TEK and...

Block and tackle is anchored into the ice and used to pull up a harvested whale

Block and tackle is anchored into the ice and used to pull up a harvested whale. Photo: Craig George

What is Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)?

"Information that is passed on which is important for survival; it is gathered through observation, experience, and recorded orally often as stories – continually tested by one's own experience." (Sources: John Burns and Tom Albert)

The North Slope Borough's Department of Wildlife Management's Bowhead Research Program has, since its inception, integrated TEK with western science. Below are some details of some of the specific examples of how TEK has helped to shape the NSB research program.

TEK and Bowhead Whale Migration

TEK and Sense of Hearing and Smelling in Bowhead Whales

TEK and Bowhead Life History and Longevity

Senior whaling captains David Leavitt and Arnold Brower, Sr., at whaling camp.

Senior whaling captains David Leavitt and Arnold Brower, Sr., at whaling camp. Photo: Craig George

Whaling crew paddling an umiaq during the spring bowhead whale hunt.

Whaling crew paddling an umiaq during the spring bowhead whale hunt. Photo: Lance Craighead

Tips for integrating TEK in Scientific Research

Below are some suggestions that may make gathering and integrating TEK in science more successful:

  • Wildlife biology is largely observational science, and local hunters are experts at observation
    • More observations = bigger sample size = more accurate information
  • Get permissions in place at the onset of the planning stages of the project
  • Ask the community what they would like to learn
  • The bottom line is mutual respect
    • Get involved with the community, live in the community
  • Foster good communication
    • Listen, take notes and be patient
    • Learn the indigenous language
  • Identify experts
    • Local experts will have their own specialty similar to western scientists
  • TEK observations are very useful in designing studies, forming hypotheses, etc.
  • When gathering TEK, use a "tried and true" methodology
  • Always review information with the community before releasing or publishing
  • Give something back to the community
    • Plain language reports and flyers
    • Community presentations
    • Useful information like field guides, etc.
    • K-12 Classroom Visits
    • Involve students in research

Articles or reports on the importance of TEK in scientific studies:

Negotiating Research Relationships with Inuit Communities - A Guide for Researchers This guide was prepared by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Nunavut Research Institute in 2007.

Co-management strengthens Marine Mammal Research in Alaska October 2012 article on the NOAA Fisheries Service website describing their work with Alaska Native organizations, includng the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, and the Ice Seal Committee.

Special Issue on Traditional Knowledge, BOEM Ocean Science, April/May/June 2012 A BOEM publication highlighting the integration of traditional knowledge into their scientific studies.

Tondu, J.M.E., et al. 2014. Working with northern communities to build collaboratirve research partnerships: Perspectives from early career researchers. Arctic 67:3 (419-429).

Armitage, P. and S. Kilburn. 2015. Conduct of Traditional Knowledge Research - A Reference Guide. Whitehorse [YT]: Wildlife Management Advisory Council (North Slope).

Raymond-Yakoubian, B. and J. Raymond-Yakoubian (2017) Research Processes and Indigenous Communities in Western Alaska: Workshop Report. Prepared by Sandhill.Culture.Craft and Kawerak
Social Science Program. Kawerak, Inc.: Nome, AK.

More TEK Articles

Rexford, Burton. n.d. A native whaler's view. BOEMRE, Alaska Region.

Carroll, G.M. 1976. Utilization of the bowhead whale. Marine Fisheries Review 38(8):18-21.

George, J.C., C. Clark, G. Carroll and W. Ellison. 1989. Observations on the ice- breaking and ice navigation behavior of migrating bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) near Point Barrow, Alaska, Spring 1985. Arctic 42(1):24-30.

Brewster, K. 1997. Native contributions to arctic science at Barrow, Alaska. Arctic 50(3):277-288.

Albert, T.F. 2001. The influence of Harry Brower, Sr., an Iñupiaq Eskimo hunter, on the bowhead whale research program conducted at the UIC-NARL Facility by the North Slope Borough. In: Norton, D.W. (ed.)Fifty More Years Below Zero: Tributes and Meditations for the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory’s first half century at Barrow, Alaska. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, AK, and Arctic Institute of North America, Calgary, Alberta and Fairbanks, AK, pp. 265-278.

Krupnik, I., and J. Dyanna (eds.). 2002. The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Environmental Change. Fairbanks, AK: Arctic Research Consortium of the United States. 384.pp. ISBN 0-9720449-0-6.

George, J.C., et al. 2004. Observations on shorefast ice dynamics in arctic Alaska and the responses of the Iñupiat hunting community. Arctic 57(4):363-374


Sea Ice Drawing and Iñupiat Terms (from the article and poster above)
Sea Ice Drawing and Terms

Noongwook, G., The Native Village of Savoonga, The Native Village of Gambell, Huntington, H.P., and George, J.C. 2007. Traditional knowledge of the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) around St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Arctic 60:47-54.

Huntington, H.P. 2011. The local perspective. Nature 478: 182-183. This article discusses the increased use of traditional knowledge by western scientists in the Arctic.

Matthew L. Druckenmiller, Hajo Eicken, J.C. “Craig” George & Lewis Brower. 2012. Trails to the whale: reflections of change and choice on an Iñupiat icescape at Barrow, Alaska. Polar Geography DOI:10.1080/1088937X.2012.724459.

Huntington, H.P. 2013. Traditional knowledge regarding bowhead whales and Camden Bay, Beaufort Sea, Alaska.  Report to the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, Box 69, Barrow, AK 99723.

Banner photo credit: Craig George