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Traditional Mapping Project

One of the most useful tools for tribes is working with traditional knowledge and wisdom (TEKW) to create maps. Through the Tribal Technical Assistance Project, two participating organizations worked with different mapping styles. The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe and the Pribilof Island Stewardship Program (Stewardship Program) both worked with elders and their traditional knowledge to build maps for different purposes. The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe’s participants conducted a series of elder interviews to document traditional use areas and key wildlife habitat. The Stewardship Program incorporated a map of the island into an environmental guide to St. Paul Island. Due to the sensitive nature of some of the information from Yakutat, this case study will focus on the St. Paul guide. I would like to recognize that the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe’s project was really remarkable. It was a privilege to work with them.

Maps have many applications. First, they are a wonderful, living history of the land and it’s peoples. Traditional place name maps illustrate this connection very clearly. Then, maps are valuable tools to protect tribal access to sites and resources for future generations. An example would be mapping traditional fish camp sites to protect access. Another aspect is to document the traditional ecological knowledge of key habitat areas, so that tribes may use that information to protect the resources.

Often, when elder interviews are conducted, they focus on traditional use areas. Another aspect that tribes will want to record is the elders’ knowledge of sensitive habitats. The elders know where the key areas where animals have and rear their young. For example, they know that an area along the river is where the moose calve. This information could be used to regulate boat traffic, since the noise may drive the moose further into the woods, where they might be more vulnerable to predators.

Other information is contained in the detailed knowledge that those who practice a traditional way of life have about the animals life cycles. For example, the elders know the spawning times of many sea animals. They might tell people to avoid some beaches at certain times, when the animals were spawning. This way, the fragile young would have a chance to become established. These traditional guidelines can serve to protect vital habitat areas. Another example would be using TEKW to support regulations limiting access by tour boats to bays with seal pupping beaches during certain times of the year.

Documenting traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom (TEKW) is a complicated process. One caution is that the tribal community needs be sure how the information is used. Without building in strong tribal control, TEKW becomes another resource removed from the community. Often, agencies are fascinated by TEKW. They seek to know how they can use it, and struggle with questions of formatting and application. The following guidelines from the Inuit Circumpolar council’s website at: http://www.inusiaat.com/tek.htm may be helpful to tribes that are beginning the documentation process. Another source for good information on TEKW guidelines is the Alaska Native science Commission.

Documenting TEK (by the Inuit Circumpolar Council).

While documenting TEK, (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) the context of the knowledge is difficult to convey, and can be lost. In addition, some information is not easily transferred, so that some depth of knowledge is lost as well. With these limitations in mind, documentation should nonetheless be recognized as an important step toward integrating TEK with scientific knowledge. A consistent approach to TEK documentation for the entire circumpolar region is desirable, so that results and information can be compared across the Arctic.

A variety of methods should be used to capture TEK, recognizing that just one method cannot capture all aspects of TEK and that different methods work best for different applications or settings. Be sensitive to the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, and consider combining two or more methods. For example:

Use group discussions, individual interviews, maps, and first-hand experience to document TEK for scientific use.

Use reports, videos, or photographs to document TEK for the cultural record

Collect and preserve physical artifacts as part of TEK documentation.

Due to the urgency with which TEK documentation is needed, funding agencies and local organizations should make this work a high priority.

TEK should be documented and, with community approval, made readily accessible to the scientific community so that it may be referenced and properly cited. In this way, the holders of TEK can be given full recognition and the information will not be regarded as anecdotal data or as a "new discovery" when scientists use it.

TEK should be gathered from both men and women, since they have different roles and can make equally valuable contributions in different areas of community TEK.

TEK interviews should be holistic in their approach. Topics should include land, animals, people, culture, language, and environment, as appropriate. All are connected, and the interview should discuss environmental and cultural processes and influences that relate to the subject being studied.

