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What is Traditional Ecological Knowledge?

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California landscapes such as Yosemite Valley were consciously managed by California Indians for centuries to provide food and other resources. | Photo: Matt Kromer, some rights reserved

The New World is in fact a very old world. The mountain forests, broad inland valleys, oak-studded hills, and deserts of the region now called California were thoroughly known, celebrated in story and song, named in great detail, and inhabited long before European explorers sailed along the west coast of North America for the first time. Every day of every year for millennia, the indigenous people of California interacted with the native plants and animals that surrounded them. They transformed roots, berries, shoots, bones, shells, and feathers into medicines, meals, bows, and baskets and achieved an intimacy with nature unmatched by the modern-day wilderness guide, trained field botanist, or applied ecologist.

The first European explorers, American trappers, and Spanish missionaries entering California painted an image of the state as a wild Eden providing plentiful nourishment to its native inhabitants without sweat or toil. But in actuality, the productive and diverse landscapes of California were in part the outcome of sophisticated and complex harvesting and management practices.

The rich knowledge of how nature works was hard-earned, gained through many generations of learning passed down by elders. This knowledge today is commonly called ”traditional ecological knowledge."

California Indians protected and tended favored plant species and habitats, harvested plant and animal products at carefully worked out frequencies and intensities, and practiced an array of horticultural techniques. Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized the potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged a diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years. In other words, California Indians were able to harvest the foods and basketry and construction materials they needed each year while conserving — and sometimes increasing — the plant populations from which they came.

During the course of their long history in California, Indians so exhaustively explored the plant kingdom for its uses and so thoroughly tested nature's responses to human harvesting and tending that they discovered how to use nature in a way that provided them with a relatively secure existence while allowing for the maximum diversity of other species.

The terms ”hunter-gatherer” and ”forager,” inaccurate anthropological labels assigned to most California Indian groups, connote a hand-to-mouth existence. They imply that California Indians dug tubers, plucked berries, and foraged for greens in a random fashion, never staying in any one place long enough to leave lasting human imprints. But the indigenous people of California had a profound influence on many diverse landscapes — in particular, the coastal prairies, valley grasslands, and oak savannas, three of the most biologically rich plant communities in California. Without an Indian presence, the early European explorers would have encountered a land with less spectacular wildflower displays, fewer large trees, and fewer parklike forests, and the grassland habitats that today are disappearing in such places as Mount Tamalpais and Salt Point State Park might not have existed in the first place.

A Tended Wilderness

Cecilia Joaquin, Pomo, using a seed beater to gather seeds into a burden basket circa 1924 | Photo: Edward S. Curtis

Through twelve thousand or more years of existence in what is now California, humans knit themselves to nature through their vast knowledge base and practical experience. In the process, they maintained, enhanced, and in part created a fertility that was eventually to be exploited by European and Asian farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs, who imagined themselves to have built civilization out of an unpeopled wilderness. The concept of California as unspoiled, raw, uninhabited nature — as wilderness — erased the indigenous cultures and their histories from the land and dispossessed them of their enduring legacy of tremendous biological wealth. As the environmental historian William Cronon notes, ”The removal of Indians to create an ’uninhabited wilderness’ — uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place — reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is."

John Muir, celebrated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was an early proponent of the view that the California landscape was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of Europeans. Staring in awe at the lengthy vistas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed-, bulb-, and greens-gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting, and seed scattering.

Of course, there were some places that had little or no intervention from native peoples, and these would qualify as true wilderness under the modern definition. The subalpine forests, the drier desert regions of southern California, the lower salt marsh areas, the beach and dune communities, and the alkali flats and serpentine balds with widely spaced plants do not burn readily; nor do they support large numbers of economically useful plants. In addition, there were areas that were off limits to burning because their favored plants were not fire-tolerant or the terrain was too rugged, or for other reasons. In general, however, most of the plant communities in California were influenced in varying degree by Indian management.

California Indians did not distinguish between managed land and wild land as we do today. The word for wilderness is absent from many tribal vocabularies, as is the word for civilization. ”Viewed retrospectively,” writes Max Oelschlaeger in The Idea of Wilderness, ”the idea of wilderness represents a heightened awareness by the agrarian or Neolithic mind, as farming and herding supplanted hunting and gathering, of distinctions between humankind and nature.”

Interestingly, contemporary Indians often use the word wilderness as a negative label for land that has not been taken care of by humans for a long time, for example, where dense understory shrubbery or thickets of young trees block visibility and movement. A common sentiment among California Indians is that a hands-off approach to nature has promoted feral landscapes that are inhospitable to life. ”The white man sure ruined this country," said James Rust, a Southern Miwok elder. "It's turned back to wilderness." California Indians believe that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct interaction, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the earth or hide from humans. When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge, passed down through generations, is broken, and the land becomes ”wilderness.”

