and vulnerability assessments, or even just Land Management practices. I think they are the Confederated Umatilla Tribe, I believe they're out in Montana, their land and their life management and resource management plan is completely built on the idea of First Foods. So any sort of Land Management implementation that they want to do they have to refer to the guide in this plan, which highlights and focuses on traditional foods from the community and how to best support those traditional foods. That's one that I think is super amazing.

Oh, I'm going to get the year wrong. It's either 1856 or 1854, treaty authority here in Minnesota. It's for four bands of Ojibwe. They created a collaborative climate change adaptation and vulnerability assessment for the unceded territory that's here in Minnesota. That's a really great perspective on Ojibwe traditional ecological knowledge, and how to restore plants and ecosystem populations that were culturally and historically significant for their communities.

Those are two that I like to reference a lot, a lot of other communities are working on their own natural resource climate adaptation vulnerability assessments. There's a lot more TEK being put into written materials that's in the process or coming up here soon.

Interview with Kyle Gill

Gusdal: Why did you decide to go into the environmental field? What has led you here?

Gill: I've always been interested and engaged with being outdoors. I grew up on a horse farm on 42 acres and so being outside was just kind of what we did. I learned later through high school that I was interested in camping and spending time in the Boundary Waters and canoe camping in particular, and getting to know the forests was something that I just did because I enjoyed recreating out in the forests.

Then I learned you could study trees and could study forests, and that was an attractive thing to me when I was looking for potential majors. So I balanced wanting to become a professor and wanting to somehow be involved in forestry. So I stayed with school, got involved in forest ecology research and then that led me back to graduate school.

In order to kind of keep those options open career-wise, I did my masters in the Natural Resource Science and Management program at the University of Minnesota. That set me up well for being able to have the position I have now, which is a balance of both research and practice and getting to work with people to help them ask questions that are one or two steps removed from practice. So the path that has led me here was undergraduate, got my Bachelor's of Science at the U and what's now Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management with a minor in forestry.

I got to work for a forest ecology research lab, which helped me to understand some of what goes on on that front. Then I decided to do a Master's of science in natural resources science and management on the forest biology and ecology side of things. When I was working in the Boundary Waters I discovered I enjoy disturbance ecology and learning how well-adapted our forest ecosystems and all ecosystems are adapted to disturbance.

That's something that still really heavily plays into how I approach the woods. I believe that these woods are just like us. Disturbances are not all bad, and oftentimes they're actually pretty good for the systems.

Gusdal: What have you recently been doing in the environmental field?

Gill: I'm the forest manager and research coordinator for our experimental forests so I'm tasked with being a good land steward. Our primary objectives for why we have the experimental forests up here in northern Minnesota are for them to be places of research, education and outreach. In order to do that, we then make sure that within the reasonable biotic and abiotic parameters of the land, we try and make good stewardship decisions that then support research and teaching objectives of the university.

So for us that means essentially having a relatively wide variety of what I call different expressions of the same community types. So the choices for action or inaction that we can employ as land stewards that really influence the development of a forested community. That's a big part of my role, trying to make good decisions in the short term. Then hopefully we'll maintain those long-term with the vision and mission of the University of Minnesota.

I try to think of the forest as my primary stakeholder, but I work for the university. I hope why we're having this conversation is because we're on tribal land. We're on unceded land, which the U hasn't cared about necessarily, but that's been a really important learning for me in what it means to be a primary land steward and making decisions about land stewardship on unceded territory rather than ceded territory. Our Cloquet property is on the Fond du Lac reservation, where we have about 3400 acres here. And then the other properties that are under my stewardship are in other areas within the 1854 treaty boundary, but not on unceded land like the Cloquet Forestry Center is.

The stewardship I do at the other properties is still heavily influenced by the relationships I've built with the tribal community here, and being able to learn from them, and try and think about how to make sure we're blending worldviews whenever possible. The language to distinguish ceded versus unceded land is a really important thing for me to understand as somebody of European American descent.

