Introduction: Retaining Knowledge Sovereignty: Expanding the Application of Tribal Traditional Knowledge in the Face of Climate Change


Karuk basketweavers pruning and harvesting hazel sticks. Photo: Karuk Tribe

“Practices such as pruning, burning and coppicing at regular intervals once contributed significantly to historic landscape resiliency and community livelihood. Access to abundant and quality hunting, fishing, and gathering areas as well as other traditional, ceremonial, or religious fire use factors have experienced significant decline following fire exclusion. The Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) that is maintained in the West is at risk of loss if incorporation of this knowledge to practice, utilization, and adaptation cannot be revitalized. To mitigate this risk, the focus needs to be at the homeland scale as an intergenerational process within Tribal communities that wish to uphold their inherent responsibilities over Tribal lands, territory, and resources.”  

–National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy Phase III, 2013, 30

Karuk management principles have been central to the evolution of the flora and fauna of the mid-Klamath ecosystem (Andersen 2005, Karuk Tribe 2010, Lake et al 2010, Skinner et al 2006). Ongoing and future climate change intensifies existing ecological pressures in the Klamath Basin and on Karuk traditional foods and cultural use species already under threat. Future climate scenarios for the Klamath Basin point to unique threats to both riverine and “upslope” species, as shifting and increasingly variable precipitation patterns impact stream flows, stream temperatures and fire regimes (Karl et al 2009). Climate change poses a threat not only to the Klamath ecosystem, but also to Karuk culture, which is intimately intertwined with the presence, use and management of cultural use species (Karuk Tribe 2010, Lake et al 2010, Norgaard 2005).

[Video: Kathy McCovey, Karuk Tribal Cultural Practitioner and Archeologist talks about fire and hazel. Excerpt from the film “Catching Fire Prescribed Burning in Northern CA”.]

Yet despite the seriousness of this situation, important possibilities exist in the present moment for both Tribal and non-Tribal resource managers. The land management techniques developed by Tribes over generations can reduce the need for costly fire suppression, and lead to the more efficient and effective resource management that is urgently needed in the face of climate change. As members of communities that have co-evolved with specific landscapes over generations, Tribal traditional managers such as the Karuk can lead the way in restoring ecosystem health by returning traditional ecological knowledge and practices to the landscape. Their actions can serve as wider models of adaptability to changing climatic conditions, economic cycles, and societal change. In their 2012 report the Intertribal Timber Council notes that “As political sovereigns, Tribes are able to practice stewardship and apply traditions, practices, and accumulated wisdom to care for their resources, exercise co-management authorities within their traditional territories, and strongly influence and persuade other political sovereigns to protect natural resources under the public trust doctrine” (15). Furthermore, Tribal bureaucratic structure is often less cumbersome than that of federal counterparts which allows for the much needed development of innovative policies and rapid implementation of new ideas (see e.g. Intertribal Timber Council 2013, 7). In the context of climate change, Karuk Tribal knowledge and management principles can be utilized to protect public as well as Tribal trust[1] resources (Karuk Tribe 2012).

This report is Part II of a two part series produced under the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative Tribal Climate Change initiative on Knowledge Sovereignty. Part I Karuk Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the Need for Knowledge Sovereignty: Social, Cultural and Economic Impacts of Denied Access to Traditional Management situates Karuk traditional knowledge in the practice of cultural management, indicating how Karuk knowledge must remain connected to both the practices that generated the information, and the practices that emerge from it. This report, Retaining Knowledge Sovereignty: Expanding the Application of Tribal Traditional Knowledge on Forest Lands in the Face of Climate Change draws from the experiences of the Karuk Tribe in combination with a review of Tribal case studies, academic and legal literature and current policy initiatives to outline current cultural and institutional barriers for the sovereignty of traditional ecological knowledge and provide a range of recommendations for their resolution at federal, statewide and regional levels.

