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Using Traditional Ecological Knowledge to Adapt to Climate Change

2014 July 1

By Rosalyn LaPier

My grandmother, Annie Mad Plume Wall, learned about nature and plants from her grandmother and her great-grandmother. Their knowledge stemmed from an intimate relationship with the environment that was formed over generations of time and through generations of women. Today we call this Traditional Ecological (or in some cases, Environmental) Knowledge, or TEK for short.

My grandmother taught me her knowledge. However unlike what most people think, it was not an informal activity. Instead it was a formal process of learning. The Amskapi Pikuni, now known as the Blackfeet, believe in a process they call “transferring.” The Blackfeet believe that both tangible and intangible items are considered personal property which can be bought and sold. A tipi, which is tangible, or a name, which is intangible, are given equal value as property. However, instead of using the words “buy” or “sell,” the Blackfeet use the word “transfer.”

Rosalyn and her grandmother, Annie Mad Plume Wall

My grandmother lived to be 97 and I spent the 20 years before her passing learning about Blackfeet plant knowledge and environmental knowledge from her. We did this by traveling across the reservation to different plant ecosystems, alone or with the whole family, and even traveling off the reservation to old Blackfeet gathering sites. I paid her each time she “transferred” her environmental knowledge to me. Towards the end, when she decided my learning was near completion, she announced; “Now you are an old woman like me.”

In those 20 years I learned something that she had not intended to teach me. In central Montana and southern Alberta in Canada (the traditional homelands of the Blackfeet), global climate change has impacted the environment that the Blackfeet have relied on for both medicinal plants, used for healing, and edible plants used for subsistence. New research conducted in the Rocky Mountains reflects what we’ve been learning as each year passed — instead of the short growth cycle in the spring and summer which we were accustomed to, the seasons have lasted longer, plants now grow earlier and live longer and bloom at different times. Plants that once grew at the same time now grow at different times in the seasonal cycle. For some plants these differences are dramatic.

For those who do not spend time outdoors it may be difficult to fully appreciate the change that is occurring. But for those who live off the land, such as farmers, ranchers, and those with subsistence lifestyles, climate change is having a real impact. It impacts the health and well-being of countless Native peoples who rely on gathering plants for both medicinal and edible purposes. More importantly, climate change impacts the spiritual life of Native peoples.

Winter thunderstorms are becoming more frequent in Montana

Winter thunderstorms are becoming more frequent in Montana

But we are adapting. The Blackfeet, similar to other tribes, schedule their ceremonial activity according to seasonal cycles. But with the cycles destabilizing, we now need to adjust each year to the volatile weather. For example, the Blackfeet conduct their Thunder-pipe ceremony at the sound of the first thunder which marks the return of rain. At the ceremony, serviceberries (Amelanchier alnifolia) are planted to celebrate the renewal of life. Traditionally, first thunder occurred in spring. The first thunder now happens much earlier in the year, sometimes even in the winter when it is unwise to plant in Montana.

The Blackfeet are now in the process of adapting and evolving to what some environmentalists call a new Earth. The TEK I learned from my grandmother is from the old Earth. However it still has value and the Blackfeet will continue to find new ways of gathering plants, new methods of identifying changes in our weather, and ways to further our traditions. Climate change will continue to affect the Blackfeet’s environment, ultimately impacting our lifestyle and spiritual life. But as we learn new TEK practices, we will be able to work better with nature and continue the process of transferring our “new” Traditional Environmental Knowledge to the next generation.

Rosalyn has worked for 20+ years with several national and regional Native non-profits including the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (who protected Native lands and natural resources), Americans for Indian Opportunity (who strengthen emerging Native leaders and governments) and Piegan Institute (who preserve and promote Native languages). Rosalyn has also worked at a Native college for 12 years, both as an Instructor and program director, and She also serves as a member of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC).

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. Mirabel Weriwoh permalink
    July 1, 2014

    I admire the spirit of adaptation especially in the midst of a storm such as climate change. I hope that the Blackfeet community will get all the help they need in order to conserve their ecosystem (plant),from which they derive medicinal, spiritual among many other benefits necessary for their healthy livelihood.Courage! Thanks for sharing this piece of information. Keep hoping for the best.

  2. Robert permalink
    July 1, 2014

    I wish more people understood their connection to the environment and how valuable traditional knowledge will be in addressing some of the difficult issues that climate change has and will continue to bring. I’m enjoying this new climate justice series very much. Will there be blogs from youth and faith based groups?


  3. joanne classick permalink
    July 2, 2014

    I try to be as respectful of nature as I possibly can. I believe that if you care for the Earth, it will care for you — in spite of whatever the climate is. That is how the eskimos as well as the amasonians survive in their very different eco systems. Thank you for the work you do and I am encouraged by the story of your grandmother to continue teaching my now-grown children all that I know about the plants and animals in Indiana. I live in the city, but can eat from my garden and care for my urban chickens as well. Thank you.

  4. Liam permalink
    July 3, 2014

    You can tell alot about a country by the way it respects the cultures of its people. I’m glad that I had a few free moments today to slow down and read all of the wonderfully educational stories in this series. It continues to give me a greater understanding and appreciation for all of those who are working to improve our environment. I had never heard the term “TEK” before but your story really brought it to life for me, and in a way that a dictionary or a report would have ever been able to accomplish. Thank you for keeping your culture alive and for helping those of us who were not raised in “Native Culture” to understand its importance and sacredness.

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