NIEHS Hosts Tribal Ecological Knowledge Workshop

Northwest tribal member harvesting camas
Photo: Jolene Grover
Kelly Edwards and Rose James, co-directors of the Community Outreach and Ethics Core at the Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health (CEEH), attended the Tribal Ecological Knowledge Workshop held December 3-4, 2015 in Bethesda, MD. The workshop was hosted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

What is Tribal Ecological Knowledge?

Tribal Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is a holistic understanding by indigenous people of their relationship to the earth and the universe. TEK encompasses the spiritual, physical, emotional and mental aspects of a person. It is a way of living in harmony with the land, water and environment as our Creator intended. TEK is a subset of Indigenous Knowledge.

At the workshop, Native presenters explained that Tribal Ecological Knowledge is how they understand the environment we live in. TEK is based on an accumulation of observations, and passed down by the elders. A member of the Yupik community on the coast of Alaska said, "We cannot separate ourselves from our environment. Our way of life is intertwined with our environment."

The TEK workshop explored the contributions Indigenous communities bring to environmental health sciences and biomedical research. NIEHS hopes the workshop will raise awareness of TEK and that input from TEK experts will help identify the best ways to incorporate ancient knowledge and practices into Western research methods. NIEHS wants to increase trust and mutual respect in tribal-academic partnerships.

AI/AN community members and researchers shared spellbinding stories:

On St. Lawrence Island in Alaska, the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB)* in the marine mammals that are the traditional Yupik foods are hundreds of times higher than the limit recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Persistent chemicals like PCBs don't stay where they are manufactured or used, and concentrations have been found to increase from south to north, resulting in high concentrations in the Arctic. The Yupik speaker said, "We are being contaminated without our consent." She listed her family members who have cancer or have died of the disease: "It isn't a matter of if I'll get cancer, it's when."

Annie Belcourt (Blackfeet and Hidatsa) from the University of Montana told the traditional story of how the Nez Perce got fire: A boy used his bow and arrow to capture fire from the black buckskin bag in the sky and gave up his life to bring fire to earth. Fire and smoke are sacred, yet too much smoke causes sickness. Ways to improve the use of wood stoves in homes are being explored that preserve the Nez Perce culture and also protect health.

Jose Barreiro (Taino), who works for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, said that academic papers in the l960s and '70s that came out of research in Cuba propagated the myth that the Taino were going extinct. In the Soviet era, family farms and traditional foods were replaced by large collective farms that grew one crop - sugar - for export to the USSR. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-90 resulted in the collapse of the Cuban economy. The Taino remembered the traditional foods and were called upon to bring this knowledge back to help the people survive. Barreiro suggested Cuba as a harbinger for how TEK can help the world address damage to the environment. He admonished the audience to "take TEK seriously, someday you might need it."

The Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health poster highlights our own Native TEACH ProjectAmerican Indian Environmental Health Stories.

 NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum summarized the ideas that stood out for her at the TEK workshop:

We need to recognize what the elders are telling us.
We must bridge, not integrate, TEK and Western science.
The earth is our mother. Mother Earth is in trouble.

-- Marilyn Hair, Rose James, Kelly Edwards

*PCBs are man-made organic chemicals that were used in industrial and commercial applications until they were banned in 1979. PCBs can cause cancer, as well as adverse health effects in the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems. PCBs do not readily break down but remain for long periods of time cycling between air, water, and soil. They are taken up into small organisms and fish; people can be exposed by eating fish that contain PCBs. PCBs are found all over the world.  -- EPA

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