In The Brightwater Environmental and Science Project: Respecting Traditional Ecological Knowledge—The Soul of a Tribal People, Bev Kynoch covers considerable territory, defining the core principles of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), its inseparable relationship to traditional Aboriginal worldviews, and the benefits and pitfalls of introducing such concepts into the public education system. While TEK has much to offer Canadian society, incorporating it into education, economic, and political systems is problematic because of fundamental differences with Western thinking. TEK is learned behaviour and holistic, an intimate relationship that weaves individual experiences with that of the larger world. Unlike Western science, based on notions of eternal and objective laws, TEK emphasizes the interconnectedness of teachings, personal experience, and abilities. Each person’s relationship with the world is unique. The physical world, therefore, cannot be reduced to objective and eternal laws.
Western science is based on a belief that the natural world can be deciphered and rationalized because it is eternal and external. The Aboriginal perspective, however, is one of fluctuation, as diverse as the experiences and needs of the people who populate the world. The Western tradition understands science as being subdivided into units, such as chemistry, physics, or biology. In the Aboriginal worldview, such divisions do not exist. All existence is part of a single ecosystem that cannot be subdivided because all life is mutually dependent. The notion of regarding particular aspects of nature as being anything but intricately interrelated is antithetical to a traditional Aboriginal worldview.
Despite profound differences, some seek to incorporate TEK into the curricula. Kynoch warns that such a process must be approached with caution. Among the chief problems is that Western science is consistently taught as the norm, the “correct” model, and that TEK might simply be added to the mix, manipulated and distorted to advance arguments within the Western model. To even begin to approach TEK, biases of Western knowledge as natural or superior must be shed. Additionally, TEK cannot be broken down into smaller units, accepting some elements while disregarding the rest. TEK is a whole model, a part of the traditional Aboriginal worldview that cannot be subdivided. This leads to a further problem of translation. Because TEK is intertwined with a traditional worldview, one cannot properly teach it without being fully knowledgeable in traditional ways. It is therefore highly problematic for a non-traditional person to teach TEK because the qualifications necessarily mean more than just understanding its principles.
The stakes, as Kynoch argues, are immeasurably high. The validity and continued existence of Aboriginal worldviews are too important not to be passed on to succeeding generations, to ensure the culture’s survival. However, teaching TEK in a manner inconsistent with the larger Aboriginal perspective erodes and destroys its essence. “The challenge,” Kynoch writes, “is to change the dominant culture’s perspective and allow Aboriginal knowledge to be understood as a living, dynamic concept” (p. 11).