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Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge and Environmental Decision-Making

October 12, 2015

I recently traveled to Whitehorse to present on a panel at the Yukon North Slope Conference. I had been invited to talk about the treatment of Indigenous knowledge in the courts and by environmental decision-making bodies.  The theme of the conference was “Best Practices in the Use of Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge in Resource Management.”  The event was held in the beautiful Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre and hosted by the Yukon government in partnership with the region’s Wildlife Management Advisory Council.  It was attended by over 170 participants from across the North (as well as the rest of the country) including representatives from Inuit and First Nation government organizations, Inuit traditional knowledge holders and hunters, and scientists, academics and lawyers.  

Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, venue for the conference. 

Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge (ATK) is difficult to define and no single, agreed-upon definition for it exists.  A discussion paper issued by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) cites the following definition from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (1996): “oral culture in the form of stories and myths, coded and organized by knowledge systems for interpreting information and guiding action … a dual purpose to manage lands and resources and to affirm and reinforce one’s relationship to the earth and its inhabitants.”  The paper also states that ATK “can be generally described as the customary ways in which aboriginal peoples have done or continue to do certain things or activities, as well as the new ideas or ways of doing things that have been developed by Aboriginal peoples, which respect their traditions, cultures and practices.  Many of these customary ways have been passed on from generation to generation and are considered sacred.  This unique body of knowledge is culturally based, context specific, holistic and differs from nation to nation.”

It is important to understand that ATK contains up-to-date insights, observations, strategies and practices relevant to addressing contemporary problems.  For example, the Wildlife Management Advisory Councils of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon recently released a report on polar bears and climate change based on input from 70 Inuit knowledge holders from six communities in the Inuvialuit settlement region.  One of the Inuit ATK holders who had provided expert input into the polar bear study stated at the conference said that he disliked using the word “traditional” to describe his knowledge because he worried that it made it sound like it was a relic of the past and made his knowledge and viewpoint easier to marginalize. 

Scenes from Whitehorse.

In his welcoming remarks to participants of the conference, organizer Lindsay Staples of the Wildlife Management Advisory Council emphasized that “This conference is not about making the case for the use of traditional knowledge in resource management.  That case has already been made… We know it is important.  We have to make sure it is used in the best way.”  The conference was designed to draw on the knowledge and expertise of ATK holders, scientists and others in the room to address a set of practical questions.  Some of those questions included the following:

  • What does ATK provide to wildlife management that science-based knowledge does not?
  • How can scientists and ATK holders better communicate and work with each other?
  • How is ATK best documented, communicated and shared?
  • What institutional arrangements and prejudices exist that undermine or disadvantage the treatment and use of ATK in research and resource-management decision-making? How could these obstacles be overcome?
  • Where findings from science and ATK-based research conflict, how could these differences be addressed?

In answering these questions, one of the themes that emerged was that ATK and science often have much more in common than many people realize.  For example, Professor Brenda Parlee from the University of Alberta argued that traditional knowledge is scientifically valid.  She stated that “People have been hunting in the same places, watching the same kind of indicators, doing the same kind of land use activities for generation after generation after generation.  If you look at the litmus test for what is good rigorous science, that is good rigorous science.”

Frank Pokiak, who is the chair of the Inuvialuit Game Council, discussed the challenges that he has witnessed fighting to get ATK recognized since 1984, the time of the signing of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement: “At the beginning it was very difficult to point out traditional knowledge was very important to integrate with traditional science. We had a tough time, but through time we did convince the government people it is very important to use traditional knowledge in all the decisions we make.”

“Lone Woman with Ravens”, by Ted Harrison. Made of painted nails hammered into wood. 

One issue that a number people cited as being a barrier to the effective collaboration of ATK and science, is that many researchers stay for only a short time in the North.  For example, Billy Archie from the Aklavik Community Corporation said that he is regularly having to reteach his knowledge of arctic char to a stream of biologists that come to the region temporarily from government and universities.  In his presentation, Archie stated that “I lost count now.  It is a battle to train young biologists to try and understand our ways of thinking and what we see.”


For me, one of the most important questions that was posed at the conference was raised by an Indigenous woman who asked why ATK must usually fit into Western frameworks of knowledge rather than the other way round.  In my presentation, I reviewed some of the work that many nations in British Columbia are engaged in around Indigenous environmental governance and the revitalization of Indigenous laws.  I agree with the woman who posed the question that ATK needs to play a stronger role in setting the research agenda around resource management.

The conference was a remarkable opportunity to meet and learn from many experts in ATK, science and other fields related to resource management.  I’m grateful to the conference organizers and to the Kwanlin Dun First Nation for welcoming us onto their traditional territory.



Hannah Askew, Staff Counsel