Traditional Knowledge is Inseparable from Culture

Part I of this report emphasized two key concepts; first that what we call “traditional ecological knowledge” or “TEK” is not an isolated entity but an enactment of cultural and spiritual practices in the landscape. Karuk and other traditional knowledge is embedded in, and emerges from the practices of traditional management. Second, even if it were feasible, it is unethical to attempt to remove knowledge from Tribal context. Attempts to extract knowledge are a form of cultural appropriation that erodes the very foundations of Tribal life. Knowledge and management are about identity, culture, spiritual practice and subsistence economic activity. Part of understanding why knowledge cannot be readily “picked up and used” by other agencies has to do with the nature of indigenous knowledge not as a static, one size fits all rulebook or recipe book for actions on the landscape, but rather how that knowledge is generated through an ongoing process that involves observations and actions over time, as well as moral and spiritual components and the social accountability or ‘social license’ of knowledge practitioners.[2] Traditional knowledge[3] is fundamentally part of management, and management is centrally about Karuk culture, identity, spirituality and mental and physical health. The first report then details the profound social impacts that stem from present infringements on knowledge sovereignty and cultural management (see also Norgaard 2014). The continuing loss of Karuk knowledge sovereignty has both serious ecological consequences, and grave consequences for Karuk culture, social systems and political sovereignty.

Knowledge Sovereignty Requires Traditional Management

Knowledge cannot be transferred in a manner that many non-Tribal managers are accustomed to. However, there are culturally-appropriate ways that the use and application of Karuk and other Tribal traditional knowledge can be shared to strengthen Tribal culture, enhance sovereignty, and provide benefits to ecosystems and non-Tribal communities alike. The central aim of this report is to describe these options. The most effective and immediate method for increasing the use of traditional knowledge in the face of climate change is to restore Tribal management of the landscape through co-management arrangements that acknowledge Tribal jurisdiction over traditional subsistence resources. Many of the recommendations in this report suggest avenues for returning Tribal access to lands.

Knowledge Sovereignty And Overall Sovereignty Are Interconnected

Tribes across North America and beyond face ongoing threats to political and other forms of sovereignty. Many of the challenges to knowledge sovereignty detailed in this report are a function of threats to overall Tribal sovereignty. The Karuk Tribe in particular faces ongoing political challenges concerning the potential erosion of Tribal sovereignty in the face of continued lack of recognition of land title, and taking of resources by Federal and State agencies.

Tribe’s access to their land base is interwoven with other forms of political power. Tribes need to be actively managing the landscape to maintain sovereignty. The ITC goes on to suggest that limits on Tribal use and access to the landscape and environment impacts the ability of Tribes to exercise treaty and other reserved rights. For example, the current exclusion of fire from the landscape creates a situation of denied access to traditional foods and spiritual practices, puts cultural identity at risk, and infringes upon political sovereignty.[4] As Karuk Cultural Biologist, dipnet fisherman Ron Reed explains:

Without fire the landscape changes dramatically. And in that process the traditional foods that we need for a sustainable lifestyle become unavailable after a certain point. So what that does to the Tribal community, the reason we are going back to that landscape is no longer there. So the spiritual connection to the landscape is altered significantly. When there is no food, when there is no food for regalia species, that we depend upon for food and fiber, when they aren’t around because there is no food for them, then there is no reason to go there. When we don’t go back to places that we are used to, accustomed to, part of our lifestyle is curtailed dramatically. So you have health consequences. Your mental aspect of life is severed from the spiritual relationship with the earth, with the Great Creator. So we’re not getting the nutrition that we need, we’re not getting the exercise that we need, and we’re not replenishing the spiritual balance that creates harmony and diversity throughout the landscape.

As noted by the Intertribal Timber Council (ITC), “Close connections of Tribes with their lands and ancestral forests are being weakened as spiritual, cultural and traditional resources are lost (2013,7).

Climate Change is Negatively Impacting Tribal Sovereignty

Climate change itself has the potential for negative impacts on Tribal sovereignty as cultural use species move, as landscapes and territories are altered, and because climate change is rapidly reshaping the legal landscape (Bennett et al 2014, Tsosie 2007, 2009, Wood 2009, Whyte 2013).

“Forest disruption and changes in species composition resulting from climate change could lead to the loss of culturally important resources, negatively impacting Tribal subsistence, culture, and economy. To address these challenges, robust federal-Tribal relationships are needed, particularly when changes affect treaty rights, Tribal lands, and resources held in trust. Collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and joint action by tribes and non-Tribal stakeholders can lead to more effective and sustainable planning efforts around climate change and invasive species”(Voggesser et al. 2013, 618).

In the absence of an overarching legal framework at the federal level Tribes face potential loss of acknowledgement of their jurisdiction if they are excluded from or cannot keep up with the multiple and rapidly changing dynamics between federal and local actors (Cordalis and Suagee 2008).

