Science Moab

Passed from generation to generation, traditional ecological knowledge refers to awareness cultivated by Indigenous peoples, relying on observation and information accumulated through time, similar to Western science. Science Moab spoke with scholar and activist Dr. Daisy Purdy about traditional ecological knowledge and its relationship with Western science. Dr. Purdy has served as an Ethnic Studies, Sociology, and Native American Studies educator at Northern Arizona University since 2008, as well as being president of Inclusive Community Consulting.

Science Moab: Can you explain what is meant by traditional ecological knowledge?

Purdy: One of the defining components of traditional ecological knowledge is the recognition that it’s a long-held set of beliefs and awarenesses that are passed from one generation to the next. But ultimately, it’s just a way of understanding the world around you. Your place in that world is interconnected to it; you’re not seeing yourself as a human being hierarchically set apart from all of the living beings and everything that’s around you. We belong to the Earth and, ultimately, we’re dependent on it. Everything on the Earth has a story to tell. Traditional knowledge asks us to listen and understand that story instead of trying to explain it. When you’re talking about traditional ecological knowledge, you’re talking about grandmothers talking to grandkids and passing on that knowledge.

Science Moab: Can you explain how traditional knowledge and Western science differ in their ways of understanding the world?

Purdy: The easiest way to explain it is that Indigenous knowledge de-emphasizes separation. My understanding of Western science is that the removal of bias is a huge component, meaning scientists have to remove themselves from the subject and take an objective look at what it is that they’re studying. With traditional ecological knowledge, that would be not only dishonoring and not acknowledging the agency of what you’re looking at, but also being blinded to the fact that there’s a relationship there. One of the biggest problems that arises when we start to see traditional ecological knowledge enter the conversation on public lands management on the Colorado Plateau is that [Western science and Indigenous knowledge] don’t exist entirely apart. There are a ton of overlapping components. So often, the two are presented as “myth and legend” versus “facts and truth.” There are truths to traditional ecological knowledge and there is truth to Western science. We don’t need to dismiss one or the other but recognize that they both have their places. We don’t have to choose between them.

Science Moab: What are some of the barriers to incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into management and policy?

Purdy: Many of the conversations that take place when structuring land designations deal with questions like: What is a culturally sensitive area? In what areas does it not make sense to allow people unless they’re going for a specific purpose, like a ceremony? A component of that conversation is recognizing these spaces themselves as having cultural significance. Not just the archaeology and projectile points and pottery shards, but the place itself is acknowledged as a place of significance. How do multiple tribes talk about these places in a way that makes sense so it can have that designation? The method of sharing ties back to traditional ecological knowledge, because the stories about these places are passed from generation to generation.

One of my biggest concerns is that we privilege the Western science message over Indigenous knowledge holders. Another concern that I have is when we start talking about traditional ecological knowledge and how it might be implemented into land management decisions, is that it’s often seen as a supplement to enhance Western science. That’s problematic. I’d really like to challenge people to upset that hierarchy and recognize that Indigenous knowledge, and specifically traditional ecological knowledge, is not there as a supplement. It’s not there as something that’s an afterthought to Western science. It’s something that needs to be respected as an ongoing study and awareness of the worlds that we live in. It’s also something that needs to be respected as accessible to the people who hold that knowledge, and not something that outsiders can have exclusive access to.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more and listen to the rest of Dr. Purdy’s interview, visit

Science Moab talks to Dr. Daisy Purdy about Indigenous ecological knowledge