Oregon State University

Ocean Wisdom: Integrating Traditional and Western Ecological Knowledge of the Pacific.

Integrating Traditional and Western Ecological Knowledge of the Pacific.

deanna and markThe Environmental Humanities Initiative supports classes that encourage students to explore the intersection of the sciences and humanities. In Spring of 2011, anthropologist Deanna Kingston and zoologist Mark Hixon offered a new OSU Honors College course that integrated natural science, humanities, and social science—“Ocean Wisdom: Integrating Traditional and Western Ecological Knowledge of the Pacific.”

Describing what moved her to teach this course, Deanna Kingston said: “I see it as the first step in allowing students to learn how to investigate the world's sciences, not just the science we have in our formal education system. The more we prepare students to have the mental agility to leave the comfort of a western scientific mindset, to see how other people perceive and act upon the world, the better.”

Over the course of ten weeks, students from diverse academic backgrounds did just that, studying the strengths, weaknesses, and assumptions of the worldviews that underlie Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and Western Scientific Knowledge (WSK) of the Pacific Ocean and its bordering lands.

One of the requirements of the course was the completion of an individual or group project that integrated traditional and western ecological knowledge on a topic. In the interdisciplinary spirit of the course, these projects were designed for students to explore disciplines outside of their major field—thus a student with a science major engaged the arts/humanities/social sciences in his/her project, and vice versa.

Students chose to investigate a number of topics, including how western science has learned (and sometime stolen) TEK of plants’ medicinal properties, and how western scientists and indigenous peoples have worked together to restore natural landscapes.

These investigations and explorations were exactly the type of projects that Hixon and Kingston had in mind when they designed the class.

Kingston, who has dedicated much of her life to consulting and collaborating with Native American/indigenous communities, particularly when it comes to their knowledge of the environment, said: “Science has become specialized, but sometimes what we need is an understanding of how things (animals, plants, weather, topography, people) all work and interact together - how they impact each other.”

This emphasis on broadening one’s worldview was echoed by the course’s other faculty member, Mark Hixon, who specializes in the ecology and conservation biology of coastal marine fishes. Hixon, who has been honored by ISI Citation Index as the most cited American author on coral reefs in the past decade, is adamant about the importance of acknowledging other forms of knowledge: “Ecology is by its very nature holistic and integrative, yet during the modern development of this science in the last century, there was a delay in including TEK in that integration,” he says. “Every well-respected western ecologist I presently know admires and is open to TEK, yet doesn't know how to go about effectively interweaving western science and TEK.”

This course, he added, has done exactly that.


The Whale and the Supercomputer

“Ocean Wisdom” focused on two books: Wisdom of the Elders: Sacred Native Stories of Nature by David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson, and The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change by Charles Wohlforth. Both books compare ways of knowing and seeing as represented by aboriginal modes of perceiving the natural world and Western culture's worldview. Wisdom of the Elders does this by beginning each chapter with a brief summary of scientific explanation, then contrasting it with relevant myths and accounts of daily rituals of indigenous societies. The Whale and the Supercomputer focuses more specifically on Western scientists attempting to comprehend climate change and the Inupiaq Eskimos who live and hunt on the coast of the Arctic Ocean and. The authors concluded that these different ways of seeing and knowing have much in common, are surprisingly complementary, and often come to similar conclusions.

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