Tribal Management of Off-Reservation Lands


Legal Scholar, Mary Wood

“Much of the natural web that supports Tribal life and culture occurs beyond the boundaries of Indian country. These lands contain species that tribes hunt and fish for, roots and berries that they gather, headwaters and tributaries that flow into their reservation streams, and sacred sites. These are being destroyed at an unprecedented pace, and the pressure from industrial America is both unyielding and unbounded, coming from corporations that feed on growth. While environmental disease may sooner or later affect everyone in the United States, the impacts on Indian country are magnified, because the land base is the linchpin for Tribal survival.”

— Mary Christina Wood 2003

This report emphasizes the need to return Tribal management to “off reservation lands.” These are the lands that are a part of a Tribes ancestral homeland and territory, but are under the management of other entities. As much as there are mutual benefits and overlapping interests for the return of traditional practices to the landscape, it is important that Tribes be leaders in employing traditional practices. Many Tribes within the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative, including the Karuk, have held intact significant knowledge of traditional management practices. However, when all or part of ancestral lands are managed by other agencies, it is important that the implementation of traditional management take place in a manner that promotes and protects Tribal sovereignty and the Tribal trust responsibility of agencies. Because Tribal knowledge is a living cultural practice and knowledge sovereignty is intimately interconnected with overall Tribal sovereignty, much of this report will center on the central need for expansion of Tribal traditional management on off-reservation lands.[5] In this context, the most immediate barrier to the wider practice of Karuk traditional management and sharing of Karuk TEK is not knowledge itself, but understanding of how to communicate traditional TEK and expand traditional management in a manner that simultaneously promotes knowledge sovereignty, Tribal self-determination and Tribal self-governance.

In response to the challenge of expanding management on off-reservation lands, many Tribes have explored or implemented Native Land Trusts (Middelton 2011, Wood and O’Brien 2008a, 2008b). This option may be available to Tribes whose ancestral territory is now held in private lands. The fact that the majority (98%) of Karuk Tribal lands are under the management of the US Forest Service has compelled the Tribe to investigate possibilities that will return traditional management to these lands. This report builds from the experiences of the Karuk Tribe for whom preservation of knowledge sovereignty is specifically coupled with the need to return traditional management to public rather than private lands. While the Karuk are somewhat unique as a Federally recognized tribe with such a high percentage of its lands under Federal management, numerous Tribes across the country have begun identifying their aboriginal or ancestral territories in addition to their reservation lands in mapping and planning efforts in the last ten years. This focus on territory rather than on reservations that emerges from the Karuk will benefit Tribes in a variety of situations. Returning management of these lands is good for Tribes, but it also benefits ecosystems and can take pressure off agencies.

“Forests store and filter more than half of the nation’s water supply and absorb 20 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. But our nation’s forests are in need of extensive restoration due to cumulative impacts from wildfire, insects and disease, drought, and lack of active management.”

Intertribal Timber Council 2013, p. 7

Recent recognition of the validity of Tribal Ecological knowledge by many academics and land managers coupled with the recognition of the need for collaboration in the face of catastrophic wildfire and some measure of recognition of the failure of existing Western scientific perspectives and existing management approaches including the focus on single commodities, single species management, have combined to create an exciting political moment for Tribal leadership.[6] In the mid-Klamath region specifically, many goals in the Forest Service’s own management plan can be best achieved through recognizing the Karuk right to Tribal management.

As signatories to treaties, some Tribes are able to call upon the obligations of the United States to protect their reserved rights to fish, hunt, trap, and gather on Forest Service lands. Tribes that do not have ratified treaties still retain reserved rights. Both treaty and non-treaty Tribes seek to manage off-reservation lands.”

— Intertribal Timber Council, 2012, 15

The urgency of the climate change threat has led to new interest in Native traditional knowledge and new pressures for collaboration across entities. But while multiple parties and the ecosystem stand to benefit from the return of Tribal management, it is important that the implementation of traditional management take place in a manner that promotes rather than hinders Tribal sovereignty and Tribal trust. This document follows Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte’s (2013) assertion that “Concern for justice should guide how leaders, scientists and professionals who work with or for federally-recognized Tribes approach climate adaptation” (516). Whyte articulates an appropriate Tribal justice framework in relation to tribes and agencies working on climate change as one that “situates justice within the systems of responsibilities that matter to Tribes and many others, which range from webs of inter-species relationship to government to government partnerships. Justice is achieved when these systems of responsibilities operate in ways that support the continued flourishing of Tribal communities” (517).

