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LISTENING TO THE Language of the Land.

Researchers are applying indigenous traditional knowledge in innovative efforts to improve the environment and health care

THE BIOLOGY BUILDING of Pontificia Universidad Catolica in Quito was quiet just before lunchtime. As I entered the herpetology lab I heard only the bubbling from many terrarium tanks and the high-pitched clicking of frogs. Luis Coloma waved for me to come over to the far side of the lab. On an unattended computer monitor near him, animated poison dart frogs marched across the screensaver.

Coloma, who grew up in an Andean town southwest of Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest peak, has studied frogs for over two decades and is part of an international task force studying the decline of amphibian populations worldwide. A biologist by training, Coloma is interested in local uses and perceptions of nature. He reminded me that it was from indigenous Americans that European naturalists learned of the chemical powers of the poison dart frog and the healing properties of cinchona bark. (In the early 1800s the area near Coloma's boyhood home was a world center for cinchona trees, from which quinine was extracted.) Coloma says that indigenous people in the Andes, who live closer to the land than the rest of us, had an early inkling of what scientists were also starting to think: that catastrophic declines in frog populations might be linked to climate change.

"If you talk to the Indians, they say that the sun is too hot," Coloma says. He cited scientific studies that found rising rates of skin cancer among indigenous people. There were many other possible factors in amphibian decline, Coloma adds quickly, and he is no expert on traditional knowledge, but his view reveals the growing dialogue between scientists and indigenous people about the world around them.

Traditional knowledge is a growing field, and local groups in the Americas are at its leading edge. In Mexico, Canada, and elsewhere, community-based researchers are recording information that has remained mostly oral for generations, and has often been stigmatized by scientists as superstition. Traditional knowledge is finding new value both in cultural initiatives and in efforts to understand the environment and improve health care.

Coloma marvels at the movements to monitor and restore traditional knowledge, which, he points out, has been mostly hidden for five hundred years. But he is cautiously optimistic. "My worry is that the fast rates of biodiversity loss we've seen with amphibians and other species will overtake the traditional knowledge of those ecosystems --it only remains in the voices of indigenous people and in the field notes of some scientists."

In August 1997 Johnny Eyakfwo found himself in a boat speeding north into Arctic waters that he had known since he was a boy. He had spent his whole life in the Dogrib country of Arctic Canada, straddling the Northwest Territories and the new region of Nunavut. In his seventy-plus years he had seen many changes in that world. Now he was acting as a generational bridge, traveling with a community researcher, Madelaine Chocolate, and a high school student, Melissa Mantla. Delayed by an unusually cold summer that had kept ice on the lakes until late July, they finally traveled to Wekweeti, where he introduced the two young women to elders and explained their plan to study Dogrib place names.

After paving the way for Chocolate to talk with a dozen elders on their understanding of place names and the information they contained, Eyakfwo and the others ventured north for two days and two nights, by motorboat, for more research. They were tracking an endangered species--traditional knowledge.

Maintaining that knowledge was a cause to which Eyakfwo had committed a lot of time. Two years before, he had taught other students stories of the land. He had explained to them that Dechjla meant "edge of the trees" and the place known officially as Jolly Lake was called by the Dogrib "ghost lake," that Contwoyto Lake meant "old camp lake." But this trip would be different in a way that he couldn't know: Just three months later, on November 13, he would pass from this life. This trip would be his last chance to pass along names and meanings for which no other translations were available, words that few people remembered.

He made the most of the opportunity. The following spring, the Dogrib Renewable Resources Committee published a report based on his work with them, Habitat of Dogrib Traditional Territory: Place Names as Indicators of Biogeographical Knowledge. It was dedicated to Johnny Eyakfwo. Now it is posted on the website of the West Kitikmeot/Slave Study Society (WKSS).

The Dogrib have spent years documenting traditional knowledge and putting it into formats that they hope will make it durable for many generations. Starting from an initial focus on caribou habitat (see Americas, August 1998), the Dogrib studies have explored key issues of human health and environment. Allice Legat, lead researcher for the projects, says that the elders wanted to make sure that the researchers understood their relationship with caribou and traditional terms, before documenting those terms.

Their work is gaining attention beyond the region. Legat says that the reception their work has received at international conferences in Finland, Scotland, and elsewhere suggests that they're "further ahead than most in the traditional knowledge business."

"We've been able to establish a level of detail in the information we're collecting that is quite exceptional," says Legat. "And that information relates directly to land, animals, and the environment."

