Five Reasons Why Native Knowledge is Essential to Understand the Environment

As someone who did not go to school in California, Aritree Samanta, an assistant professor of environmental studies at San Francisco State University, was instantly grounded in California’s unique Indigenous perspective when she learned firsthand about traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) from members of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, the Indigenous people of South San Francisco and Monterey Bay. Before moving to the Bay Area, she attended an event where tribal members discussed Amah Mutsun ecological restoration projects on their ancestral territory, which happens through a land trust in collaboration with multiple government and community partners. This inclusive approach and example of collaborative resource management resonated with Samanta.

Originally trained in India, Samanta began her career as a social worker. When pursuing her master’s degree in social work, she focused on community organizing and development. She worked directly with community members facing challenges due to environmental and climate vulnerabilities. Many of the people she worked with were climate migrants or people living in areas facing sea level rise. As a social worker, her work was deeply tied to the environment and how communities live and interact in it.

This path led her to purse a doctorate in urban and public affairs and an academic career in environmental studies. Samanta’s projects, methods, and philosophies are derived from working directly with community members and recognizing all perspectives of how people live in their environment. She is actively working to change introductory environmental studies curriculum to incorporate TEK, and also teaches courses in climate change and social justice. 

Below, we explore five takeaways from a recent conversation with Samanta on why a Native perspective is essential in environmental studies.

Prescribed burn in the Shasta-Trinity Forest. |  Pacific Southwest Forest Service, USDA / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Prescribed burn in the Shasta-Trinity Forest. | Pacific Southwest Forest Service, USDA / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

There’s more to the environment than mainstream Western knowledge

There are multiple ways to think about knowledge systems. Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is one of several ways of understanding the environment. There are also other words and phrases that we can use to apply to this type of thinking, such as Indigenous knowledge systems or Indigenous knowledge; these frameworks apply to community knowledge.

“Narrative analysis and stories tend to [not] have a voice in mainstream policy sciences, or [are not] considered legitimate research methods,” Samanta said.

What is primarily taught in classrooms and the university setting tends to be focused on the Western perspective due to the history of how institutions were established, and because of inherent institutionalized racism. The same applies for knowledge — what we know and how we know things is usually framed in the mainstream Western perspective. Unfortunately, that has led to a marginalization of TEK, which is grounded in oral tradition. Just because something is not written down does not mean it is less important. 

“Narrative analysis and stories tend to [not] have a voice in mainstream policy sciences, or [are not] considered legitimate research methods,” Samanta said. “We need to actively work to change that within the academic community.” 

We have a lot to learn from California’s Native communities

A more holistic way of looking at the environment needs to include Indigenous perspectives on philosophies about the environment, environmental problems, cultural shifts in the environment and solutions to environmental issues. The Indigenous perspective has not traditionally been recognized but it is crucial to integrate it into policy planning and resource management.

One relevant example is fires and the ways we think about them. It seems that fires disrupt life in California almost constantly, especially in the past few years, when wildfires have caused forced evacuations and communities losing their homes. Native communities, however, have lived in, co-existed with and managed forests for a long time, using fire as an active land management technique. Cultural burning was practiced for generations and prevented big fires from breaking out until the turn of the 20th century.

In 1911, Congress enacted the Weeks Act, a federal act focused on forest biodiversity. Essentially, it stated that all elements of the forest should be preserved. At the time, burning went against what was thought of as preservation of ecosystems. As a result of the Weeks Act (which called for fire protection efforts), the thicket of forests increased, creating excess fuel for catastrophic wildfires.

“This beautiful case study puts history into perspective and demonstrates the importance of giving Native communities a seat at the table in contemporary times,” Samanta said.

After assessing what went wrong over time, the Forest Service eventually integrated burning as part of its forest management strategy. Although the Forest Service drew from Native traditions of using prescribed fires to manage the forest, the Native American community was not credited in policy related to prescribed fires.

Today, the Six Rivers National Forest is one of the best forest management cases in the state of California. The Karuk, Hupa and Yurok tribes are working with the Forest Service in that area, combining traditional burning and agroforestry practices to manage the forest and help prevent huge, life-changing fires.

The environmental studies field has its own social justice issues

To start, it’s important to acknowledge the history of the field. Environmental studies as a field formed because there were ideas and methods that revolved around thinking about the environment that couldn’t find a home in traditional disciplines, such as environmental science or geography. During the 1950s and ‘60s, people began to rally around solutions and started looking at environmental problems from a holistic social science perspective. Unlike environmental science, which was more focused on testing the biology and chemistry of our resources, environmental studies as a field of study formed because people began to think about how we engage with communities and how we engage with people. Environmental studies has a very strong social component. 

However, the formation of environmental studies as a discipline was also emblematic of the mainstream environmental movement, which had a distinct racial, ethnic and economic demographic: predominantly wealthy white people who could afford to invest their time in the environment. 

"People who were involved in the environmental justice movement didn’t always have a voice in the mainstream environmental studies field,” Samanta said. 

From the onset, scholarship and research in the field was traditionally practiced in the Western framework, which did not encompass community narratives of how people live in their environment. 

In more recent times, especially in California, we are beginning to see the demographics of the environmental studies field shifting. A big part of this shift is the acknowledgement and incorporation of Indigenous and community perspectives in environmental thinking.

Collaborative resource management found its roots in California

California has all of the world’s major ecosystems in one place: forests, deserts, marine and wetlands. Whether it’s old growth redwood forests, a thousand-mile-long coastline with seven marine protected areas, the deserts of southeastern California, or the wetlands in the San Francisco Bay, every ecosystem is represented in this state. 

Historically, California has been at the forefront of some of the most critical challenges when it comes to the environment, and that continues until today. As a water scarce state, California has a storied history of damming and reallocation of water in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Communities have long suffered from localized air pollution. And most recently, California residents have been confronted head-on by the impacts of climate change. The state’s unique geology and geography, combined with sea level rise and erosion, makes for severe challenges.

In light of these challenges, if you look at the thought leaders, thinkers, theorists and activists who are at the forefront of collaborative resource management solutions, many are from California. Collaborative resource management entails caring for natural resources through the involvement of multiple stakeholders, including public agencies, citizens, scientists, and environmentalists. This issue speaks to the diversity of communities and stakeholders who are associated with these resources and how they should participate in managing them collaboratively. This type of management happens in California when tribes work with government agencies, scientists, and community partners to find common solutions.

Younger generations are thinking differently

As we examine how environmental studies as a discipline looked in the past and who has had a voice, we are starting to see a shift. Moving forward, younger generations are thinking differently.

“There is a change of guard that’s happening right now,” Samanta said.

“There is a change of guard that’s happening right now,” Samanta said.

In the last 15 years, the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences was formed as a professional organization. Newer cohorts of this organization are talking more about diversity: ways to get scholarships for people of color; how to provide opportunities for students to go to conferences; and facilitating ways for scholars to move away from the traditional mainstream Western framework. 

The young people in the next generation are the ones who will become activists, work in nonprofits, and be involved in major policy decisions. While we may not know what the future holds, more and more conversations are changing and different voices are being heard that haven’t been heard before. 

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