Indigenous Resource Management

Traditional deergrass management built on natural processes that resulted in healthier plants. | Illustration from: Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson

Resource management is not a modern invention. Indigenous people in California and elsewhere have practiced the roots of this applied discipline for millennia. Our California landscapes, a reflection of historical processes, both natural and cultural, bear the indelible imprint of a medley of management techniques. 

The foundation of native peoples’ management of plants and animals was a collective storehouse of knowledge about the natural world, acquired over hundreds of years through direct experience and contact with the environment. The rich knowledge of how nature works and how to judiciously harvest and steward its plants and animals without destroying them was hard-earned; it was the product of keen observation, patience, experimentation, and long-term relationships with plants and animals. It was a knowledge built on a history, gained through many generations of learning passed down by elders about practical as well as spiritual practices. This knowledge today is commonly called ”traditional ecological knowledge."

The traditional ecological knowledge of California Indians and the techniques they used to manage nature are still retrievable. The historical literature contains many descriptions of Indian practices and former landscapes, before they were completely transformed by Euro-American settlement. Archaeological findings provide information on diet, tools, and demographics. Phytolith studies and fire scar data can tell us about patterns of indigenous burning and the former composition of plant communities. The growth pattern, form, and age of plant material used for the weapons and baskets in museum collections can tell us how the plants were cultivated in nature. Ecological field studies of the responses of plants to burning, pruning, or digging can also tell us much about indigenous management techniques and their effects.

”The white man sure ruined this country. It's turned back to wilderness."
James Rust, Southern Miwok elder.

Finally, native people themselves still retain a great deal of the knowledge of their ancestors. Even today, Bodega Miwok/Dry Creek Pomo women gather edible peppernuts (Umbellularia californica) along stream banks; Yokuts men dig yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica) tubers for medicine in wind-riffled valley grasslands; Cahuilla women pluck long golden flowering stalks from deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens) tufts along desert washes for their baskets. Interviews of these people — especially the elders, whose grandparents lived before the Gold Rush — yield valuable and rich information about how and when areas were burned, which plants were eaten and used for basketry, and how those plants were managed.

Indigenous land management practices were largely successful in promoting habitat heterogeneity, increasing biodiversity, and maintaining certain vegetation types that would otherwise have undergone successional change. In many cases, native harvesting and management strategies were likely attuned to the reproductive biology of specific native plants and grounded in sound ecological principles.

How to harvest soaproot, a useful plant, and ensure more soaproot in the future. | Illustration from: Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson

It is reasonable to assume that the peoples migrating into what is now California more than ten thousand years ago undoubtedly experienced a learning curve, apprising the limits to resource use and then adjusting their harvesting and management from the lessons learned. At times, the result was landscape degradation and species reductions or extinctions, but over the long term, valuable lessons were learned about how to steward nature for future generations.

In general, accounts of the impact of native people on the land have been skewed in two almost contradictory ways. In some cases, these impacts are simply assumed to be negative. The possibility of beneficial influences, such as enhancing the numbers and diversity of other species, is seldom considered.“ Then there is the old view that the population levels of Indians in California were so low, and their technologies so unadvanced that they had little or no impact on wild nature.

Another version of this stance is the idea of the ”conservation-minded Indian” put forth by some environmentalists. This view fosters a one-sided image of the California Indian as an ecological eunuch whose minimalist interventions on the environment served to guard nature's virgin treasures without despoiling or changing them. J. Donald Hughes expresses such a view in American Indian Ecology: ”An Indian took pride not in making a mark on the land, but in leaving as few marks as possible: in walking through the forest without breaking branches, in building a fire that made as little smoke as possible, in killing one deer without disturbing the others.” The shallow image of the conservation—minded Indian who hardly uses, let alone influences nature and feels guilty about breaking a branch is perhaps based on a romantic notion stemming from Euro-American longings to have those same tendencies rather than on serious research into indigenous lifeways. California Indians have never advocated leaving nature alone.

A Hupa man fishes from a weir on the Trinity River. These weirs were built to allow most salmon to pass, ensuring survival of the salmon run. | Photo: Edward S. Curtis

Learning about the ways in which the indigenous people of California appropriated plants and animals for cultural uses while allowing them to flourish can help us to change the ways in which we interact with nature today. Following the indigenous example, we can move beyond knowing and celebrating nature only through the view of a camera lens, the end of a tape measure, or the stroke of a paintbrush on canvas. We can begin to see the possibility of becoming part of localized food webs once again, being full participants in nature, and restoring and reinhabiting damaged lands.

Banner photo: Northeastern California basket | Photo: vlasta2, some rights reserved


Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition.

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