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In January 2023, at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society, the astronomy community was introduced to the eleven-member Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority (MKSOA). Signed into existence by the governor of Hawai‘i, the panel is tasked with managing oversight of Mauna Kea, the mountain considered the ancestor and elder sibling of Native Hawaiian communities—and host to a dozen astronomical observatories in the so-called modern scientific tradition.

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Mauna Kea (or Maunakea, short for “Mauna a Wākea” in the Native Hawaiian tradition) has been the center of attention for the past decade or so, as a global consortium of astronomers in the European scientific tradition strive to break ground on the Thirty Meter Telescope, which would be the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere. The ground-based telescope would also be one of the most sensitive ever built, possibly offering observations in the infrared that are four times sharper than those of the James Webb Space Telescope that caused such a stir in summer 2022. This, all atop peaks that are the dwelling places of Hawaiian deities—including Wākea, father of the sky—and many ecologically unique flora and fauna, as described by J. O. Juvik and S. P. Juvik. The MKSOA, comprising “observatory representatives, Native Hawaiians cultural practitioners, local business and education officials, and experts in land management” optimistically hopes their establishment signals a new era of “mutual oversight” of the mauna.

The TMT panel is just one among many efforts for traditional (often Native or Indigenous) place-based knowing to reclaim authority in the modern sciences, a process that will have to repair centuries of scientific colonialism that at best disregarded traditional practices—if not actively suppressed and displaced them. But, as the formation of the MKSOA attests and many Native scientists have written, a future where the European scientific tradition and Native knowing can coexist will take more than merely acknowledging Native disagreement and protests—it will require sustained, ongoing engagement and a total realignment of epistemologies.

A 2017 paper in Environment and Society offered seven case studies at different locales (almost all in the Global South) to consider how modern science and Indigenous knowledge might be able to cooperate for a future that preserves and promotes traditional ways of knowing in the contemporary world. Various teams of practitioners, researchers, and authorities in sustainability, conservation, and anthropology examined myriad approaches to ecological “sustainability” informed by place-based—often Indigenous—ways of knowing that are as numerous as the communities that exist.

Across the case studies, multiple groups employed processes that were led by community groups, particularly in cases of land and resource management. A common disconnect between European and Native traditions originates in the commonly Eurocentric notion of private property—rather than communal land—and thereby who or which community reserves the rights to manage the land and its resources.

In Melanesian societies, for example, land is traditionally not a personal commodity but rather as a public good. “No one ‘owns’ land in Melanesia,” writes Jamie Tanguay, coordinator of the Melanesian Well-Being Initiative. “Rather, families and individuals within the family unit are custodians of the land.” Thus “a variety of highly evolved and complex traditional land tenure systems exist in the region,” so the common scientific, empirical approach of surveying and registration of land is in fact “potentially harmful to traditionally sustainable collective livelihoods.” Consequently, indicators of environmental and ecological health that the initiative developed with the community “did not focus on size or ownership but rather on accessibility and usage rights.”

Similarly, in the Peruvian Amazon, Indigenous knowledge of the land and natural resources is held communally—constitutive of local social histories, even. In the Indigenous-led sustainability model there, “participants mapped salt licks, lakes, and sites of mythical importance,” such as lakes in Ere-Campuya and Tapiche Blanco regions guarded by snake madres (mothers) that prevent overfishing. By prioritizing Amazonian social and cultural mechanisms that “regulate and protect resources linked to the extraction and subsistence economy,” the processes not only assured and increased community participation but also “protect[ed] against overexploitation of the animals and plants in the forest.”

Several case studies included preservation and transfer of community knowledge as a key indicator of sustainability and the program’s success. In Hawai‘i, this developed into the Nā Kilo ‘Āina (NKA) program, which “engages participants in kilo (a Native Hawaiian process of observation) by working through a series of seasonal indicators and numerous ecological indicators based on monitoring needs,” such as the presence and size of juvenile fish and scents of upland and coastal environments. Kilo “is the act of observing but also refers to people who are adept observers and function as repositories of traditional and ecological knowledge to support a balanced and productive system,” write Pelika Andrade, Kanoe Morishige, and Pua‘ala Pascua, Native Hawaiian scientists who helped developed NKA. NKA, and similar community-driven indicators and management approaches such as Reiimaanlok in the Marshall Islands, consequently equips communities to: “(1) continue traditional knowledge systems, (2) understand both social and ecological communities, and (3) incorporate that knowledge in local resource management.”

The case studies’ reliance and promotion of “multiple knowledge systems and mixed measurement systems” suggest a possible synthesis of the disparate and often divergent epistemologies of Indigenous knowing and modern science. The authors acknowledge, however, that the approaches are not panaceas to the coexistence of scientific and Indigenous knowledge production: sustained engagement—as processes like these require—are also associated with extensive time commitments that are not always welcomed by governing or funding entities, and Native communities in any geography are themselves heterogeneous in their ways of knowing, so any Native-led approach must ensure representation of these diverse perspectives.

Nevertheless, recovering knowledge displaced by centuries of European settlement and preserving these traditions is necessary to respond to the environmental challenges unique to each place. As the authors write, not only do processes like these “contribut[e] to the development of a common language between local and external communities,” they “can enrich understanding of human-environment interactions” and “develop strategies […] that are more consistent with local culture and values.”

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Native American and Indigenous Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2017), pp. 1–30
University of Minnesota Press
Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 4, No. 3 (August 1984), pp. 191–202
International Mountain Society
Environment and Society, Vol. 8, Measurements and Metrics (2017), pp. 63–95
Berghahn Books