Once-ignored Indigenous knowledge of nature now shaping science

A person stands in a forest
BJ Gotchie, forestry and fire restoration coordinator for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and a tribal member, talks about how prescribed burns have helped rejuvenate the forest and spurred the growth of blueberry bushes and other native shrubs.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News
Part 2 - Once-ignored Indigenous knowledge of nature now shaping science

If you come into contact with people working in and around natural resources in Minnesota you may hear the term TEK. It’s a popular buzzword, which, confusingly, has little to do with technology.

It’s the acronym for Traditional Ecological Knowledge, an umbrella term for information about the natural world collected by countless generations of Indigenous people. 

Through observation and life experience, they gained knowledge — what plants were good to make teas to soothe a sore throat, what bark to harvest to bring down a fever, how certain species adapted to changes in climate and how fire can revitalize the forest floor to produce an abundance of berries.

That knowledge was shared, often orally through stories or songs. Once dismissed as unscientific, there’s now increasing interest in incorporating Indigenous knowledge into the policies and practices of Minnesotans working with forestry and wildlife. 

Trees in a forest
A group of red pines in Camp 8 about a month after a prescribed burn.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

Michael Dockry is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. He is also involved in American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota where he teaches TEK concepts. 

Through a traditional ecological knowledge perspective, “we are connected with everything,” Dockry said. 

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“That’s something that transcends science itself,” he said. “That’s why the spirituality, that’s why cultural practices and songs come into play with how tribal people are managing resources and thinking about them. We are all related.”

TEK differs from what some call scientific or academic ecological knowledge, which often views humans as separate from nature. 

"It's really about that relationship between people and the place where they live, and the beings that are there with them,” said Rob Croll, who coordinates the climate change program at the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. 

GLIFWC represents 11 Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan with treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather on lands ceded to the federal government. Scientists recently collected information through interviews with tribal elders and harvesters to assess how vulnerable certain species are to climate change. 

Croll emphasized that collective Indigenous knowledge about natural resources isn’t ancient history.

"It's happening now, it's happening today,” he said. “It's happening as people are out in the field on the lake, practicing the same activities that their ancestors did for hundreds and thousands of years."

Over time, that knowledge has been handed down, usually orally through stories and songs.

Michael Waasegiizhig Price is GLIFWC's traditional ecological knowledge specialist. Growing up, he knew little about his Anishinaabe culture. But when visiting family members in Canada, he listened as they told stories.

A burned tree trunk
A reminder of the prescribed burn remains standing amidst the backdrop of new growth.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

"Some of these stories talked about ecological concepts, like burning off a forest to chase away the bad spirits and bring back the good spirits,” Price said. “From a scientific term, that would be called forest regeneration. You’re talking about the same thing from two very different worldviews."

When European settlers negotiated or often imposed treaties on tribes, that Western ideology, along with Manifest Destiny and the belief system that people were ordained by God to reign over nature — that everything on Earth was put here for their consumption — became implemented in policies. 

In turn, this threatened Indigenous people’s way of life. However, at least on paper, it guaranteed them the right to hunt, fish and gather in ceded territories.

Under TEK, the treaties have broader implications, said Seth Moore, a biologist for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

“If those foods are not available, if those foods are toxic, if our air is toxic, if our water is toxic, the United States federal government has not honored those treaties and there has been an abrogation of those treaty rights,” Moore said. 

Using fire as a tool

In the Cloquet Forest, just south of Duluth, underneath a canopy of towering white and red pines, nature’s melody is a chorus of Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

It’s a point where science and spirituality overlap.

In many Indigenous communities, people have long made careful use of burns to promote forest health. But the Western view saw fire as inherently bad. On the Fond du Lac Reservation of Lake Superior Chippewa, this resulted in a curbing of burns.   

In 1904, urged by lumber companies, the land comprising the forest — three percent of the reservation — was given to the University of Minnesota by the government so that it could study methods to replenish areas after deforestation.  

Dockry said nowadays, tribes are reclaiming TEK they were prohibited from using in the past, including fire.

“We’re starting again to see tribes leading natural resource management forward with fire use in the region,” Dockry said.

A charred fallen log
A burned log inside Camp 8 after a prescribed burn in the Cloquet Forest.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

In May, the first prescribed burn of at least an acre since 2000 was conducted in the Cloquet Forest. 

To make it happen, at the request of the Fond du Lac Reservation to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the BIA and the U of M agreed to a memorandum of understanding. It defined the working relationship between the three entities and paid tribal fire professionals to help conduct the burn.

“We can learn a lot from tribes,” Dockry said. “Tribes have done a lot of work around fire.” 

