“Indian Time”: Characterizing Tribal Understandings of Time and Seasonality in the Context of Climate Change

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A new paper characterizes tribal understandings of time and seasonality in the context of climate change in the Northwest and Great Basin regions.

Siletz River in foreground, with trees, mountains, and cloudy skies in background.

Siletz River, OR

Western climate science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) represent complementary and overlapping views of the causes and consequences of change. In particular, observations of changes in the natural world, such as in the abundance and distribution of plants and wildlife, can provide valuable information that otherwise might not be readily available through western science observations. TEK can serve as data that are useful for scientific research, for describing the impacts of climate change, or for adaptation insights that could potentially support community-level planning efforts.

In a new paper published in the journal Ecological Processes, Northwest CASC-funded researchers explore how Western climate science and TEK relate to time and seasonality in the context of climate change, to identify how these forms of knowledge are complementary and how they differ.

Researchers interviewed tribal elders and cultural experts from five tribes in the Pacific Northwest and Great Basin regions: the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Paiute Shivwits Band, the Duckwater Shoshone, and the Quinault Indian Nation. They asked questions about cultural impacts of climate change, as well as responses and adaptation measures, then compared those findings with Western climate science findings. The focus of the interviews was on identifying how changes in the abundance and distribution of plants, animals, and other environmental factors have resulted in modifications or adaptations of tribal cultural traditions or other aspects of culture.

The results of this research demonstrate that assumptions about the nature, perception, and utilization of time and timing can differ across knowledge systems in regard to climate change. For example, tribal understandings of time are defined by cues and patterns observed in nature, differentiating it from the westernized linear time system. Cues such as the first appearance of snow on a certain mountain, or the emergence of particular berries or species of ant, are used to indicate when certain traditional human behaviors should begin, such as hunting, fishing, and gathering.

These results demonstrate that scientists seeking to work with Native peoples should pay close attention to the relational and seasonal frameworks with which TEK and Indigenous scientists interpret the natural world. This awareness can help contribute to a better understanding of the Northwest tribal culture and its vulnerability and capacity to adapt to a changing climate.

This paper is a product of the Northwest CASC project Assessing the Cultural Effects of Climate Change on Northwest Tribes.