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A Guide to Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Title: An Instructor’s Guide to Including Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the Undergraduate Biology Classroom

Authors: Rebeka F. Greenall and Elizabeth G. Bailey

First author’s institution: Brigham Young University

Status: Published, CBE—Life Sciences Education, 2022

First, I would like to acknowledge that I’m writing from Hawaiʻi, rightfully the sovereign Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, which rightfully belongs to those who identify as Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and is an illegally occupied state. Through the work of education, I recognize that Her Majesty Queen Liliʻuokalani and the Hawaiian people protested the annexation of the islands to the United States multiple times and succeeded in their efforts. However, despite that, the land was still illegally annexed. I recognize that my family are settlers from the Philippines and that while I was born and raised here, it does not mean the knowledge I learned from Kanaka Maoli is freely mine to share with others. I am relearning the place name of where I live, Waipahu, as the ahupuaʻa of Waipiʻo, in the moku of ʻEwa, on the mokupuni of Oʻahu, in the paeʻāina of Hawaiʻi. I want to acknowledge the work of Kanaka Maoli that are working to restore the ʻāina, those who are working to restore sovereignty, and those who are defending Mauna Kea to prevent the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Hindi nila matutunan lahat nang isang eskwelahan. One cannot learn everything from a single school. We can learn a lot about sustainability from the people who stewarded the lands long before settlers came. However, when we look at science, technology, engineering, and math, Indigenous peoples are few and far between. One of the many contributors that may have led to this underrepresentation is the exclusion of Indigenous knowledge. As educators, it can be daunting to include Indigenous knowledge, especially if we don’t identify as Indigenous. In this essay written by Greenall and Bailey, they provide a guide to including said knowledge in biology classrooms, but it can be applied to many other contexts. The bottom line is that Indigenous experts and Indigenous knowledge holders are respected and included as much as possible in the planning and implementation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, especially in getting their permission to share their knowledge with students.

The purpose of this essay is to look at different ways “to increase the sense of belonging of Indigenous students” in biology classrooms via the integration of Indigenous Knowledge Systems, specifically Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Throughout the essay, the term “Indigenous” refers to those of Native American, Alaskan Native, First Nation, Aboriginal, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander descent. The authors define Indigenous Knowledge Systems as “the numerous ways of knowing found in Indigenous cultures around the world that exist outside a Western framework”. These are practices and knowledge that long existed before colonization and continue to be used today through an intimate relationship with nature. They are also as diverse as those who practice in these systems, but “all are generally excluded from Western education”. Traditional Ecological Knowledge refers to the “knowledges, experiences, practices, and intimate understandings of the environment that humans have acquired over thousands of years”. As such, Traditional Ecological Knowledge is a type of Indigenous Knowledge System but not the only one. The values of the people who practice are deeply rooted in this knowledge, like reciprocity between humans and nature and respecting the Earth. The relationship between humans and non-humans is much like family and community; everyone does their part to take care of each other. We tend to the Earth and the Earth, in turn, feeds us.

Highlighting Indigenous knowledge in STEM has its benefits for Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students. For the students that identify with the stated Indigenous groups, including Indigenous knowledge shows:

While Western and Indigenous knowledge has their differences, they also have similarities and can supplement each other well. Highlighting how these seemingly different knowledge systems can support each other can help to increase Indigenous representation in STEM.

For non-Indigenous students, the authors highlight four reasons why it would be beneficial for them as well:

As much as there are benefits to including Traditional Ecological Knowledge, there are also dangers to be considered before integrating it. For instance, some scholars argue that incorporation of it is cultural and intellectual appropriation and since Traditional Ecological Knowledge is a concept from the Western framework, it could be misinterpreted and misrepresented, taking on different implications than it was meant to. It could also be seen as disrespectful if we try to fit the experiences and lives of Indigenous people in a neat, little box and isolated from context. There is always risk involved when it comes to including culture in educational settings, and speaking as a non-white student and educator, the benefits of making sure our students are seen and heard in the curricula we teach outweigh the risk of them feeling invisible. The authors hope that their suggestions would help in alleviating the fear that comes with being disrespectful.

The following is a table of suggestions and things to avoid when integrating Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Greenall and Bailey go into greater detail in their essay.

SuggestionsWhat to avoid
– Explore other ways of knowing.
– Teach holistically.
– Establish a classroom culture of respect.
– Explicitly include Traditional Ecological Knowledge in biology courses.
– Include Indigenous experts.
– Incorporate Indigenous languages as more than “token words,”
– Use common evidence-based practices.
– Do not change or force Indigenous cultures to fit where you want it to fit in curriculum.
– Do not caricaturize aspects of the culture or use token examples of context.
– Do not use token words (i.e., do not take Indigenous words out of context or simplify their meaning to fit your lesson).
– Do not exclude local culture experts and leaders when integrating Traditional Ecological Knowledge in your classroom.
– Do not be disrespectful of any cultures or students.

Hopefully, the suggestions above are at least a foundation for including Traditional Ecological Knowledge in biology classrooms and beyond. It can get messy, but it’s a learning process. It’s a starting point to undo the decades of erasure. In ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language), there are proverbs or poetical sayings called ʻŌlelo Noʻeau. I translated one into my mother tongue (Filipino) at the beginning of this article. I now end it with the original. All knowledge is not taught in the same school. “ʻAʻohe pau ka ʻike i ka hālau hoʻokāhi” (Pukui, ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #203).

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