The treaty right I have is that I'm allowed to essentially, to be on the land. So there's a recognition by the United States federal government that this was not land that was unoccupied but that they needed essentially to have these legal agreements with the people that were already here and that's what the treaties were intended to do. Whether or not they've been followed appropriately, as always, there's a lot of contention around those things. There were certain rights that the bands who were the signers of the treaties retained across the entire treaty areas.

Sometimes people are confused and are like, oh, these are the rights that the federal government gave to the Indigenous people, and that's the opposite of how it actually is. The analogy I've heard used a lot is that if you invite people over to your house and tell them you can go anywhere except for these two bedrooms, you're retaining that right. Essentially, it's not that the people coming to your house said I'm going to go anywhere I want and I'm going to keep myself out of there. It's a reversal of somehow sometimes how it gets interpreted, the rights that are either granted or retained within treaties. The university will sometimes say we want to acknowledge that the university is on Dakota land. Oftentimes it's based upon recognizing that the treaty is the legal basis for non-Indigenous people to be even on the land. So that's an acknowledgment of that legal history that it is still not just history, that is totally contemporary.

Gusdal: What does conservation mean to you?

Gill: I think about it in terms of not removing our resources' ability to persist. So not not removing the ability for something to have a livelihood. I lean towards conservation oftentimes more than preservation because I think conservation has a bit more recognition of the human involvement in actively conserving things while also recognizing that there are resources to be extracted. Whereas preservation is just trying to keep it as it is, which as we know with the ecological systems they're always changing, so the idea that we can actually preserve it like a museum piece is not that kind of goes against my understanding of ecological systems.

Conservation is a way to recognize that we as humans are a part of that system. We have a role to play in working with the land and hopefully not negating the land's ability to be a sustainable resource. I think about Aldo Leopold and the land as being an important guide for conservation and one of the tenants that Leopold said, is essentially: recognize that there's a lot of cogs in every wheel and we don't always know all of those cogs, but it's an important piece of intelligent tinkering to make sure to keep as many cogs as possible. So that when we're trying to build or rebuild something we don't accidentally misplace something or don't have all the pieces with which to help the wheel rotate.

Gusdal: How do you define traditional ecological knowledge? Why is it important?

Gill: My understanding is probably defined as Indigenous ecological knowledge or Indigenous knowledge systems. There's a handful of definitions, I guess. Again, I think it tends to lean into the ecological knowledge that's held within Indigenous communities, within the traditions of Indigenous communities. It's the knowledge that's kind of baked into some of the culture of a lot of Indigenous communities that they may or may not be willing to share with people outside of those community communities.

And if we're lucky, then they do share with us and it can help inform our approaches to working with the land. So it's knowledge that is part of their worldview and part of their language. And part of I think everyday life for a lot of Indigenous people. For me in particular through work, why it's important to be aware of traditional ecological knowledge is that I recognize, especially in Minnesota, that all land is tribal land. And so trying to understand the values and practices that are unique to tribal understanding of the world is really important for me to try and incorporate into how I view the world. I said before, we're not only on Indigenous land, but we're on unceded Indigenous land. So that kind of raises it a level. I need to be aware of those knowledge systems or the knowledge that they've been willing to share and then do my best to try and respect those knowledge systems and incorporate them into my practices whenever possible.

Gusdal: How have you put that into practice?

Gill: The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commissions tribal adaptation menu talks about TEK. My understanding of TEK is that it's really worldview-based and it's philosophy-based. It's not just a set of practices necessarily.

Like when we think of scientific or Western knowledge, oftentimes there are definitely philosophies that come along with it, like in terms of peer review and the importance of being able to have our work reviewed, documented and shared. Similarly, a broad definition of traditional ecological knowledge is that they've had this long, essentially, peer review process or community review process over the years that's helped to refine their knowledge.

TEK hasn't always been respected by the scientific community because their ways of trial and error and recording and sharing are just different from ours. And so we as a scientific community have often not believed the knowledge is real because it wasn't recorded or passed on in the same way as us, but I think when we start to look, there's a lot of commonalities on how those knowledge systems work. That's why I think it's really advantageous to the Western science community to be aware of and to think about how to incorporate principles and practices of TEK.

