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Current Academic Assessments of TEK

Charles R. Menzies’s edited collection Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Natural Resource Management has been published by the University of Nebraska Press. The introduction to the book, written by Menzies and Caroline Butler, offers a very useful and usable summary of what traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is and the academic critiques of the concept. The book chapters discuss TEK in Canadian contexts, and primarily British Columbia, but David Griffiths discusses local knowledge in North Carolina and Steve J. Langdon talks about Alaska.

The current issue of BC Studies (Number 150, Summer 2006) is devoted to aquaculture. One article discusses the state of aquaculture in terms of aboriginal rights by drawing on the experience of New Zealanders (Tollefson and Scott). Another looks at the issue of Atlantic Salmon escapement on the BC Coast. It compares salmon farming policy with that of Washington State (Pechlaner and Rutherford).

The article that interests me particularly is by Schreiber and Newell. Their title is “Negotiating TEK in BC Salmon Farming” and the piece hits the mark in terms of evaluating the importance of aboriginal TEK in salmon farming negotiations between Vancouver Island First Nations and fish farming businesses. The authors offer well-considered criticism of previous scholarship which tries to apply TEK to resource management. Sounding at times like Paul Nadasdy, who suggests in Hunters and Bureaucrats that TEK is given only lip-service in bureaucratic and resource negotiations, Schreiber and Newell argue that the inclusion of TEK in resource negotiations does little to promote effective resource management. They write:

TEK, as it is commonly understood, cannot realistically accommodate a conception of traditional knowledge that is embodied in First Nations governance (ie laws and customs) and in the spiritual beliefs and forms of production that are part of their understandings of the environment … (81).

They continue by suggesting that “[resolving] conflicts over salmon farming in British Columbia [is not simply] a matter of collecting and communicating discrete bits of practical information [between First Nations and industry]” (82) Attention to history, culture, and political context is critical. It seems straightforward enough to expect that the contexts in which TEK is generated be considered when it is used, but time and again scholars note that this does not happen.

Schreiber and Newell continue, noting that in the context of salmon farming, the documentation of TEK is more about “neutralizing contention and assimilating difference” than about gaining knowledge. This is bureaucracy in action.

They conclude their article with the reminder that the application of TEK in resource negotiations is embedded in a larger history of aboriginal rights:

In our view, in contemporary Canada, dealing with the claims of Aboriginal peoples to their ancestral lands by consulting them on their TEK ignores a continued history that is … shared between First Nations and newcomers. This impoverished approach with regard to negotiating TEK, combined with the history of colonial attacks on these rights and the long standing conflict with non-Aboriginals over Aboriginal rights to land and resources, has made a concerted effort at resistance … exceedingly difficult (100-101).

The Menzies collection and the articles in BC Studies give lots of new fodder for academics interested in TEK and in the anthropology of TEK itself. These continue to be hot areas for study because TEK continues to find purchase in resource negotiations. They also play into government conceptions of what ‘being native’ means, particularly in terms of explaining native rights to lands and resources to a sometimes suspicious public.

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