Traditional Knowledges

“TKs [Traditional Knowledges] and western science each have their own strengths and weaknesses; neither is superior to the other. Braided together, both can retain their own identity while strengthening the whole body of knowledge regarding climate science.”

Gary S. Morishima, Quinault Management Center, Quinault Indian Nation, Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples: A Primer

Each Tribe has a unique system of gathering, organizing, interpreting, applying, and sharing knowledge related to their people, culture, and traditions. This body of knowledge and these knowledge systems can be described as “Traditional” or “Indigenous” knowledges. These knowledges refer to “ways of knowing” that “can encompass culture, experiences, resources, environment, and animal knowledge” that “are passed down generationally from elder to youth through oral histories, stories, ceremonies, and land management practices.”[1]

​​The Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges (TKs) in Climate Change Initiatives (summarized below) refers to TKs as “[I]ndigenous communities’ ways of knowing that both guide and result from their community members’ close relationships with and responsibilities towards the landscapes, waterscapes, plants, and animals that are vital to the flourishing of [I]ndigenous culture.”[2] TKs encompass many aspects of traditional practices and cultural information, not only but including environmental knowledges. The term Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) refers to application and utilization of these generationally based TKs with natural resources on the landscape in management, collection, ceremonial sustainability efforts, or reciprocity behaviors and practices. This Guidebook recognizes that the terms Traditional Knowledges and Traditional Ecological Knowledge are defined and manifested differently among different Tribes and knowledge holders.

Using TKs in climate change planning can benefit the Tribe, promote greater collaboration with partners, and improve the outcomes of adaptation planning. Generational oral tradition information is not necessarily termed “Traditional Knowledges” or “Traditional Ecological Knowledges,” but acknowledged as a traditional information system without labels. Many Tribes have already incorporated information that is pertinent to their Tribe and TKs into Tribal policies and procedures. Deciding how and where it is appropriate to incorporate TKs in climate change initiatives is a decision that can only come from each Tribal government and knowledge holder.

As the Federal Government works with Tribes on climate change initiatives that involve Traditional Knowledges, federal agencies have a role in ensuring that Traditional Knowledges are given proper weight in climate initiatives, considered in culturally appropriate ways and incorporated with the free, prior, and informed consent of Tribes and knowledge holders.[3] A report, Tribal Climate Change Principles: Responding to Federal Policies and Actions to Address Climate Change, was developed in 2015 to provide information and guidance to the federal government when dealing with impacts of environmental change on Indigenous peoples and to increase understanding and respectful relationships among participants involved in federal and other initiatives. One of the eight principles included in the report states that “Indigenous Traditional Knowledges, with the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples, must be acknowledged, respected, and promoted in federal policies and programs related to climate change.” The report proposes that federal agencies adopt the Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges (TKs) in Climate Change Initiatives.

The Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges (TKs) in Climate Change Initiatives is a set of guiding principles and suggested actions for both Tribes and non-Tribal partners in order to minimize the risks involved with sharing TKs with non-Tribal partners in climate change initiatives. The Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup (CTKW), consisting of Indigenous scholars and other experts working with issues of TKs, recognizes that knowledge sharing in this context is an ethical issue and developed the Guidelines in 2014 “to raise awareness of potential risks to Indigenous peoples and potential options for best practices.” The Guidelines rest on two principles for engagement: Cause No Harm and Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC). The executive summary of the Guidelines is reproduced with permission below. The full pdf of the Guidelines can be downloaded from the CTKW’s website. Each activity in the Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook includes considerations for integrating and protecting TKs throughout the adaptation planning process that rely on these Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges (TKs) in Climate Change Initiatives.

Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges

These guidelines are intended to provide specific measures that federal agencies, researchers, Tribes and TK holders can follow in conceptualizing, developing, and implementing climate change initiatives involving TKs. The actions in these guidelines are not comprehensive, and are not in any way intended to supersede the obligation of federal agencies to consult Tribes and TK holders with whom they are collaborating or amend or modify any agreements that may exist between Tribal governments and federal entities. These guidelines are intended to promote the use of TKs in climate change initiatives in such a way as to benefit Indigenous peoples, promote greater collaboration between federal agencies and Tribes, and increase Tribal representation in federal climate initiatives. These guidelines are a work in progress.