In that tribal climate adaptation menu, one of the first things they start with is the guiding principles starting on page 8. That's been really influential. I got to give a seminar recently on a white person's attempts to learn and put into practice traditional ecological knowledge. I used this as one of my guides and it was really nice to confirm that some of the approaches that I've been taking on align with this.

One of the main things of how we've been trying to employ it is every time I go to the woods, I'm trying to not think of the woods as "its" and the trees as "its", but the trees as "thems." Respecting the beinghood of all living beings is a really big thing, totally foundational to my understanding of Indigenous knowledge systems and relationships with the land. They think of everything in terms of relationships and it's really fascinating to learn where that comes from, and I won't go down that rabbit hole, but it's important to think of. It's been really important for me and putting into practice this idea, and not just the idea but the belief that all living beings are beings, rather than objects.

Gusdal: How can traditional ecological knowledge be used in conservation efforts today?

Gill: I think one of the most important things is that we don't treat traditional ecological knowledge like it's a resource to be extracted. I think that tends to be a little bit of the Western mentality is to extract it and use it for our own good. So a way that I hope that it gets used is in a way to lift up tribal tribal understanding of the world and tribal people. Because there's been a long history of us taking advantage of them and extracting knowledge from their communities, rather than doing things that are reciprocal.

That's another really important principle for us has been to think about reciprocity, so both with the relationships we're developing with the tribal community, but also with the land. If we're going to be taking something, we need to make sure we're putting stuff back in there as well. Reciprocity is way more baked into Indigenous knowledge systems, when compared with Western knowledge systems.

I think there are some analogs of how reciprocity is important in Western science, but I think it's more of a foundational principle within Indigenous knowledge. I think that it could be an important way for it to be used by looking at some of the principles that they follow and see how we can adhere to or think about adopting some of their principles that have been demonstrated to be good not only for the short term, but for long-term relationships.

Gusdal: What are the impacts that the land back movement will have on conservation?

Gill: I'm not well enough aware of everything that's involved with the land back movement. My limited understanding is essentially that it's trying to recognize that all land is tribal land and that we need to respect that that is the legal reality and that that should influence our practices more often than not. Hopefully its effect on conservation will be that we all recognize that we're here at the good graces of the people that were here before us and bring that mentality of always prioritizing multiple generations rather than what's just beneficial for the short term or for right now. Doing practices that are reciprocal and long-term looking at their core. So that's hopefully the positive effect the land back movement can have. It's very much recognizing and reemphasizing that we're all on Indigenous land and that that matters.

Gusdal: How can individuals implement TEK in their lives?

Gill: The way I've done it is recognizing some of the foundational principles of reciprocity and beinghood and other things like that. Recognize that we're not separate from the land. I think a lot of the Western narrative is that humans are outside of ecology and that's what allows our practices to be solely extractive at times. For us as individuals, it can be important to remind ourselves daily that we're a part of nature, even if we're living in urban areas, we're not able to not be nature. We're of the stardust and we will return to stardust.

Gusdal: What can individuals do to help raise up Indigenous voices?

Gill: Asking Indigenous communities how they might want their voices to be raised would be number one because oftentimes we can get into saviorism. I try to turn to things that have been published like the travel adaptation menu because that's the tribal communities' way of saying here's what we think is important. Rather than us trying to come up with on our own what we think is important for tribal communities.

Recognizing where voices haven't been allowed to speak freely in the past, like where discrimination has happened, and trying to create space for those voices is an important one too. Have tribal representation at decision-making tables. Knowing what our treaty rights are and how we are impacted by the treaties that still govern land ownership can be a really important individual step too. That way we have a better understanding of some of the history and how that plays out in the modern era and knowing then who our tribal communities are and how to potentially support them rather than having it be the vague hand wavy tribal voices. If I know that I'm trying to support a tribal person, I've got the relationships with the individuals of the community that I'm connected to, rather than the general, anonymous Indigenous person. So develop relationships.

Other resources provided by Kyle Gill

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FMR created the Environmental Stewardship Institute to address the gap between environmental education and a career path in the environmental field. We hold a summer intensive program and a school-year youth advisory council. Learn more about the 2023 ESI summer program, including other final project highlights.

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