Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is a term that has only recently entered the lexicon of Western science. But to Native communities in California, the concept of TEK is not new. In fact, it is not even a concept — it is a way of life. TEK is knowledge gleaned from millennia of living in one’s environment. Across the world, Indigenous peoples have lived in their ancestral homelands for thousands of years, forming relationships based on observations and interactions with plant and animal life, water systems, soils and weather. TEK requires an intimate knowledge of seasons in order to know when to gather, when to fish or hunt, and how much of a particular resource to leave behind for the next harvest, the next season, or the next generation.
“Tending Nature” showcases the work of Native community members across California, examining the important role that TEK has to play in contemporary environmental thinking. In today’s world, integrating traditional knowledge with Western science cannot be ignored, especially with all of the current environmental challenges we must all face together. In this new series, tribal leaders, scientists, innovators, and cultural practitioners share ways in which they are promoting healthy wildlife populations, reviving their traditional gathering practices, and healing their communities.
TEK is also intrinsically linked to cultural survival. Native traditions of identity and heritage — dance, song, ceremony — have survived against all odds. We cannot ignore the fact that Native people in California experienced an outright genocide in the 19th century following established contact — a history that is largely untaught in public education. Introduced diseases, violence, and targeted extermination attempts significantly reduced the population of Native communities across California in an incredibly short time span, leaving behind a legacy of trauma.
The generations who survived the devastating effects of the mission system and Gold Rush were often forced into boarding schools, where children were separated from their families, banned from practicing their cultural traditions, and forbidden to speak their languages. Tragically, many Native languages in California died alongside their last fluent speakers. As scholar Amy Lonetree (Ho-Chunk), a professor at UC Santa Cruz, describes in the book “De-Colonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums” by Amy Lonetree, a way to “assist communities in their efforts to address the legacies of historical unresolved grief [is] by speaking the hard truths of colonialism and thereby creating spaces for healing and understanding.”
“This work that we are doing, it’s like defying gravity. Because we are moving against what was supposed to happen.”
Places like the United Indian Health Services (UIHS) Potawat Community Garden in Arcata, California help promote this healing through sweat and traditional practice. Individuals like Vincent Medina (Chochenyo Ohlone) and Louis Trevino (Rumsen Ohlone) have dedicated their lives to reviving their languages and bringing Indigenous foods back to their community. As Medina so eloquently states in the episode titled “Decolonizing Cuisine with Mak-’amham”: “This work that we are doing, it’s like defying gravity. Because we are moving against what was supposed to happen.” In my own work on “Tending Nature” and as a museum professional, I am fortunate to be able to help share these stories with a broader public. When curating exhibitions and working with Native artists, culture bearers, scientists, and other advisors, I often ask, what is the one main takeaway want visitors to leave with after going through the exhibition? The answer is usually the same: “We are still here.”
In the four episodes of this season of “Tending Nature,” food is a common theme that runs throughout. As a San Francisco resident, every type of cuisine is at my fingertips. The Bay Area is largely considered the birthplace of the slow food movement, with Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley and farm-to-table cuisine a staple of every restaurant in places like Marin County. Cafe Ohlone cleverly reminds us that indigenous cuisine was the “original” slow food, long before the industrialization of agriculture and advent of processed foods. Food in California in itself is a huge by-product of colonization. The introduction of cattle permanently altered the California landscape. Prior to beef, venison served as a staple food source for indigenous communities across California, a much leaner alternative. Ray Alvarez (Hewisedawi) in “Tribal Hunting with the Pit River Peoples” recounts that even the American bison, often viewed as a symbol of the Great Plains, lived in the ancestral Pit River homelands, one of the many species displaced by cattle and commercialized ranching.
Gluten, red meat, and sugar have all infiltrated our diets, impacting not only Native communities but all Californians. Consider plants that have long-standing associations with California, and are viewed by many as emblematic of our state: oranges, avocados, eucalyptus, or bird of paradise. None of those species are originally from California.
This season reveals both traditional and non-traditional gathering practices to return to ancestral foods. From hunting deer on the Modoc plateau to tracking down acorn flour at a hot dog stand run by a Korean family in the East Bay, tribal members are doing everything they can to bring these foods back to their communities.
We are also reminded that immediate access to healthy food is not always the case for some parts of California. The “Healing the Body with United Indian Health Services” episode shows us the detrimental impacts of food deserts in Humboldt County, where tribal members often have to drive two hours to reach a grocery store to buy healthy food, such as fresh produce. And that some of our food sources — including seafood and shellfish — risk extinction if we don’t modify our behavior. Near the Oregon border, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ are actively engaged in scientific research and conducting habitat assessments on declining smelt and mussel populations. When gathering mussels, they follow specific rules on the size and number to gather to ensure the species’ survival.
When considering such a resource, most of us would likely think, of course, you’d never want to harvest everything so you could save some for next year. However, consider the numerous examples throughout California history. By the 1800s, overhunting by Russian fur traders led to the near extinction of the sea otter, the true definition of a keystone species. Commercial abalone fishing began in the late 1800s and nearly wiped out the species, resulting in both white and black abalone to be placed on the endangered species list. After WWII, the Pacific sardine population off of Monterey Bay historically collapsed, due largely in part to overfishing. These moments in history reveal the fragility of our environment and the role of humans within it.
“Indigenous people of the North Coast have been here since time immemorial... To have their perspective and their traditional knowledge in these projects is a key piece to understanding the current use of these resources.”
The time has come to turn to all sources of knowledge to help confront these challenges. As described by Rosa Laucci, the Marine Biologist for the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation in “Protecting The Coast with the Tolowa Dee-ni'" TEK can be a little difficult for scientists to grasp, but people are beginning to see the advantage of traditional knowledge combined with scientific data. When describing her work, Laucci emphasizes, “It’s important to have a tribal perspective when coming into these projects because Indigenous people of the North Coast have been here since time immemorial. They’ve seen the changes, they know what’s there. To have their perspective and their traditional knowledge in these projects is a key piece to understanding the current use of these resources.”
This important work affects all of us as Californians. Our choices matter now more than ever, with increasing concerns about endangered species, habitat loss, and climate change. We can take a moment to think about what we eat — where our food comes from, and what we are putting into our bodies. It is up to us to make our own decisions about how we take care of our planet and what contributions we make. But before any of that can happen, we need to make sure we are armed with every possible source of information out there. Indigenous voices are a crucial part of the conversation. We just need to start listening.