Home Culture Anchorage Science Pub What Place Should Traditional Knowledge Have in Modern Science?

What Place Should Traditional Knowledge Have in Modern Science?


I didn’t grow up in Alaska.

I know, that’s not necessarily information that people from here tend to volunteer, but there it is.

My understanding of Alaska Native culture, in its myriad expressions and histories, is lacking in a lot of areas. And while I consider myself open to new ideas and perspectives, it is jarring to have my trust in Western scientific methods thrown back in my face where I would least expect it: the Anchorage Science Pub.

Greeting the crowd in Aleut, Global Center for Indigenous Leadership and Lifeways founder Larry Mericulieff set the tone for the presentation. He explained that the phrase meant “the afternoon tastes good, ” and had the audience respond with the “Aleut equivalent of ‘right on.'”

Mericulieff told stories from his own life to explain the differences between traditional knowledge — what he called “ways of knowing” — and Western science. He explained why he drew a distinction between the two, “because it’s in the context of everyday living that we know these things. We watch, listen, and learn, and that way make it very immediate to us. Now mind you, this science: it has to be 100 percent right. Because, if you think about it, if you’re wrong with traditional knowledge and wisdom then somebody dies.”

St. Paul Island. Photo by Im Me, Creative Commons Licensing.

Growing up on St. Paul Island in the middle of the Bering Sea, he described the rich variety of sea birds he watched nest in the sea cliffs when he was a boy. When he was six years old, Mericulieff began studying the birds because he said he wanted to “experience what they experienced” and figure out how they were able to zig and zag among the thousands of other birds, yet never run into one another.

I thought, in my child mind ‘Well, birds don’t think. They don’t think; they just are a feel of awareness.’ And so I decided I was going to be a bird. It took me several months, but I could get to the point where I wouldn’t have a single thought running through my head at all for hours.

Mericulieff explained “thinking” meant you were focusing on the past or the future, not the present. But focusing on the present by not thinking allowed him to be aware of the world around him in a way he hadn’t experienced before. When he went out with the older men to hunt Steller sea lions, he saw that they shared this same awareness. Without a signal of gesture or noise, they would all be able to anticipate where a sea lion would surface in the water because of that presence in the moment.

At that point of the presentation, I stopped taking notes and tried to just listen.

“These are not things that are inaccessible to everybody else,” Mericulieff explained. “I’m not special in that way. Anybody can achieve the kind of things that we are talking about.” These “ways of knowing” were a result of how he was taught on St. Paul Island.

An adult’s responsibility was to create the space for young people to learn, but not tell them what they should learn. And I was never told that I should learn, nor given descriptions or explanations for anything that I saw. I had to figure it out for myself. And that way, the child is expected is allowed to be all he or she can be.

And therein lay the seeds of conflict with Western science. Well, really, Western culture.

My experience in public school was very different. Every science class I took focused on identifying and classifying objects and

Photo by Emory Maiden, Creative Commons Licensing.

organisms within a system. You had to find a way to separate the thing you were studying from the elements around it so that you could properly study it. Your observations needed to be recorded so you could replicate your experiment. That was how science worked.

My understanding of the scientific method is in keeping with what Mericulieff observed when he set himself to study Western science.

He said he wanted to learn what Western science had that could be used, and what it could not do when compared with Native ways of knowing. When working with a scientist tracking moose populations, Mericulieff described a scene of mutual frustration.

The scientist spoke to a group of Chiefs about his study of the declining moose population, and the Chiefs asked him questions in turn. Did he notice that the water levels had dropped?

The scientist responded: “No, hydrology is a different discipline. It’s out of my league.”

Did he notice that when the water levels go down, the forage that the moose eat disappears? He answered: “That’s not my discipline.” Did he notice that there are a lot of beaver dams in the area than there were before? “No,” he explained, “I’m not studying beaver.”

What sounds like an early version of a “who’s on first” script demonstrates common communication gaps between traditional and Western science, according to Mericulieff. But the two don’t have to be at odds.

Our knowing and observing every day of every year, plus storytelling passed down from generation to generation, gives us a pretty good idea of what things looked like before. And so we put context to the time-series data that [scientists] have for a fixed period of time in the past. And we can help in the hypothesis that scientists are working on as to why things are the way they are.

Like many, I have thought of traditional knowledge as anecdotal; adding context to a scientific study but not a replacement for the study itself.

I think I need to check my biases a bit more. I think I need to spend a little less time thinking.

The important thing about science is that it can be tested, but perhaps we should keep in mind that we have an obligation to continue to test our theories with new methods and information. Toward the end of his presentation, Mericulieff paraphrased Albert Einstein: “You can’t solve the problem with the same consciousness that created the problem.”


Watch Larry Mericulieff’s full presentation:


  1. Sorry, but I have to call B.S. on this one. This is not traditional knowledge overcoming science. This is about a single observation with a very narrow-minded “scientist.” Taking into account all the variables in the system would allow science to understand what is going on. I don’t have time to watch the presentation right now, so I’m going off what is written; that said, it seems to me that Mr. Mericullieff understands science very well.

    Anyone with even a basic working level of science would understand that a single observation does not make a robust theory.

    And quit with this “Western Science” thing. Science is science. Anything that is not science is not science.

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