Besides the information itself, there's another reason these studies are gaining notice. They're being conducted by the people themselves. "In the past, it was the government that controlled this kind of information," says Evelyn Marlowe, who directs related studies of community-based monitoring in the nearby Chipewyan area of Lutsel K'e. "They would come into the community, do surveys, and then leave. We would never see the results. [Now] we have control and ownership over the results."

For the Dogrib, place names are more than just signposts. They hold keys to information about an area's terrain and plant and wildlife.

"Long ago, elders who were before our fathers and who worked upon the land were the ones who named the lakes," Joseph Pee'a told the researchers, "and to this day their names are still upon them." Pee'a described how people used the names to chart their way through the landscape, like a mnemonic map. They didn't pile stone markers or place other physical markers, he explained; they worked mainly "with their minds and by thinking," using the place names to guide them.

The place-names study records traditional knowledge as a baseline for tracking environmental changes. In documenting over twenty-one hundred sites, the researchers found that place names yielded long-term habitat information that helped in the main Dogrib task of tracking caribou. Some names encoded information on local biodiversity, such as "gooseberry lake" and "red-throated loons on big fish lake." The results have been used to create habitat maps that combine satellite images and the Dogrib information.

To work with them on these studies, Dogrib elders chose researchers who they knew respected their traditional knowledge. Still, Madelaine Chocolate's research with Johnny Eyakfwo and other eiders took more time than expected, in part because she had to establish her own background and where she had been before they would entrust her with the culture-rich information. Other studies tracked the human-health effects of mining through local knowledge of how a uranium mine contaminated plant, wildlife, and water resources nearby, and the health effects experienced by mine workers. The results highlighted risks that had not been explained by the mine's managers. These studies were synthesized in a draft report produced in April 1999 and posted on the society's website.

For Luisa Maffi, an anthropological linguist, the Dogrib research confirms that language is vital not only to indigenous people's knowledge banks, but also to their health and the environment's health.

"The obvious fact is that much of knowledge, if not all, is encoded in language," says Maffi, president of Terralingua, a nonprofit organization that has partnered with the Smithsonian Institution on projects in Mexico. "The language that people speak, in most cases, is part of a people's ethnic identity."

Maffi finds that the number of languages in an area can indicate cultural range, which in turn is linked to the available knowledge of an ecosystem and its biological diversity. "If you look at a map of the world's biodiversity hot spots, and overlay on that a map of linguistic diversity, you see a striking overlap," says Maffi. That suggests that cultural integrity plays a symbiotic role with environmental integrity.

Maffi and Terralingua have explored that overlap on a global scale with the World Wide Fund for Nature International, in producing a map of biocultural diversity. On a smaller scale they are working in the Tarahumara region of northern Mexico. The Tarahumara (or Raramuri) in the Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua are among the largest and most traditional of North America's Native American groups. Tarahumara knowledge of cacti and other native plants in their arid surroundings is legendary and inspired some of Alfonso Reyes' finest poetry, in Yerbas del Tarahumara. Outsiders have likened the exotic sounds of the language to those heard in the Far East. But now the Tarahumara face threats from mining and logging interests. The influx has degraded the environment and undermined their culture. And "environmental" tourism, pursued on a Disney scale to make the Copper Canyon the next Cancun, poses another substantial risk.

Focusing on links between cultural and environmental health, the Sierra Tarahumara Diversity Project set out to understand the interrelationships of culture and environment and the threats to both. Since March 2000, meetings with communities have found that local priorities have a dual focus on the environment and their culture: They want to restore their forests and retrieve their medicinal plants, and maintain their language and customs.

Besides expressing their understanding of the environment and its threats, Maffi finds that people's words reveal their perceptions of illness. When a minority language is marginalized, that can rob people of means for describing their symptoms, and affect the quality of health care they receive. In the Chiapas region, Maffi found that the Tzeltal Maya had very sophisticated terms for describing symptoms in their language (distinguishing a wheezing cough from a hacking cough, for example). Yet when a visiting field medic would ask about their symptoms in Spanish, they were tongue tied. "People would be completely unable to talk about it, to convey the subtleties that they could in their language," says Maffi.

The Yaqui River Valley in Sonora, not far from Copper Canyon, offered a different kind of laboratory for community experience and health risks. Since the 1950s, the Yaqui have been divided on whether to pursue modern farming methods or hold onto a traditional way of fanning. In general, people interested in the more intensive techniques of modern farming gravitated toward the lowland parts of the valley, and the traditionalists remained in the foothills.

