Chapter Two: Cultural Barriers to the Maintenance of Knowledge Sovereignty


Bill Tripp addressing agency personnel and community members about prescribed fire and traditional ecological knowledge. Photo: Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative

“You do a paper on TEK and we talk about specific practices, you write them down on a piece of paper and then the Forest Service thinks that they can take that. “Okay, we paid for this under a contract for you guys to develop this, so now we are going to take this and apply it.” Just the notion that they can apply those things, within their structure — within the boxes that they have — as if they just knew what they were. “Tell us what they are, and if you describe them well enough then we can apply those things.” But they can’t just apply those concepts, because what they require is cultural practices of a land-based people. They must be used by people who are on the land, not people who are separate from the land as part of a government agency. Government agencies still don’t see themselves as part of the land. They don’t see themselves that way, and they shouldn’t see themselves that way because they are not!”

 — Leaf Hillman, Director Karuk Department of Natural Resources

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Tribes often lose control of traditional knowledge in the course of what appear to be unconscious assumptions and everyday actions of non-Native researchers, members of agencies and institutions. Traditional ecological knowledge is misappropriated and misapplied through such actions. We can think of these as ‘cultural barriers’ to the maintenance of Tribal knowledge. Examples include differences between Native and non-Native conceptions of the nature and use of knowledge, values, social norms, assumptions and modes of interpersonal interaction are important mechanisms for the erosion of knowledge sovereignty. While such cultural barriers may appear less permanent than the institutional barriers that are the subject of the next chapter, misfits between Native and non-Native ways of seeing and doing are themselves largely created and reinforced by structural factors within agencies and institutions. Specific legal policies and mandates, the realities of funding restrictions or institutional logics are institutional forces to which individuals are socialized and compelled to respond. For example the frequent movement of personnel in agencies such as the Forest Service, is neither a policy mandate or funding constraint, but results from individuals’ responding to institutional logics and social norms of individual advancement rather than commitment to place and community. The result is that Forest Service staff are unable to develop the deeper interpersonal relationships in the communities where they work that are essential for cross cultural understanding. New people who come into Karuk territory are unfamiliar with the existing Tribal context on the Klamath, government to government relationships in the context of off-reservation lands, local Tribal land management priorities and more – all of which are identified in the 2012 National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) report on best practices for conducting research with Tribes (See Appendix A).

This chapter draws upon the experiences of Karuk Tribal members and larger literature in the field to discusses four categories of “cultural” barriers that are presently eroding Tribal knowledge sovereignty: 1) differences between Native and non-Native conceptions of the nature and use of knowledge, 2) differences in conceptions of the relationship between people and “nature,” 3) weak or non-existent interpersonal relationships between individuals in Tribes and Federal or other non-Native agencies, and 4) lack of cross cultural knowledge, knowledge of history, knowledge of specific local Tribal priorities and knowledge of Federal Tribal trust responsibilities by individual non-Native researchers, agency and staff.

1) Conceptions of the Nature and Use of Knowledge

As discussed in Chapter One and indicated in the opening quote by Director of the Karuk Department of Natural Resources Leaf Hillman, a significant factor in the erosion of Tribal knowledge sovereignty comes from the vastly different conceptions of the nature and use of knowledge in Native and non-Native cultures. Legal Scholar Rebecca Tsosie (2007) describes how in Western understandings, knowledge is generated by individuals who have autonomy in determin­ing whether to share it. Once knowledge is shared, it is free for all to use, with only lim­ited exceptions. By contrast, “within Tribal communities, there may be an assumption that knowledge is part of the group’s over­all identity, but that certain members have the duty to keep the knowledge on behalf of the group and that it would be inappropriate for such individuals to share the knowledge, even with other members of the group” (see also Harding et al 2012). As Tsosie writes, “Additional challenges may center on trust, data ownership, and sovereign rights. For example, there may be differences between conceptions of how knowledge may be gener­ated, used, shared, and, ultimately, “owned” (ibid, see also citations noted in footnote #2 on page 8 of this report).

