Although the concept has existed in diverse Indigenous cultures for centuries, the term “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” (TEK) came into widespread use in scholarly circles during the 1980s. However, there is no universally agreed-upon definition. Indigenous knowledge is defined by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) as a “cumulative body of knowledge and beliefs, handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and their environment.” TEK is a subset of this wider body of Indigenous knowledge that interprets how the world works from a particular cultural perspective. Research on TEK reveals that Indigenous people have made many contributions in disciplines that include health, pharmacology, environment, ecology, conservation, education, land and resource development, agriculture, and even architecture, engineering and astronomy. Today, most people do not realize the benefits from all these discoveries every time they dress, dine, travel, and visit their physicians and pharmacies. In one estimate, at least 75% of plant-based prescription drugs in the Western world are derived from medicinal plants first discovered by Indigenous people. Food plants from tribal lands also feed 60% of humanity.
Common characteristics of TEK are often described as holistic, experiential, personal, and transmitted through Indigenous languages: it is holistic in the sense that the world is viewed as an interconnected whole; it is experiential insofar as it is connected to a certain lifestyle and environment; it is personal because it is rooted in experience and lays no claim to universality; and it is properly examined and interpreted through Indigenous languages and Elders. There are aspects of Indigenous knowledge that cannot be properly shared or explained using Western scientific frameworks and languages. TEK is not considered fixed and static: it evolves, and is validated through collective analysis, consensus, and community processes. TEK is transmitted in many different symbolic and coded forms which include practical teachings, oral stories, metaphor, songs, dances, art, ceremonies, and daily cultural activities that encapsulate abstract and practical principles of the natural world. Many people, regardless of their cultural background, are turning to TEK in order to understand how to maintain balance in their lives, how to relate to other humans, and how to practice respect for the earth.
Compared with Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Western scientific knowledge is often described as linear, reductionist, and causal: it relies on logical empiricism, the five physical senses, mathematics, observation, and experimentation in coming to know natural reality. Although major differences exist between the two types of knowledge, TEK, which involves rational observation of natural events, classification, and problem solving, is also a part of the process of science.