In this division, Elizabeth Guillette, a medical anthropologist with the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities, saw an opportunity to study the health effects of the two types of farming on communities that otherwise were very similar. Guillette conducted ethnographic surveys in two Yaqui communities --one in the valley and one in the hills. Their answers led her to important insights about the effects of pesticide exposure on children. Mothers in the lowland villages often told her that their children didn't play as much as the mothers recalled from their own childhoods. So Guillette studied the abilities of four- and five-year-olds. She tested their cognitive function by asking them to draw a person, and their coordination with tasks like walking along a two-by-four plank. She found that the children in the valley, who had much higher exposure levels to pesticides, including DDT, had less endurance and coordination than the upland children.

With other factors like diet and cultural background the same, these findings were an unusual indictment of the pesticides. "Many disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates body functions," she told the Washington Post. "That's the main reason I looked at subtle changes." Her published results in scientific journals have fueled a searching debate over what levels of pesticides are safe for children. For her, what guided that study and similar research were answers from the communities.

"The best focus is on the community," she says. "The researcher does not impose his knowledge or views on the community." Asking questions for ethnographic interviews requires experience, pretesting, and the realization that people may prefer to avoid uncomfortable ideas, especially with professionals. You have to frame questions, Guillette says, so that "you give them permission to tell the truth."

At the same time, researchers must recognize that not all community knowledge is in the public domain. "They must also realize that some knowledge is secret," Guillette says. "You'll never find it out. It's there, but it's secret and that must be respected."

Making sure the results get back to the community is an important but often neglected part of the research process, according to Guillette. On this point she echoes Evelyn Marlowe's comment about studies among the Dene. "Communication of the findings is so important, and it doesn't have to take a lot of time," Guillette says. In the Mexican communities where Guillette presented her results, she has noticed a decline in home use of pesticides.

Last October, Guillette flew to Nova Scotia to present her work on pesticide exposure to community groups in Halifax. At their invitation, she spoke about her findings and responded to their concern's about how pesticides are also implicated in learning and behavioral problems in urban areas. Halifax residents were concerned by the high incidence of multiple chemical sensitivities, and wanted the city to limit the use of lawn pesticides.

"Communities are getting more involved in doing their own investigations," Guillette says. To help them work on their own, she has written a handbook, Performing a Community Health Assessment (2000).

Meanwhile, in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, participants in the WKSS studies were again at the forefront, doing their own community health monitoring using both science and indigenous knowledge. Last September, a month before Guillette spoke to people in Halifax on the Atlantic coast, Evelyn Marlowe and Brenda Parlee presented lessons from the Dene community-based monitoring effort on the Pacific coast, at a conference on Arctic science in Whitehorse, Yukon. They reported that from the three-year effort of gathering, summarizing, evaluating, and reporting changes in the community, their baseline data on twenty indicators point to mining-related changes in traditional food consumption, rates of cancer and tuberculosis, and community concerns about water quality.

"With monitoring we're able to watch the changes that occur," Marlowe says, "but I don't think the community will just watch. With the information we collect, we can act."

According to research coordinator Parlee, residents found the results concerning the community's cultural well-being especially important. "Elders and land users emphasized the importance of passing knowledge to the younger generation," she reports, "about how to identify a healthy caribou for harvest, how to properly respect the animal during the hunt and how to properly prepare and store meat for future use." In terms of the community's broader health, the monitoring showed how the mining industry has lured workers from other jobs. As a result, says Parlee, "the Lutsel K'e Dene Band reported a loss of trained and qualified workers in areas such as municipal services and trades."

In 2000, the Dene used the results of the community-based monitoring project in a series of community visioning and planning workshops facilitated by the Lutsel K'e Dene Band Council. "The health-related results have also been used by the health and social service managers in long-range program planning and in communicating health issues at regional and territorial levels," Parlee says. "All the results have been communicated back to the community through poster displays, workshops, and interviews, and are therefore likely to be useful in future program evaluations as well."

The Copenhagen-based Arctic Council Indigenous People's Secretariat has acknowledged that the researchers in Canada's far north have done more work on traditional knowledge than anywhere else in the Arctic. As these explorations of local experience move ahead, they bring official recognition for traditional narratives and cultures.

Some might say that such collaboration compromises the integrity of both science and the oral narrative, that the vigor of the tradition lies in voices passing from one person to another, face to face. On the other hand, Johnny Eyakfwo's voice and wisdom live on, at least in fragments, as recorded by Madelaine Chocolate.


On the Canadian studies, visit the WKSS website (; for more about the Sierra Tarahumara Biodiversity Project, visit the Terralingua website ( To purchase a copy of Elizabeth Guillette's handbook, write Dr. Guillette at:

A previous contributor to Americas, David Taylor often writes on science and conservation issues.
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Author:Taylor, David A.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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