Dockry says fires can be a real threat in Minnesota. However, prescribed burns help by removing forest waste which can lead to larger fires. It also encourages biodiversity by not allowing any one species of plant or tree to dominate an ecosystem — making it more sustainable.  

During a recent workshop at the Cloquet Forestry Center, fire expert Damon Panek, an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of White Earth Ojibwe, spoke from the field in Arizona while assisting another tribe with their fire efforts.   

Panek helped lead the prescribed Cloquet Forest burn. He said using fires is about much more than reshaping the landscape, it is also about reclamation of something greater.  

"Our identity depends on it,” Panek said. “Our language, our culture, our ways of seeing the world is based on an ecosystem that is fire adapted and we don’t have that right now. So what does that mean for us?"

Panek said if prescribed burns continue, they will help unshroud Indigenous identity. He predicts there will be families camping out on the reservation, on the ceded territory, foraging for berries and sharing songs, stories and life practices — as he put it, rediscovering inlets to old outlets. 

‘We want to see bigger trees’

One place where traditional ecological knowledge about natural resources is being put to use is the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe reservation in north-central Minnesota.

The reservation encompasses nearly half of the Chippewa National Forest. The red and white pine stands on and around the reservation were heavily logged starting in the 1800s.

Long before those timber barons began cutting the trees for profits, BJ Gotchie's ancestors made their home here. 

Wild strawberries on the forest floor
New plants, including wild strawberries, are visible on the forest floor in a portion of the Leech Lake forest where a prescribed burn was recently conducted.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

"A lot of tribal members — myself included — we want to see bigger trees,” said Gotchie, interagency fire restoration coordinator for the Leech Lake Band. “We don't care so much about having big trees to harvest for timber revenues.”

Now, along with Keith Karnes, the band’s forestry director, Gotchie is working to restore it closer to the forest his ancestors knew — by selectively cutting and using prescribed burns to give the remaining trees more space to grow."

We want some of these big legacy trees, these great big old monoliths. They used to be here before the timber barons came through,” Karnes said. “There'll be some young forest that comes up, too. It's all about having a mix."

The forest has responded. With less underbrush, the trees are able to grow taller and form more of a canopy. 

"Look at the difference in the trees,” Karnes said. “They just look happy.”

A person stands next to a tree
Forestry director Keith Karnes inspects a pine tree in an area of the Leech Lake reservation near Cass Lake where recent thinning and prescribed burns have helped clear underbrush and given the remaining trees more room to grow.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

The forest is also getting more diverse, with other native trees and shrubs such as wild blueberries, roses and juneberries, able to thrive.

For Karnes, who's not a tribal member, embracing this old way of thinking is a transformation that's taken years.

When he first started working for the Leech Lake Band 16 years ago, he brought a traditional forestry mindset, all about the economics — how to harvest the most timber for the most revenue, an attitude that earned him the nickname the “Timber Beast.”

Karnes recalled a conversation with a tribal employee on his first day.

"I told her, ‘A happy tree is a horizontal tree,’ which is what my forest products professor told me in college,” he said. “I got this absolute evil look."

But after a decade or so, Karnes said his perspective changed, as he began listening to what tribal elders wanted.

"The idea of timber revenues to the tribal government — it doesn't matter,” he said. “Here I was, just constantly focusing on economics. And that wasn't a vantage point for the tribe."

Now, Karnes said, he uses a more holistic approach, focusing on the sustainable ecology of the forest. 

That includes thinning trees earlier and aggressively to allow the remaining ones to develop bigger crowns, letting some trees fall over to create habitat for wildlife, allowing more biodiversity and encouraging tree species that are hardy to climate change and invasive insects.

In other words, Karnes said, thinking long term — not just about maximizing profits. 

"It's grounded in not just Western science,” he said. “It's adaptive silviculture. It's climate change science. But it's also traditional ecological knowledge. Everything has a purpose."

Some federal agencies also are beginning to incorporate more Indigenous ecological knowledge into their policies and practices.

In 2016, then-Leech Lake tribal chairwoman Carri Jones sent a letter to the U.S. Forest Service, voicing the band's concerns that the overharvesting of timber had led to forests dominated by pine and aspen that lacked diversity of plants and wildlife.

In 2019, the tribe and the Forest Service signed a memorandum of understanding for shared stewardship of the Chippewa National Forest that reflects the band’s goals.

For his part, Gotchie envisions a thriving forest that produces local foods and medicines, much like it did for his ancestors.

"It's not going to be just in my lifetime. Not even in my kids’ lifetime,” he said. “My grandkids. That’s what we want for future generations.”

North Star Journey was made possible in part with funds from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.