One very serious threat to Tribal knowledge sovereignty concerns not only mandatory disclosure requirements that may come when funding is received from Federal agencies; also Universities and other research entities with whom Tribes may be interested to collaborate seek to obtain outright copyright of Tribal knowledge. This trend poses a particularly extreme and overt threat to knowledge sovereignty.

While non-Native agency practitioners and western scientists have assumed that “knowledge” of how to burn the forest or how to manage the fisheries can be described by Karuk people, shared in various agency processes and then applied by multiple actors in different contexts, this misunderstanding has generated frustration on both sides. As Leaf Hillman, Director of the Karuk Department of Natural Resources recounts:

Back in the 90s, the Karuk Tribe collaborated with the Forest Service on a demonstration project at Ti Bar that was designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of traditional Karuk practices to restore the health and diversity to previously mono-cultured timber harvest plantations. In the first phase of that project, Tribal practitioners developed specific cultural prescriptions for those targeted demonstration units. During the implementation phase, Karuk Tribe utilizing those prescriptions treated the first demonstration unit while the Forest Service, utilizing the very same prescription on four demonstration units. One thing we were successful at demonstrating was that the Karuk parcel was the only unit to meet the desired objectives: all four of the Forest Service’s failed.

While the non-Native world sees “people” as separate from “nature,” and “knowledge” as an abstraction that can be transferred across generic landscapes or multiple “users,” Karuk knowledge of the landscape is inseparable from the practice of Karuk culture. Knowledge is embedded in and emerges from the practice of lived experience and the practice of traditional management (see also McGregor 2005). And whereas knowledge in Western science has emerged as antithetical to religious cosmologies, traditional knowledge entails specifically spiritual components and responsibilities. Deborah McGregor (2008, 145) for example, argues that traditional knowledge involves “relationships between “knowledge, people, and all Creation (the ‘natural’ world as well as the spiritual)…TEK is viewed as the process of participating (a verb) fully and responsibly in such relationships, rather than specifically as the knowledge gained from such experiences. For Aboriginal people, TEK is not just about understanding relationships, it is the relationship with Creation. TEK is something one does.” Whereas Western science strives to describe universal principles, Tribal knowledge may be particular to specific places and seasons. Leaf Hillman notes “Traditional Ecological Knowledge is very specific: the solution to a landscape management practice may vary from one watershed to the next.” As Voggesser et al. (2013, 623) describe, “TEK is as much about what to look for, what questions to ask, and how to go about research in a collaborative manner, as it is an additional form of data.” Traditional knowledge can also be very intuitive, as Hillman explains:

When working on a collaborative fisheries habitat project some years ago, we had all the agencies’ fisheries biologists teamed up with a Tribal practitioner. In reviewing the restoration project on the ground, we were attempting to enhance juvenile habitat for Coho salmon in a tributary to the Klamath River by installing recently harvested trees into the stream – whole trees – to create more habitat for fish. 

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Juvenile coho salmon. Photo: Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative

At first glance at the work the agencies had done, the Tribal practitioner immediately recognized that the project couldn’t possibley meet the objectives of the project because they had dropped a live oak into the tributary. Intuitively, the practitioner understood that this wouldn’t work because live oak limbs and leaves are used to build fish dams due to properties that repel fish – this makes it easy to herd them.

Western science and traditional ecological knowledge are not inherently incompatible, indeed they are increasingly being used side by side. What is necessary for both knowledge sovereignty and any such collaborations is that non-Native actors understand that these two knowledge systems do have fundamental cosmological differences. There are many excellent resources detailing these differences (see e.g. Enersto et al, 2011, Mason et al 2012). These and other cultural differences in the appropriate uses of knowledge and conditions under which it would be appropriately shared are noted in the recent National Congress of American Indians resolution on Traditional Ecological Knowledge quoted at length in Chapter One. See especially the 2014 Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives. Table 1 below summarizes some of the differences that have been relevant in the creation of confusion between the Karuk Tribe and other non-Native entities in the mid-Klamath region.

