How the experience of indigenous cultures can complement scientific research

This report was prepared for The Pew Charitable Trusts by the Science Director of Pew's work in the U.S. Arctic, Henry P. Huntington and Chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission George Noongwook, and released in August of 2013. Download the complete report »


The study of the Arctic ecosystem is no easy task, despite the great advances in science and the wide array of new observational tools on land, sea, air, and space. Understanding the changing dynamics of weather and climate on the region’s flora and fauna also requires deep, on-the-ground information. Traditional knowledge, which is passed down from generation to generation by the longtime inhabitants of the Arctic, is an important part of our collective understanding.

Today, “traditional knowledge” is often contrasted with “scientific knowledge” and is used in reference to indigenous peoples around the world. In the Arctic region, these communities include the Iñupiat and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik of the northern and western coasts of Alaska. As the region experiences rapid climate change as well as increased vessel traffic and offshore oil and gas development, it is essential that policies reflect local interests and knowledge about the function of the ecosystem and its sensitivities to disturbance.

In this paper, we will discuss how traditional knowledge has been used in various settings and also will make suggestions for what more can be done. We will use some specific examples from the St. Lawrence Island Yupik, who live on the shores of the northern Bering Sea and hunt extensively on the sea ice and open ocean there. Traditional knowledge has a strong cultural component, and thus the knowledge of one people does not necessarily transfer to another people. Nonetheless, some of the basic lessons learned on St. Lawrence Island have meaning in other regions, too. What is learned about one’s ecology or about weather-induced changes is shared not only within one’s community but with other communities.


The greater recognition being given to traditional knowledge in recent years is a welcome advance. And more can be done both to incorporate the knowledge itself and to improve the participation of traditional knowledge holders in research and environmental management. At the same time, we need to be aware of the demands that this level of interest places on those knowledge holders. Too many studies mean too many demands on their time and can lead to “research fatigue” and decreased interest in taking part.

The level of interest can depend on the intended audience. Many hunters have said that they want to share this information freely with people they know. But they are often hesitant to provide it to those who have little understanding of the Arctic environment or cultures.

Compensating people as consultants when their expertise is sought is appropriate and can help sustain their willingness to participate in studies and related activities, as in any other situation where hiring a consultant is appropriate. It is essential that scientists describe carefully how information will be shared and explain that a written document may benefit the community and future generations, too. With these ideas in mind, we suggest three areas for further engagement with traditional knowledge.

  • First, information gathered in traditional knowledge studies should be readily available via a single access point. This could be a website with links to different studies or a searchable database with results that have been approved for public dissemination. Such a system would allow those who are interested in using traditional knowledge to gain easy access to available information and would help prevent duplicate studies. Ideally, the system would also help to connect traditional knowledge holders with scientists.
  • Second, monitoring efforts need to include traditional knowledge holders and find ways to include their observations. Documenting traditional knowledge means recording what has already happened. Monitoring can add a forward-looking component by adding new information as it is gathered. Hunters spend a great deal of time on the land and sea and cover a great deal of territory. Making use of this widespread expertise would provide a broader, more up-to-date, and different picture of the environment than is available from many other methods, complementing data from remote sensing and sparse monitoring stations. Incorporating local data would also increase confidence in the results of monitoring, building a better foundation for cooperative action to address impacts and changes that are detected.
  • The idea of monitoring applies within communities, too. At a time when environmental changes are occurring so rapidly, hunters and others need to make daily observations so they can adapt to the changes as they happen. Looking for hunting opportunities means monitoring the environment, assessing opportunities, and making use of them safely and ethically so that the hunt can be done successfully. Some of these opportunities arise because the sea ice is dynamic and water currents are active; combined with the winds, these conditions can bring marine mammals close to communities. The ecosystem is virtually a new one each day, with new air, water, and ice conditions that can bring opportunities at any time if one just keeps looking.
  • Third, it is time to assess the use of traditional knowledge to date. Are traditional knowledge holders satisfied with the extent to which their knowledge has been used and the ways in which it has been gathered? Are scientists and managers satisfied with the availability of traditional knowledge and their understanding of how it can be applied in various settings? What can be done to make better use of what traditional knowledge has to offer while respecting the time, patience, and expertise of its holders?

Traditional knowledge has sustained the lives of Arctic peoples since time immemorial. Its value remains high today, especially if together we can figure out how best to use it in new ways.