Learning from Northern Peoples: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Climate Change

December 13, 2018
Leslie King

During the past week, I gave the Stefansson Memorial Lecture at the invitation of the Stefansson Arctic Institute, Iceland, the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth, and the University of Washington. A summary of my talk follows:

Arctic explorers such as VILHJÁLMUR STEFANSSON and his predecessor, John Rae, credited their survival and exploration successes to the knowledge they gained from Indigenous people during their explorations in dangerous times in harsh but fragile environments. Others who were less open to the wisdom of Arctic dwellers failed to learn from them and thus also failed to meet their objectives and indeed, sometimes perished. We are now experiencing another dangerous time of climate and associated rapid environmental and social change. Yet one hundred years later, researchers working in the North have often made the same mistakes by discounting Indigenous and local knowledge in their search for scientific truth-whether seeking the fate of the Franklin expedition or documenting disappearing sea ice and permafrost.

In large part, however, our survival and future depend on the lessons we are learning from Northern people on the front lines of climate change and biodiversity loss about how to adapt and thrive in conditions of dramatic uncertainty and change. Climate researchers are modern explorers attempting to learn from the knowledge, ancient and contemporary, held by Northern people which may yet ensure our survival. This Stefansson Memorial Lecture introduced some of the emerging findings from that research that may help those of us in lower latitudes to prepare for, respond to, and survive dramatic changes in the social-ecological systems upon which we depend.

During the days at the University of Washington, I also introduced our new research project (with Co-PI Astrid Ogilvie), Northern Knowledge for Resilience, Sustainable Environments and Adaptation in Coastal Communities (NORSEACC), to colleagues from the University of Washington, Colorado, Dartmouth, The Stefansson Arctic Institute,  Akureyri, Iceland, The Bureau of Indian Affairs, Alaska and NOAA among others.