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Coming Full Circle: Indigenous Knowledge, Environment, and Our Future
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The American Indian Quarterly 28.3&4 (2004) 385-410

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Coming Full Circle

Indigenous Knowledge, Environment, and Our Future

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) as a construct of broader society is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the field that supports the acquisition of environmental knowledge from Aboriginal people has rapidly grown over the last two decades.1 In part, TEK has emerged from the growing recognition that Indigenous people all over the world developed sustainable environmental knowledge and practices that can be used to address problems that face global society.2 David Suzuki, scientist and environmentalist, writes, "My experience with Aboriginal people convinced me ... of the power and relevance of their knowledge and worldview in a time of imminent global ecocatastrophe."3 The international community has also recognized the important role Indigenous people and their knowledge can play in global society. In 1987 the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (or the Brundtland Report) recognized the important role of Indigenous people in sustainable development. Five years later, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) was signed, one of two legally binding agreements. The CBD reiterated the important role of Indigenous people and their knowledge for achieving sustainable environmental and resource management.4

Canada has responded to the challenges brought forth by the Convention on Biodiversity and the Brundtland Report and is incorporating TEK into various environmental decision-making processes. The field of TEK is well on its way to becoming firmly entrenched in the discourse on environmental management and decision making in Canada, particularly in the north where it is part of public policy.5 The practice and application of TEK research in Canada, and the specific research methods [End Page 385] devised to access this knowledge from Aboriginal people, are approximately two decades old. In Indigenous communities themselves, however, the practice of TEK is thousands of years old.

If one were to ask, "What is the current state of TEK practice and application in Canada?" a different response would be offered, depending on who was asked. This reflection paper explores the relationship between Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and Traditional Ecological Knowledge. I will also examine the current conception and practice of the field of TEK in Canada. I propose to present this topic along the same lines that I teach in my course, "Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge," in the Aboriginal Studies Program at the University of Toronto.6 There is a major dichotomy in the realm of TEK that needs to be understood: there is the Aboriginal view of TEK, which reflects an Indigenous understanding of relationships to Creation, and there is the dominant Eurocentric view of TEK, which reflects colonial attitudes toward Aboriginal people and their knowledge. In my view, to understand where TEK comes from one must start with Indigenous people and our own understanding of the world.

Therefore, every year when I teach this course I start with Creation stories or those conceptual frameworks that provide an Indigenous understanding of our own relationship to all of Creation. My view is that Indigenous understanding of our relationship to Creation did not start with the arrival of newcomers: there were already well-developed philosophies or conceptual frameworks, ethics, and values that had flourished for thousands of years. I do not begin with the newcomers' understanding of us, with their theories and assertions, but instead start with our own. I believe we can then better understand how and why the field of TEK has evolved as it has.

The Beginning: Creation, Re-Creation

Our stories inform us about our beginnings. All our stories have value and offer insights, but the stories I choose to enhance student understanding of Indigenous Knowledge are the Creation stories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe. LIKe any story, there are different versions that vary with storytellers or cultural traditions. On the first day of class we listen to the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address—the "Words [End Page 386] that Come before all Else," as the address is also called. We also listen...