Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), sometimes called Indigenous Knowledge, refers to cumulative knowledge and experience that indigenous cultures have of their environment. In the last thirty years, there has been growing interest in TEK as a resource for restoration and conservation projects.

Coast Salish Canoe Journey 2009 landing in Pillar Point; photo by Carol Reiss, USGS
Coast Salish Canoe Journey 2009 landing in Pillar Point; photo by Carol Reiss, USGS

Although some literature dwells on the differences between TEK and Western scientific practices, many recent studies discuss how the two sources can complement each other when used together (Vinyeta 2012). In many ways, TEK mirrors the kind of extensive fieldwork that ecosystem models and predictive science require. By virtue of living in the same area over a long period of time, indigenous cultures possess records of weather patterns, wildlife behavior, climate, and natural resources that rival those of long-term ecological studies, and can be more comprehensive than data gathered by scientists. A traditional goal of indigenous groups is to understand and interact with their immediate environment, rather than make conjectures about larger systems (Vinyeta 2012). TEK is thus generally highly localized, and where research studies are often subject to the whims of funding and publication, TEK accumulates daily and is passed on through generations.

Integration of TEK with Western-based science is currently a “hot topic,” according to a BTNAS report for the 2005 Puget Sound Georgia Basin Research Conference. The report cautions, however, against subsuming Indigenous Knowledge “by placing it in a framework designed for and by Western-based science.” The report stresses that TEK is closely tied to cultural context, and that separating pertinent facts from this context can change or diminish TEK’s meaning. Many scientists and regulators also fail to recognize literature that is not peer-reviewed, so the integration of TEK into policy decisions and scientific studies has met with challenges. Many tribal members, for their part have expressed fear that the information they provide may be used without their input, and consideration of tribal rights and wishes generally plays an important role in the process of gathering and disseminating TEK.

TEK meets Western-based science in the Salish Sea:  

  • The USGS has partnered with the Coast Salish Nation and Swinomish Tribe since 2008 to monitor water quality, using probes mounted on canoes during the annual Tribal Journey. Large organizations such as the Ecological Society of America and NOAA are also working towards greater integration of TEK.
  • The Pacific Northwest Tribal Climate Project  brought together the University of Oregon Environmental Studies Program and the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station “to understand the needs, lessons learned, and opportunities American Indians and Alaska Natives have in planning for the physical effects of climate change.”
  • A resolution drafted after the First Stewards Symposium, led by Washington coastal tribes, calls for the federal government to recognize the expertise of coastal indigenous peoples in addressing climate change issues.



Vinyeta, Kristen. A Synthesis of Literature on Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Climate Change. Pacific Northwest Tribal Climate Change Project. Draft accessed 8/10/2012.


Donatuno, Jamie. Rounding the Home Stretch: Learning Experiences from the Bioaccumulative Toxics in Native American Shellfish Project. Proceedings of the 2005 Georgia Basin Research Conference. Accessed 8/10/2012.


Coast Salish Tribal Journey Water Quality Project: