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.
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.