Report Overview:

Chapter One provides a broad overview of why knowledge sovereignty matters, and recent policy developments that may be used to enhance it. While the barriers are real and the stakes are high, this opening chapter next situates climate change as a strategic opportunity not only for Tribes to retain cultural practices and return traditional management practices to the landscape, but for all land managers to remedy inappropriate ecological actions, and for enhanced and successful collaboration in the face of our collective need for survival. The second portion of the chapter reviews promising recent Federal initiatives and policy developments, many of which are referenced in the recommendations sections of the chapters that follow.

Tribal sovereignty over knowledge is being eroded today through a variety of factors some of which stem from cultural understandings of the world. Such differences in Native and non-Native ways of interacting and seeing the world form barriers to Tribes’ abilities to maintain control over their own cultural knowledge. Chapter Two examines cultural barriers to Tribal knowledge and management exhibited by non-Native agencies, entities, academics and legal scholars. These include conceptions of the nature and use of knowledge, values, social norms, assumptions and modes of interpersonal interaction that are important mechanisms for the erosion of knowledge sovereignty. While such cultural barriers to Tribal knowledge sovereignty and management may appear less permanent than the institutional barriers that are the subject of the next chapter, such detrimental aspects of culture are themselves largely created and reinforced by structural factors within agencies including specific legal policies and mandates, the realities of funding restrictions or institutional logics to which individuals are socialized and compelled to respond.

While the practice of traditional Tribal management, and thus the regeneration of traditional knowledge needs to be an ongoing practice in the landscape, evidence from the Karuk experience and beyond indicates that institutionalized policies and practices at national, state and regional levels also form structural barriers that thwart implementation. Explicit university and government policies regarding copyrights to traditional knowledge shared in research collaborations pose acute threats to Tribal knowledge sovereignty. Chapter Three examines how institutionalized policies concerning access to information, intergovernmental collaboration and the overall absence of applicable research describing Native experiences or impacts to Native communities work together to erode the sovereignty of Tribal traditional knowledge.

The discussion of each cultural and institutional barrier to Tribal control over management and sovereignty discussed in Chapters Two and Three are followed by one or more policy recommendations. An Appendix provides a consolidated summary of the recommendations that emerged from the specific barriers to preventing cultural appropriation and expanding the application of Tribal management on the landscape. This Appendix consists of summary sheets with the specific recommendations from Chapters Two and Three for enhancing knowledge sovereignty through mechanisms to enhance Tribal management on off-reservation lands, mechanisms to improve intergovernmental collaboration, research recommendations and enforcement of existing Tribal and public trust responsibilities.

[1] Tribal trust is “a principle that arises from the Native relinquishment of land in reliance on federal assurances that retained lands and resources would be protected for future generations. It bears rough analogy to nuisance and trespass law. Ownership of land carries corollary rights of government protection-the right to seek judicial redress against harm to property. The Indian trust responsibility is protection for property guaranteed on the sovereign level, from the federal government to tribes” (see Wood, 2003).

[2] We recommend further reading of the excellent and detailed literature on the central role of Western science in the project of colonialism and the corresponding ethical risks Native communities face (Bannister and Hardison 2006, Hansen and Van FLeed 2003, Hardison and Bannister 2011, Hill et al 2010, Janke 2009, Williams and Hardison 2013, Colorado and Collins 1987, Agrawal 2002, Briggs and Sharp 2004, Briggs 2005, Green 2004, Heckler 2012, Nadasdy 2003, Ellen, Parkes and Bicker 2000, Watson-Verran and Turnball 1995, Wildcat 2009), the ethical risks for Tribes from engaging in research with non-Native entities (Baldy 2013, Williams and Hardison 2013, Hill et al 2010, Hardison and Bannister 2011, Hansen and Van Fleed 2003, Bannister and Hardison 2006) and unfortunately, the ongoing ways that the extraction of Tribal knowledge perpetuates cultural genocide today (see also Norgaard 2014 for more detail specific to Karuk land management struggles).

[3] Some leaders in the field now use the phrase “traditional knowledges” in plural thus emphasizing that there are many forms of knowledge and knowledge practitioners, see e.g. the 2014 “Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives”.

[4] See also Baldy 2013 on connections between management and sovereignty.

[5] Because this report emerges from Karuk experience the focus is on forest lands. We hope the strategies outlined here can usefully be adapted for Tribes who maintain relationships with marine, grassland and other ecosystems types.

[6] For examples of the acknowledgement of the importance of Tribal knowledge see:

Parrotta et al 2012, Burkett 2013, Riedlinger and Berkes 2001, Whyte 2013, Williams and Hardison 2013, Smith and Sharp 2012.