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Leaf Hillman describes how there have been instances whereby the US Forest Service and other entities have employed or attempted to employ techniques derived from Karuk management (e.g. concerning prescribed burning). Yet these efforts have been carried out improperly and without proper credit to the Tribe.

When we worked with the Forest Service on a project to reduce the fir canopy that was suppressing the growth of black oak, we gave specific instructions that would preserve co-dependent species such as mushrooms. Instead of carrying out these clear instructions, the Forest Service proceeded to use heavy equipment to push the slash into large piles that they set on fire. These naturally produced too much heat to do any good, and the damage to the sites was significant.

In other cases, the lack of clear protections and process regarding Tribal knowledge has inadvertently resulted in cultural appropriation. Differences in cultural approach and lack of acknowledgement are exacerbated on the ground by differences in institutional power. Other management entities on the mid-Klamath have greater structural capacity than the Karuk Tribe in the form of monetary resources, staff, equipment and the like. Entities with more capacity are able to apply for grants, communicate activities to outside world and receive credit for innovative ideas that are in fact rooted in Tribal knowledge. This situation makes it very easy for “good ideas” that emerge from Tribal TEK to be picked up and used by well meaning non-Native actors who then receive credit for the ideas and may even begin to feel ownership of them. There are many excellent resources for best practices in working with Tribes. The latest material is consolidated in the Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives. See also Laughline, 2013, Talaki 2007, Tamang 2005, Taniguchi et al 2012, Alexander et al 2004, Bannister and Hardison 2006, Hardison and Bannister 2011, Hansen and an Fleed 2003, Hill et al 2010, Mason et al 2012, Harris NCAI 2012).

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2) Conceptions of the Relationship Between Humans and “Nature”

Assumptions that humans and nature are separate in turn play out in a myriad of assumptions about how the forest is to be used. The US Forest Service model is of forests as a site outside of society from which resources can be extracted for the benefit of the public. This assumption is in sharp contrast to the reality of many forests as places where people live, obtain their food and water, work, pray, acquire an education, or carry out any number of aspects of daily life. Forest Service assumptions that forests and people exist in separate physical spheres result in the flawed expectations that people are not impacted by forest policy, except perhaps through employment as evidenced in the extremely inadequate Social Impacts sections of Environmental Impact Statements and other NEPA documents. These assumptions have also led to an emphasis on commodity extraction from forest ecosystems rather than the sustained subsistence, cultural and ceremonial uses that have characterized Native relationships with forests for millennium. For example, Anthropologist Kathleen Pickering Sherman and co-authors (2010) describe how such non-Native cultural values then become structural constraints to the enactment of indigenous stewardship for Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation “Federal, state and Tribal political resource management policies favor commodity agricultural practices over individual household subsistence and self-sufficiency” (510). The authors further note that “Market based resource use and scientific management have systematically stripped the landscape of the social, relational, and spiritual perspectives of the Lakota” (511).

The above-mentioned cultural assumptions about the world translate into research priorities, research questions, data and peer-reviewed articles that in turn re-shape knowledge around non-Native worldviews. Research priorities and existing literature almost universally under-emphasize the impacts of management policies on Tribal people, in large part because they fail to see that humans actually are part of the landscape. The near total absence of data or peer reviewed papers from the perspective of Native peoples on topics including subsistence uses of the forest, social and cultural benefits of traditional activities, social impacts of federal policies such as fire exclusion and more works to further justify and legitimize non-Native perspectives. Without data or knowledge of the reality of the much wider and numerous social and economic aspects of forest use by Native as well as non-Native people, the ‘social impacts’ sections drawn up in NEPA documents are grossly inadequate. In contrast, Bill Tripp notes how he and others have worked to assert the presence of people in the forest landscape: “Within the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy it says that “all decisions shall be based on social, ecological and economic factors of the local community” so this kind of thing can get to establishing those factors. So we are establishing that social side as completely integrated into the ecological and economic components.”

