INVISIBLE SPACE PLACEHOLDER
Arctic Social Science Program

B E L U G A    W H A L E    T E K

Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Beluga Whales
An Indigenous Knowledge Pilot Project in the Chukchi and Northern Bering Seas

Henry P. Huntington, Ph.D., and Nikolai I. Mymrin
Inuit Circumpolar Conference

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (or TEK) is a system of understanding one's environment. It is built over generations, as people depend on the land and sea for their food, materials, and culture. TEK is based on observations and experience, evaluated in light of what one has learned from one's elders. People have relied on this detailed knowledge for their survival--they have literally staked their lives on its accuracy and repeatability. TEK is an important source of information and understanding for anyone who is interested in the natural world and the place of people in the environment. Many scientists recognize the value of working with people who live in an area and who have great insight into the natural processes at work in that area. While the scientific perspective is often different from the traditional perspective, both have a great deal to offer one another. Working together is the best way of helping us achieve a better common understanding of nature.

One practical problem of using TEK is that access is often difficult. It is rarely written down, and few natural scientists are trained in the techniques of interviewing people and working in a cross-cultural setting. To overcome this obstacle, our project has demonstrated a method for interviewing people to record what they know about the environment. For a pilot project, we studied beluga whales in three indigenous communities in Alaska and four indigenous communities in Chukotka, Russia. Our method is the "semi-directive interview." We interview people either individually or in groups, and ask questions that start a discussion or conversation. Then, as the participants talk about what they have seen and learned, we cover new topics as they arise. This allows the participants to make connections that the scientist may not have anticipated in a questionnaire, and leads to some interesting observations and new ideas. When the discussion slows down or gets off the subject, the researcher can ask further questions to help guide things. This must be done carefully, since new ideas may come up indirectly, and the researcher may not realize where a conversation is headed.

Our research documented many details about the timing, location, and direction of beluga movements in the areas around each community. These include the annual migrations as well as local movements when the belugas stay in an area for some time. The participants also described details of beluga behavior, including feeding and calving, and the environmental factors such as ice, fish, wind, and killer whales that affect  belugas. This information has been prepared in text and as maps. In addition to the expected information described above, the semi-directive interviews led to other connections and observations that we might not have learned about by other methods. During one group interview session, we were suddenly talking about beavers instead of belugas. I wondered if I should try to steer the discussion back at least to the ocean, when one of the participants enlightened me about the connection. Beavers dam streams where salmon and other fish spawn. Since the beaver population is increasing, this may mean loss of spawning habitat, changing the fish populations that the belugas feed on. Therefore, the beavers' activity may affect the belugas.We also discovered that many observations are similar in communities that are far apart. One community in Alaska and one in Russia both described how belugas assist a female when she is giving birth. One beluga swims on either side of the female, pushing against her to help squeeze the calf out. The two communities are separated by hundreds of miles, speak different languages, and are in different countries. Nonetheless, their knowledge of belugas is precise and consistent.

When a native hunter and a scientist discuss wildlife biology, maps can be a great starting point. Maps are familiar to both, and information they mark on a map can be easily understood in both cultures. The maps can spark a long conversation, and they are a good reference point throughout an interview, especially as migration routes, feeding areas, ice patterns, currents and other geographic information is added, compared and discussed further.

This map of Uelen, Chukotka, shows the information that was documented for the area, including bird rookeries, walrus haulouts, and fishing sites used by local residents.

Maps provide an introduction to each region and its ecology. By understanding the geographic relationships of beluga activities and the features that affect them, we can better understand the accompanying discussions of behavior, impacts and environmental interactions. The maps, like any graphic, display information efficiently and clearly, and are easily understood by hunters, scientists, and anyone who is interested in learning more about beluga whales and their environment.

TEK research is important to scientists, because it is a valuable source of environmental information. It also helps communities realize their own expertise, and apply their own knowledge and practices to help protect their way of life. The information, advice, and wisdom that has evolved over centuries of living as part of the environment are still important for what people do today. Skills like knowing where to find food, how to survive a storm or avoid danger, and how to make sure the resources will be there next year are as vital today as in the past.

Our research is intended as a pilot project, to show how TEK can be documented to help communities and scientists make greater use of it in research and decision-making. It is important to remember however, that since the information is based on experience, it is not possible to "preserve" traditional knowledge by simply documenting it. Tek is the result of merging experience and the lessons of others. It cannot be maintained without the component of experience. If we wish to preserve the expertise that is shown in TEK, we must work to preserve the way of life from which it has developed. TEK research, in this context, can serve to show why this expertise is valuable and worth preserving. We hope that others will follow our example, making greater use of this body of knowledge in the future.

PEOPLE

Photo: Henry P. Huntington

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (or TEK) is a system of understanding one's environment.

POD OF BELUGA WHALES

Pod of beluga whales viewed from a helicopter.
Photo: S. Loring

Picture

One community in Alaska and one in Russia both described how belugas assist a female when she is giving birth. One beluga swims on either side of the female, pushing against her to help squeeze the calf out.

TEK Map

Click on this TEK map to see a larger version.

The maps, like any graphic, display information efficiently and clearly, and are easily understood by hunters, scientists, and anyone who is interested in learning more about beluga whales and their environment.

Picture

Photo: Ricky Nassuk Sr.

For more information please contact:
Henry Huntington c/o, Inuit Circumpolar Conference, 401 E. Northern Lights Blvd.  Suite 203, Anchorage, AK   99503

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