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An Approach to Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes


Aboriginal Relationship to the Environment

How do the foundations of traditional knowledge differ from those of Western science?

Nineteenth century Western science, which still shapes Western values, makes a distinct separation between the observer and the observed. It is rooted in objective principles and rules which involve systematized observation, experimentation and testing of hypotheses and conclusions.

Reflections in river of trees on shore, with person in canoe, and mountain behind.
Red Deer River, Northwest Territories
© National Archives of Canada / T.C. Weston / PA 150933, 1889.

In contrast, Aboriginal people define their relationship as belonging to the land, and they see themselves as one element of a fully integrated environment. As Charles Johnson explains, "we, as Native people, are part of the Arctic ecosystem. We are not observers, not managers; our role is to participate as a part of the ecosystem". (Johnson, 1997: 3) As such, humans co-exist with fauna and flora, with equal rights to life. In this belief lies commitment to respect all living things. In the words of Dene Elder George Blondin, "We are people of the land; we see ourselves as no different than the trees, the caribou, and the raven, except we are more complicated".(Blondin, 1997: 18)

The skills inherent in living on and with the land, such as observation, interpretation, and adaptation, are related to traditional knowledge. The complexity of Aboriginal understanding of the land and its resources is evident in language, and one of the reasons language is currently a key concern. Study of the James Bay Cree hunting culture, for example, revealed five basic meanings associated with the root term for hunting, nitao.These meanings combine cosmological, ecological and psychological aspects of Cree life and beliefs that include complex relationships between the hunter and the hunted.(Feit, 1995)

Numerous studies involving traditional knowledge and science as partners have demonstrated the intensive knowledge of natural processes, ecological indicators, faunal behaviour, and techniques for survival and safety in an often hostile environment. Recent studies, for example of sharp-tailed grouse in the Fort Albany First Nation, and of caribou among the Inuit, have likewise shown fragility of this traditional knowledge in the face of permanent settlements and cultural change.(Tsuji, 1996; Thorpe, 1997; Ferguson and Messier, 1997; Huntington, 1998)

However, the extensive studies of their culture by scientists, who typically see themselves as objective observers standing outside Aboriginal value systems, have also intensified Aboriginal concerns about misinterpretation, appropriation, and misuse of their "intellectual property".(Stevenson, 1996: 279)


Last Updated: 2008-10-17 To the top
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