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3) Weak or Non-existent Interpersonal Relationships

In the face of profound cross-cultural differences in communication, values and worldview it is interpersonal relationships and rapport if anything, that can bridge understanding and facilitate intergovernmental collaboration. Relationships can allow for a willingness on both sides to “go the extra mile” to find solutions. Good cross-entity working relationships matter for achieving successful on-the-ground projects. Leaf Hillman provides an example:

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Family subsistence harvesting tan oak mushrooms. Photo: Lisa Hillman

When the Tribe and the Forest Service were at odds over the commercial harvesting of culturally significant tan oak mushrooms, an attempt was made to resolve many contentious issues and avoid litigation. Each entity appointed a negotiating team to come to a resolution. When it became clear that the Tribe would not accept a Forest Service proposal that required a personal use permit for Tribal Members, the negotiating teams refused to give up and searched ardently for a viable alternative. The willingness to be creative and “think outside the box” ultimately paid dividends when it was agreed that it would suffice to require that Tribal members show their valid Tribal Membership Cards to identify them as subsistence harvesters.

When present, strong working relationships can make all the difference in creative problem-solving for the collective good. The final of four recommendations from the joint review of the Tribal Forest Protection Act states:

The ITC and Tribes should explore ways to amend TFPA or other authorities to expedite consideration, approval, and implementation of TFPA projects by addressing environmental compliance categorical exclusions, alternative dispute resolution processes, and allowing for a greater range of management alternatives in specially designated land classification areas.

Enacting such creative solutions require personal commitment and rapport. But the same report notes that: “Where good working relationships exist, some Tribes and the Forest Service may use authorities other than the TFPA to accomplish desired resource objectives” (2013, 3). Achieving such a goal requires on the ground relationships, trust and the desire to use creative thinking to move beyond “business as usual” outcomes.

There are now many studies and guidebooks detailing problematic research and working relationships between Tribal communities and non-Tribal federal and state agencies. The National Congress of American Indians has recently released a report on ‘best practices’ for building research relationships with Native communities. Their observations are relevant beyond the concept of research relationships per se. Note that the importance of establishing personal trust is highlighted in their list (see also prior citations on this topic).

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Unfortunately, in most cases weak or non-existent interpersonal relationships between individuals in Tribes and Federal or other non-Native agencies are the norm. Interpersonal rapport is itself further challenged by frequent turn over within these agencies. Specifically, Tribes criticize the state and federal policies that reward and incentivize frequent relocation from one unit to another unit in order to advance careers: these undermine the development of interpersonal relationships. By contrast, Tribal staff, being place based, tends to be static. Tribes value and encourage employees to stay. “Just when Tribal staff begins to know agency staff, their relationship frequently becomes disrupted by change in staff,” notes Hillman. He explains that this creates frustration within Tribal staff and acts as a disincentive to attempt to make those respected investments in relationships:

The results of the frequent turnover in agency staff are manifested in a lack of institutional knowledge. Tribes and Tribal people often prefer to communicate verbally – face-to-face interaction – and the agencies’ failure to adequately document those communications is additional source of mistrust and miscommunication. Even when agreements are formalized between Tribes and agencies, incoming line officers are often unaware of those settlements.

A key finding from the Intertribal Timber Council review of the effectiveness of the Tribal Forest Protection Act a key limitation for the use of the Act has been frequent turnover of leadership and staff which “hamper long-term, collaborative relationships at the local level between Tribes and the Forest Service.” The report also describes this issue in their discussion of key barriers to the possibility of collaboration: “Tribal staffs experience difficulty in establishing and sustaining working relationships with local FS personnel. Frequent FS staff turnover hinders the ability of Tribes to collaboratively identify, develop and implement TFPA projects” (2013, 4)

4) Lack of Cross Cultural Knowledge, Knowledge of Specific Local Tribal Priorities, and Tribal Trust Responsibilities.

