Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is defined by the Ecological Society of America as, “adaptive ecological knowledge developed through an intimate reciprocal relationship between a group of people and a particular place over time.” Inherent to human survival for all the millennia before the era of globalization, centralized economies, technocracy, and world trade have caused many people to eschew TEK in favor of remote knowledge. Simply put, multimedia, book learning, marketing and peer-reviewed science, are now the status quo in valuable knowledge and nuanced environmental understanding has fallen to the wayside. Gone are the days when most European children were trusted with the task of gathering edible mushrooms and fruits, when Native Americans burned brush to promote deer habitat, and when Maori collected greenstone for use as weaponry or jewelry. Replacing memory with literature we now have field guides, designated burning prescriptions, and contracts that negotiate the human-nature interface. Places like Wellington have extreme examples of humans wishing to modify their landscape with a blatant disregard for TEK and yet, even within our modern command and control ethos regarding the environment, has TEK truly vanished?
Consider an urban environment as an ecosystem (see greek root of ecology); doesn’t me knowing where to score the best burrito count as TEK? After all, that understanding IS based on my traditional sense of place and cultural understanding of the landscape. Since cultural norms regarding nature can actually reshape nature itself, TEK marks the tangent of land management and environmental history. Taking a closer look at America and the European perspective that placed extractive value of land as paramount, it is no wonder why white settlers could not even see the legacy of Native American land management in the landscape. Europeans were too busy looking for farms, neatly tilled cropland, and even-aged forests to see indigenous practices, and eventually those cultural ideals were imprinted onto the landscape.
Placing a more Aotearoan perspective on TEK, it can almost be boiled down to the Maori concept of Whakapapa. To explain further, let’s look at the layers involved in defining Whakapapa. First, Whakapapa is a history of genealogies; children, parents, grandparents, etc. Next, linked to each generation is a migratory history (e.g. my mother came to California from Germany in the 1980’s). Finally, within the migrations of a genealogy there is a historical narrative linking the modern individual to the landscapes and cultural practices of their forbearers (E.g. my mother’s family in Germany had a tradition of farming carp for Easter feasts).
For Maori, Whakapapa connects the person now to the ultimate: the creation of the universe. All cultural ideas, taboos, and practices are tied to Whakapapa and thus, through ancestry, TEK is built upon and reinforced with every generation.