Paul Nadasdy

Weatherhead Resident Scholar

1999–2000

The Politics of 'Traditional Knowledge: Power and the Integration of Knowledge Systems in the Yukon Territory, Canada

For the past fifteen years, efforts by the Canadian government to involve aboriginal people in resource management and environmental assessment in the circumpolar north have included attempts to integrate scientific knowledge with "traditional ecological knowledge," or TEK-the wisdom and accumulated experience that has helped local indigenous peoples survive for thousands of years. While including indigenous concerns in these crucial land matters is essential, resident scholar Paul Nadasdy is questioning the way TEK is used in the process.

"The idea of integration contains the implicit assumption that the cultural beliefs and practices referred to as 'traditional knowledge' conform to western conceptions of knowledge," Nadasdy states. His dissertation, "The Politics of 'Traditional Knowledge': Power and the Integration of Knowledge Systems in the Yukon Territory, Canada," is drawn from thirty-two months of fieldwork in the Yukon's southwest corner in Burwash Landing, a village of about seventy people, most of whom are members of the Kluane First Nation. Nadasdy participated in the daily life of the community, such as trapping and hunting, and accompanied teams of villagers and local scientists to gather information about environmental concerns, such as the diminishing population of big-horned sheep.

"My fieldwork provided me with an understanding of the social relations, values, and practices in which local 'environmental knowledge' is embedded," says Nadasdy. Without such understanding, he asserts, the governmental agencies addressing land issues and concerns can misconstrue traditional knowledge or even dismiss it as being irrelevant.

To focus on how people in political arenas actually use "environmental knowledge," Nadasdy examined a number of local political struggles, including case studies drawn from resource management, aboriginal land claim negotiations, and local environmental politics. "I show how the process of integrating TEK and science takes place in a political context, and further, that there are practical difficulties involved in translating native beliefs and practices into forms that are understandable and acceptable to non-natives-even those who have explicitly stated their willingness to 'use TEK,'" explains Nadasdy.

Nadasdy concedes that great effort and expense have gone into trying to understand and document TEK in the circumpolar north as part of the co-management initiatives between government and indigenous peoples. However, by treating TEK as "just another form of data," these efforts ignore what the holders of this knowledge universally claim to be its most important feature: its integration into a whole way of life. "I am hopeful this project will be useful to scholars and aboriginal people throughout the world who are concerned with indigenous-state relations and local knowledge," says Nadasdy.

Affiliation at time of award:
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology, The Johns Hopkins University


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