Lands now administered by Federal and state management agencies were once fully under Tribal control. Colonialism and Native genocide in the United States occurred to create what are now considered “public lands.” In some cases Tribes ceded use of their lands to the U.S. government through treaties, in other cases lands were occupied by force. In California where the Karuk live treaties were signed but never ratified. Regardless of the particular political histories, places that are now designated as National Forests, BLM lands and more may be village sites, gathering areas, burial grounds and places of significance. Tribal people may retain or desire to retain ongoing relationships to particular places in the landscape as parts of cultural practice, individual identity or from a sense of responsibility to the places and the species who live there. Under the concept of Tribal trust, the Federal government has the responsibility to protect these lands from degradation. Unfortunately non-Native agency personnel frequently lack historical understanding of the places they seek to manage. For Native communities attempts to retain practices and culture are part of this ongoing and larger context of colonialism and racism. Without knowledge of this history it is no wonder that interpersonal relationships between Native and non-Native people are strained.

Just as the authors of the 2012 NCAI report on research in Tribal communities note “For any researcher wanting to work with Tribal nations, having an understanding and respect for Tribal sovereignty and the unique political status of tribes and their citizens is paramount” (13), these conditions are also necessary for agencies seeking to engage in research relating to Tribal TEK. The present lack of understanding concerning the nature and use of Tribal knowledge as well as of specific local Tribal priorities and federal trust responsibilities to Tribes, all work against the ability of Tribes to maintain sovereignty over knowledge and other cultural practices. Note that the frequent movement of agency personnel discussed above also contributes to this problem.

The first of four central recommendations emerging from the joint Intertribal Timber Council, USFS and BIA review of the effectiveness of the Tribal Forest Protection Act suggests: “Improve agency understanding of TFPA, government-to-government relationships and trust responsibilities.” We endorse this suggestion, and note that achieving this recommendation should entail extending the implementation of relevant Forest Service programs to Tribes under the principles of self-governance and self-determination. Both knowledge of Federal policy on Tribal self-determination and commitment to enacting it are both key. Karuk Eco-Cultural Restoration Specialist Bill Tripp explains that while the Findings and Federal Declaration of Commitment of the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act imply that self-determination is a government wide mandate, in practice, individual agencies may not be aware of the mechanisms for Tribes to assume responsibility for Federal programs. Tripp notes that “The Farm Bill in 2008 added a provision under Heritage Cooperative Authority that calls for an extension of U S Forest Service programs to Indian Tribes under the principle of self determination. This does not provide for direct compacting from U S Forest Service to Tribes, but it does imply that interdepartmental transfers at the Federal budgetary level could occur with the specific intent to compact capacities needed to enable parity through rapidly changing policy terrain. This would enable true and equal partnerships to emerge where U S Forest Service and Tribal territories overlap.”

The ability of agency personnel at the national, regional, forest and district levels to understand the principles of Tribal Trust and Self Determination is critical. And Tribes must dictate the circumstances that work best in their own situations. As Bill Tripp notes “if a Tribe doesn’t want to pursue a contract and wishes to use an agreement, or interdepartmental transfer mechanism, that should be the preference. Training should include what these terms and their use means to Tribes. In short, blanket training on Tribal Trust and Self Determination developed at the national scope may not be effective at the local scale where there are differences specific to Tribal self-determination and specific situation.

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The cultural barriers discussed here clearly form structural impediments to the realization of Native knowledge sovereignty and the ongoing application of traditional management to landscapes. While overcoming these cultural barriers is critical, it is even more essential to understand the institutionalized dimensions of Federal and State policy and practice that actively erode knowledge sovereignty today. These barriers are the subject of Chapter Three.