When possible for both interviewer and interviewee, interviews should be conducted on the land to place the knowledge in its geographic context. Having hunting equipment, animal products, or other relevant materials on hand can also help an interview.

In documenting TEK, local place names, community concepts and terms should be used. Dictionaries of such specialized terminology related to TEK should be compiled, since such words and terminology are slowly being lost. Government agencies and other r research institutions should respect the use of these names and terms as acceptable synonyms for existing terms in the dominant language.

Youth should be involved in the documentation process so that they learn research skills and TEK at the same time.

To ensure elder participation, interviews should be conducted in the local language and meeting proceedings should be translated into local languages, as appropriate in places where this will help include more people. For this work, expert translators are required so that the fine points of statements are not lost.

When an interview is completed, the researcher should review the substance of the interview with the participant, so that each knows what has been learned from the interview. The information should also be reviewed after initial compilation and interpretation (i.e., during the field work), and again in draft form.

The community should decide where raw documentation (interview maps, tape recordings, video tapes, notes, etc.) will be archived, and who has access. Local repositories should be created if needed to house these materials.

The community should decide whether final products (reports, documentary videos or films, maps, etc.) are made accessible to the public or have restricted access. If they are public, then anyone has access to them. If access is restricted, communities must recognize that researchers cannot know what is not made available to them, and cannot be blamed for mistakes that are made as a result.

Final reports should be distributed and made widely available in the communities.

Participants in TEK projects should be compensated appropriately and clearly acknowledged in publications, unless they wish to remain anonymous.

Recognizing the cultural dimensions of TEK and its importance to the community, researchers should ensure that TEK is presented in plain English and in indigenous languages.

An example to Traditional knowledge for habitat Protection:

The island of St. Paul is one of the few sites where the norther fur seals have their rookeries. It is also home to a large seafood processing industry, and receives many visitors each year. The impact on a small island of several thousand people during fishing season, and the tourists who come to see the seals and bird watch is intense. During pupping season the animals are easily spooked by people coming to close. The pups are vulnerable to being injured, possibly killed, by the large seals if they are frightened into leaving the beach. Also, being a tundra island, the land is fragile, and leaving the few roads may create scars on the land that take years to heal.

The St. Paul Stewardship Program believes that people will be respectful of the island’s fragile environment, if they know what is expected of them. So, they created the Environmental Etiquette Guide to St. Paul Island.

Part of the etiquette guide is a map that shows the features of the island, including fur seal rookeries and bird rookeries. The text of the brochure teaches visitors about how to respect the islands other residents. For example, it says “Our elders say the seal’s response to scent is vital to its survival and return to these lands. Garbage... may threaten their survival through soiled fur, ingestion and entanglement.”

The brochure also teaches people how to share the small island with the seals, who don’t always read the signs that tell where “their’ beaches are.

The brochure is just one of many stewardship activities that the Stewardship program is working on. They have many other projects, from an the Tanalix Amgiginax -Island Sentinel Program, where young people record observation’s bout the animals, weather, and possible disturbances to the surrounding lands and waters. These observations will provide valuable information, and use the keen observational skills that the island’s Unangan (Aleut) residents are known for.


The Pribilof Island Stewardship Program &

the Tanalix Amgiginax -Island Sentinel Program;

POB 306

St. Paul Island, AK 99660


The Alaska Native Science Commission

3211 Providence Drive, Anchorage, AK 99508

Phone: 907/786-7704

A wonderful book on documenting Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Wisdom;

Lore: Capturing Traditional Environmental Knowledge

Edited by Martha Johnson. Available by special order from Barnes and Noble.

Websites on TEK;

For some reason there is a lot of traditional knowledge on the Internet.

CARC: Northern Perspectives


Center for world Indigenous Studies Home page


Inuit Circumpolar Conference


Native American Knowledge Resources on the Internet


A Line in the Sand (Great information on intellectual property rights!)


Alaska Native Knowledge Network



Last updated 04/20/03