Terms such as Traditional Knowledge are coined in non-Indigenous academic and policy circles, and often do not fully reflect the ways in which Indigenous communities refer to, or think of, their knowledge and lifeways. However, these terms may be helpful in providing agencies and researchers with greater understanding of issues that Tribal people are facing regarding their own knowledge systems, climate impacts, and impacts to TKs resulting from climate initiatives.

Actions for agencies and researchers:

  • Respect and seek to understand the unique conception each individual Tribe has of their own knowledge system(s). Recognize that Tribal experts and TK holders are the authorities of their own knowledge systems, and deserve to be treated as such.
  • Find out how to follow communication protocols and respectfully identify authorities in order to develop an appropriate approach for working with TK systems in a partner community (e.g., what are common terms used in the community? What types of questions are appropriate for outsiders to ask? Who is a contact person/go-between in the community who will help educate researchers?)
  • Be humble and open to getting advice from those who know the communication protocols and how to identify authorities.

Actions for Tribes and TK holders:

  • If you choose to share information about TKs, clearly articulate conceptions of your knowledge system with the expectation that your people’s TKs will be respected and held as valid. Make personnel and/or resources available to aid researchers and agency staff in educating themselves about your community’s approach toward working with non-Tribal people on projects involving TK.

Indigenous individuals are holders of TKs. It is the right of the individual to withhold sharing information. However, Indigenous governments and individual holders of TKs within these communities must work together to decide when it is appropriate to share TKs or bring TKs to non-Indigenous initiatives.

Actions for agencies and researchers:

  • Respect the right of Indigenous governments and/or TK holders to withdraw participation and access to TKs at any time during the collaborative process. Some reasons for withdrawing participation may not be evident to those not operating within a given TK system.
  • Explain in a non-biased manner the risks and benefits of sharing or not sharing information in a given climate initiative BEFORE attempting to enter into any partnership with a Tribal community. Inform the Indigenous government and/or TK holder of risks “on your end,” e.g., agency’s lack of ability to protect information from FOIA requests.
  • Support Tribal judgment about when/if to share TKs. Support and back Tribal partners as they make decisions about whether/how to share information.

Actions for Tribes and TK holders:

  • Be explicit about the choice not share TKs with agency or other partners, and your right to not disclose information about your Tribe’s knowledge systems.
  • Find out if the Tribe or community has a protocol for accessing and asking about knowledge. If you choose to share information about TKs, make sure that agencies or other partners have conformed to the protocols of your Tribe for ethical research, such as review by a Tribal council, Tribal institutional review board, or cultural committee, among other possible relevant institutions that vary from community to community.

TKs in a climate change context occur in a spectrum from the highly secret and sacred to daily observations of phenomena useful for identifying climate impacts and adaptation actions. The open exchange and co-production of knowledge may be beneficial to all stakeholders and rights holders, and may be desired by Indigenous peoples. But exchanges carry risks as well, particularly for Indigenous peoples and the nature of their knowledge systems and cultural resources. Currently, there are few protections for Indigenous peoples who share TKs with federal partners to ensure that TKs will remain the right and property of Indigenous peoples or knowledge holders. There may also be inadequate protections for the resources (e.g., culturally-important species) associated with TKs. Therefore, it is critical that federal agencies, and most importantly TK holders, have a balanced understanding of the risks as well as the benefits of bringing TKs into climate change initiatives.

Actions for agencies and researchers:

  • Determine the extent to which TKs involving confidential or sensitive information can be protected from unauthorized public disclosure because of federal mandate (e.g., without express legislative authority, TKs recorded in written or electronic form provided to federal entities are subject to FOIA requests).
  • Research your agency/organization’s codes and policies regarding the publication or dissemination of TKs gathered for projects.
  • Inform Tribes/TK holders about potential risks of disclosure. It is the obligation of agency staff and researchers to share information about what risks the project poses “on their end.”
  • Research existing intellectual property and copyright laws in your country, as they pertain to your research/project results. Will data from the project be subject to appropriation? How will this information be protected?

