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Bridging Indigenous and Traditional Scientific Approaches:
Traditional Knowledge

The Traditional Knowledge and Radionuclides Project
The Traditional Knowledge Project incorporates two sets of community-based activities for gathering information and identifying concerns about radionuclides in the environment. Detailed information on the Project is available on the website: The first set uses community-based traditional practices and protocols, known as "talking circles," to gather traditional knowledge about radionuclide concerns across five regions in Alaska. The observations about changes in the environment, which are shared during the first set of regional meetings, are incorporated in an Interactive Database. During the regional meetings, sharing of such concerns is followed by discussions about the implications of these changes as well as suggestions for making improvements.

Each regional meeting took place over a three-day period. During the first day the 20-30 community residents shared their thoughts in talking circles. The traditional talking circle process was used in order to build relationships and trust among participants and to yield consensus on major issues. The second day was spent discussing these major issues, and the third day was devoted to a review of discussions and continued dialogue in talking circles. A toll-free number was also established to enable Alaska Natives to share additional information.

The second series of regional meetings is for knowledgeable community members to consider the information gathered during the first round, and to use it to examine possible plans for action. During the next two years, a community grants program will support Alaska Native efforts to address these concerns by establishing community-based agreement on conclusions and implementation of actions.

The second set of activities under the Traditional Knowledge Project uses complementary methods to those of the first but follows the more traditional Western science process. The project provides for input into the Interactive Database existing data on contaminants in Native foods, harvest and consumption data, nutrition data on Native foods, information about harvest practices and associated cultural values, and examples of community initiatives to address concerns about environmental change, among other input values.

Thus, with all sets of information (Native knowledge and Western science data) incorporated into a single computer database, Alaska Natives are able to perform community-based impact assessments of contaminants on their environment, with the ultimate goal of initiating actions to mitigate these effects. Of course, the information is also available for governments and researchers who may use the traditional Western risk assessment approach.

A workshop was held with researchers at the start of the project to evaluate the contaminant data needs, the status of existing contaminant data, and to determine what additional information was needed. A summary of findings was prepared; this document provided a framework for scientists to use at the "synthesis" meetings described later.

The Interactive Database currently contains information gathered not only from the regional meetings and research results, but also from existing databases that have been separately organized into sub-databases to preserve the source data integrity. Among these are:

  1. Data on Radionuclide Sampling Results Collected in Alaska or adjacent to Alaska beginning in the 1950s (Data collected by Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Environmental Radiation Program)
  2. Contaminants in Northern Canada (CINE): Arctic Foods Contaminants Database, Western Northwest Territories and Yukon Region
  3. Alaska Marine Mammals Database: Chlorinated Hydrocarbons, Metals and Other Elements in Tissues banked by the Alaska Marine Mammal Tissue Archive Project (U.S. Department of Commerce, NIST

Another key component of this project is the series of "synthesis" meetings during which Alaska Natives and Western scientists share and exchange information. The first such meeting is designed for scientists to hear a summary of Native knowledge about environmental change gathered during the first round of regional meetings, and to review a draft summary of science knowledge and priorities. Additional synthesis meetings, to be held after the second round of regional meetings is completed, are intended to share the Native perspective and its implications. The goal of these meetings are to identify points of shared knowledge and priorities between Western and Traditional knowledge and points where continuing differences in perspective are important to respect.

The use of talking circles to share and gather observations from Native Alaskan communities is an important component of the Traditional Knowledge Project that will be described at the conference. Any conference materials presented will describe the database of observations and data about environmental contaminants which has been supplied by scientists, and meetings to enable scientists and communities to identify common and divergent understandings of environmental change as well as the role of radionuclides and other contaminants in adverse environmental impacts.

The first series of regional meetings have been held, and the second series are currently underway. A description of how the participants prepared for them, as well as how the meetings were conducted will be described on the project Website.

The second "synthesis" meeting was held this past fall (September 2000). Scientists have found the Native knowledge to be particularly useful and insightful. The traditional knowledge and research-based perspectives of attendees were shared, with an emphasis on the implications for action. Participants have expressed great interest in having another such meeting.

Small grants will be awarded to enable Alaska Native communities to initiate actions based on priorities they identified. Before the end of the Project period, a final meeting will be held which is designed to bring together Alaska Native participants from around the state to review and evaluate the Project.


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Last updated: April 4, 2002


“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestor, we borrow it from our children”
Native American Proverb