“But that stuff isn’t true — they’re just stories.” “Where is the proof?” “Where are the re-search papers?” “If that were true, a university would have already published a study.”
These words are familiar to me as a Native woman in engineering when talking about traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). At its most basic TEK is the expertise, management systems, and values developed by Indigenous peoples over thousands of years through direct contact with the environment.
As a student at a predominantly white institution, I wanted to express the depth of TEK through my beaded art piece, which I worked on for the Arizona State University Leonardo Imagination Fellowship. The piece is shaped like a puzzle because I want to show that the four TEK concepts expressed are just a small part of a much larger picture of Indigenous knowledge. Of course, now some pieces of that puzzle would be missing. The artwork is continuously incomplete to allow others to add their TEK to it for their people in the future.
Beadwork has been used for currency, trading, ceremony, documentation, agreements, and treaties. An example is the 17th-century Two Row Wampum — Gä•sweñta’, which has white beads from the whelk, a sea snail with a spiral shape, and purple from the quahog, a clam with purple and white coloring. The piece is a living friendship treaty between Haudenosaunee and European (Dutch) settlers, with the purple rows symbolizing a Native canoe and a European ship going forward to the future but not crossing paths; the white symbolizes peace between the two. This work brought me to think about the idea in Western academia that legitimate data needs to be in the form of written research papers. Most Native peoples of North America did not have a written language — instead in my tribe oral traditions are passed through generations over hundreds of years.
My knowledge, passed to me, is based on thousands of years of observations and understanding of the land, and yet because it is spoken by a Native woman, instead of written by a white man who studied only a section of the land for only a few years, it is not seen as valid. Indigenous people have been historically thought of as having a passive relationship with the land, when in reality many of us have a mutually beneficial and active relationship. The idea that Native peoples are primitive and ignorant still carries into the implicit biases of today’s researchers. Through my artwork, expressed through beadwork and audio recording, I am countering the Western perspective of data collection.
Along with the beadwork images on my website, I talked to four people who hold TEK. These amazing individuals include our own McKalee Steen, a member of the Cherokee Nation and current U.S. Junior National Student Representative. Ms. Steen, who has a degree in earth and environmental science from Vanderbilt University and now is a PhD student at UC Berkeley in ecosystem sciences, talks about the three sisters’ plants. Margo Robbins, Yurok, is co-founder and president of the Cultural Fire Management Council. She is one of the organizers of the biannual Cultural Burn Training Exchange on the Yurok Reservation and a co-lead and advisor for the Indigenous People’s Burn Network. Long-time AISES member Keith Parker, Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, and Tolowa, is a fisheries biologist with the Yurok Tribe who received his MS in natural resource management at Humboldt State University. And Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, Māori, captain of the ocean-going waka [Māori canoe] Haunui, has been sailing the Pacific for more than 35 years. He paddles waka, sails waka, teaches waka. His master’s thesis investigated how the waka is a symbol of mana in the 21st century. These four have backgrounds in academia and in tradition that bring my beaded work to life to teach lessons that will continue to be passed down regardless of whether Western academia validates our understandings. We have the inherent sovereignty to recognize each other’s knowledge and authority.
To see the artwork and listen to each story visit brookmthompson.com/tek
▸ Brook Thompson, Yurok and Karuk, was Region 1 Student Representative in 2019 and is currently working on her master’s in environmental engineering with a focus on water resources at Stanford University.