Actions for Tribes and TK holders:

  • Identify risks to natural and cultural resources and intellectual property interests.
  • Identify potential violations or conflicts related to TKs, risks of overexploitation of resources associated with TKs.
  • Clearly state what risks you find acceptable, and what risks are not acceptable/must be avoided. If there are risks to natural and cultural resources because of intellectual property concerns, determine whether the tribe would like to share your TKs.
  • Consider recording TKs orally in the Indigenous language and storing this information within a Tribal entity, such as a Tribal Historic or Cultural Preservation Office in order to preserve confidential or sensitive information.
  • Consult your Tribal attorney regarding the understanding of potential risks. 

Federal agencies have a trust responsibility to federally-recognized Tribes, and must ensure that TKs are brought to climate change initiatives in an ethical, respectful, and protective manner that responds to the needs of each individual Tribe. Terms-of-reference are commonly formalized through explicit research agreements that spell out conditions prior to the start of the research, and methods for fairly resolving conflicts are identified once the research has started. Tribes can specify conditions during the FPIC process. Although these processes may differ among Tribes, common issues are identified below.

Actions for agencies, researchers, Tribes and TK holders:

  • The Department of Interior should undertake concerted efforts to support the engagement of Tribes and Indigenous peoples in federal climate-related science investments, including the capacity to access and benefit from the services provided by CSCs, LCCs, and NCCWSC.
  • When appropriate and only with the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous peoples and knowledge holders, decision-makers should consider and utilize western science and TKs.
  • Collaborate with project partners to develop pre-determined methods for each step of bringing TK into climate change initiatives. Questions to address might include:
    •  What are the appropriate goals and objectives for the project?
    • How will TKs holders be involved as equal partners?
    • How will TKs be identified for the project? Will federal staff request information? Will TK holders offer up information that they feel is relevant?
    • How will TKs be shared within the project team? Who will have access to information?
    • How will TKs be stored for safekeeping? What confidentiality measures will be employed and enforced? Who will oversee these? Who will be responsible in the event that these measures fail?
    • What obligations within the Tribal community will accompany the TKs that are involved in the project, if any?
    • Who will enforce these standards? What means will TKs holders redress potential grievances? What are the penalties for the measures failing?

Federal agencies and other non-Indigenous entities seeking to work with Indigenous peoples and knowledge holders that have access to TKs must adequately train staff that will be interacting with Indigenous peoples. This training should include what TKs are, how TKs differ from western science, the risks to Indigenous peoples and knowledge users/holders when TKs are shared with non-Indigenous entities, and how staff can ensure that they do not place Indigenous peoples, TKs, or TK-associated resources at risk. This training should also clarify what legal or other protections may be afforded to TKs under FOIA, related statutes, and applicable federal policy. Federal or other climate efforts should provide funding for training for Tribal partners.

Actions for agencies and researchers:

  • Provide training on community standards, protocols, and legal rules for all project team members participating in projects related to TKs.
  • Allocate resources to train staff about TKs, and ongoing issues regarding the sharing and protection of TKs, and existing models guiding collaborative projects between non-Indigenous researchers and holders of TKs.
  • Provide funding for Tribal partners to train and advise agency staff on how to work with Tribes on issues related to TKs.

Actions for TK holders/Tribes:

  • Train Tribal staff and TKs Holders on protocols needed to govern the sharing and protection of TKs.
  • Inform and train the Tribal Legal Office of potential project and potential risk. 

Agencies and research organizations should prepare their staff for interactions with Tribes and TK holders to ensure that their staff members are able to carry out their jobs in an ethical and respectful manner, and to promote partnerships between Tribes, TK holders and non-Indigenous entities. This preparation will promote an iterative process between researchers and Tribes, as well as the potential for co-production of knowledge about climate change issues.

Actions for agencies and researchers:

  • If the Indigenous government or knowledge holder requests protection for TKs that may be shared, agency staff should not write down or electronically record confidential or sensitive information.
  • Consult with Indigenous governments to develop an appropriate research agreement detailing the nature of the research/ knowledge exchange. Agreements should:
    • Be developed collaboratively through equal standing.
    • Be based on FPIC and mutually agreed terms, goals and understandings.
    • Acknowledge contributions by TK holders.
  • Outline expected risks and benefits.
  • Clearly disclose any constraints or limitations regarding the ability to protect sensitive or confidential information before seeking access to TKs. Specify what measures will be taken to protect sensitive or proprietary information (understanding that there are often legal limits to what protections can be provided by Federal agencies to any information that is submitted to them or that is shared with others, such as under FOIA).
  • Use appropriate language when referencing the role and content of TKs in climate change initiatives.
  • Consider sharing data and information with Indigenous peoples to support Indigenous efforts and Indigenous use of TKs without the expectation that Indigenous peoples will share TKs in return.
    • Focus on the value of the beneficial outcomes that come from use of TKs as opposed to a focus on knowledge exchange.
    • Implement the principle of co-protection to the fullest extent possible. Co-protection refers to measures that protect both TKs and their associated Tribal trust resources. Any actual exchanges of any particular Traditional Knowledge should take place in the context of safeguards that take into account legal, economic, cultural and cultural resource issues.
    • Work to establish a long-term relationship with Indigenous peoples built on respect, mutual benefit, and extends beyond current understandings of professional obligations.
    • Provide recognition, policy guidance and education for the public and agencies to promote understanding and respect for TKs and associated resources to build a relationship based on trust and respect.
    • Consider the use of proxies in knowledge sharing. For example, Indigenous peoples may share the results or outcomes without sharing sacred knowledge.

Actions for Tribes, TKs holders, federal agencies and researchers:

  • Detail how data will be collected and stored and specify rules for access, ownership and control, if any will exist.
  • Take special caution in the creation of databases of TKs, which should be only compiled or made available through Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Databases may provide benefits, for example, in bringing together Traditional Knowledge of past weather patterns to fill in gaps in the scientific record and lead to culturally appropriate solutions. But there are cultural issues and risks as well, for example through loss of control or ownership over the knowledge.

Agencies and research organizations should recognize the role and interaction of TKs and multiple knowledge systems in climate change research and adaptation and vulnerability assessments. These entities should also recognize multiple knowledge systems may exist within one Tribe and among different TKs holders. These knowledge systems may conflict with one another. The agencies and research organizations need to work closely with all parties to ensure that all TKs is protected and credited appropriately.

Actions for federal agencies, researchers, Tribes and TKs holders:

  • Develop measures of success for projects from multiple perspectives/knowledge systems—define parameters of success from both western science and TKs.
  • Ensure that each of the contributions of Tribal partners are recognized in final products, publications, and efforts to publicize projects.
  • Create opportunities for partnerships involving TKs in climate change initiatives only when it is requested by and includes leadership of Tribes in the development of these programs.
  • Ensure that all collaboration with TK holders occurs according to principles of FPIC.

Actions for Tribes and TKs holders:

  • Develop an internal protocol/processes that ensures that all participants in these projects are informed of risks, benefits, and anticipated outcomes.

Many federal, state and other grant programs are including criteria in proposal review that recognizes and awards points to applicants that incorporate TKs within their proposals. While this demonstrates awareness of the importance of TKs in climate change initiatives, it may pose a risk to Indigenous peoples and knowledge holders who are unaware of potential abuse or misappropriation of TKs.

Actions for federal agencies and grant reviewers:

  • The grant and materials produced (e.g., reports, videos) should recognize the sovereign rights of Indigenous peoples to control access to, and the use of, their Traditional Knowledge and the right to give or deny access to it based on their right to FPIC according to their own traditions and processes.
  • The grant should, where appropriate, include reference to a human subjects protocol and approval from the appropriate Institutional Review Board.
  • The grant should follow the appropriate Indigenous research protocols established by individual Tribes to guide research involving Tribes or knowledge holders.
  • Federal grants should not require that all data collected during the grant period be presumed to be under the ownership of the federal government. TKs should not be disclosed without the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the Indigenous government and knowledge holder, even when generated under a grant period funded by the federal government. The grant should clearly articulate that if Indigenous peoples and their knowledge holders disclose TKs in written form then TKs would currently be subject to disclosure through FOIA. If funding entails a requirement to disclose based on Federal rules associated with publicly funded research, then alternative sources of funding should be sought for activities related to the collection of TKs if Indigenous governments or knowledge holders do not wish TKs to become publicly available.
  • The grant should demonstrate that there is substantial Tribal leadership and Tribal legal representation in the conception and project management of the grant.
  • The grant should demonstrate substantial benefits and minimal risks to Tribes for the proposed projects.
  • Agencies could consider a tiered approach to grants, with an initial disbursement for attempting to obtain FPIC, including Tribal consultations and risk and opportunity assessment, with another tier only for projects that have obtained FPIC and meet IRB requirements, where appropriate.