Generations of Wampanoag wisdom can help us care for our land (if we are ready to listen).
One afternoon during the summer of 1984, seven-year-old Jonathan Perry and his family set out to explore the woods in Tiverton, Rhode Island, part of the traditional territory of the Wampanoag nation.
As they grew closer to the edge of a wetland, the soil beneath the deciduous trees became dark and spongy, and mosquitoes hung in the humid air. It was Jonathan’s father who made the discovery — an Indian cucumber, identifiable by its two-tiered umbrella of leaves and light-colored flowers on top. They dug one up from the soil and made a refreshing snack of it.
The moment struck Jonathan and stayed with him throughout his life. Traditional harvesting practices and subsistence living — both key elements of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) — confirmed for him that the world around him would provide for him, strengthen him, and at times, heal him. Now a tribal council member for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Jonathan has been practicing TEK his entire life, accumulating an encyclopedia of Indigenous knowledge. He feels lucky to have grown up in a family that passed down these practices. “Every time I harvest the Indian cucumber in small quantities for my family,” he says, “I celebrate that gift of knowledge and that day, that moment.”
Traditional Ecological Knowledge is an integrated system of knowledge, practices, and beliefs, developed and passed down over millennia in Indigenous cultures. It encompasses patterns of fluctuation in climate, sustainable harvesting, adaptive resource management, and the use of disturbance regimes, such as fires or grazing, to manage land. Central to TEK is a philosophical respect for the environment and a sacred, non-exploitive relationship with the land.
Increasingly, TEK is being recognized as critical to our approach to climate change. “We were given provisional instructions — how to live on Mother Earth,” explains Bettina Washington, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head.
“We lived like that for twelve to fifteen thousand years and, if we were not interrupted by European settlement, we’d still be living that way and the Earth would not be in the condition that it’s in right now,” says Linda Coombs, a tribal member and researcher for the Wampanoag Project at the Plimoth Patuxet Museums in Plymouth. “It worked, and that’s why we kept doing it. We did not make the Earth conform … We observed the Earth and what it could do, and then our culture, our thinking, was formulated around that.”
According to a 2021 report from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Indigenous peoples account for 5% of the world’s population, but manage a quarter of the Earth’s land surfaces. These lands hold 80% of the planet’s biodiversity, and 40% of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes.
Growing up in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Jonathan Perry absorbed ecological knowledge from many ancestral connections, including family members from the Vineyard, Westport, and New Bedford. His immediate family, including his older sisters, served as his first teachers.
In Dartmouth, his family found both traditional and contemporary ways to engage with and care for the landscape, including fishing, canoeing, camping, and beach cleanups. They took part in lectures and classes, such as animal observations and fish studies, at a local environmental studies center.
But Jonathan’s speciality was always in harvesting and subsistence living. “I learned at a very early stage in my life that you appreciate the very first things that you find, but you don’t touch them,” Jonathan says. “You go farther out, because you always want things to come closer to your community and closer to your home. You always want the plants to be abundant and to spread.” He learned about edible and medicinal plants. There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of uses for a single plant depending on how and when it is gathered and processed, Jonathan says. Strawberries, or wutâhumunash, for instance, are called the “heart berry” because they look and bleed like a heart and work as a blood thinner. The leaves can be used for tea or cut for ceremonial tobacco. The berries themselves can be medicine — a detoxifier high in antioxidants.
Jonathan learned to assess soil quality by observing plant growth, considering the taste, distribution, size, and health of the plants to understand the density or acidity of the soil. He planted nut-bearing trees, anticipating that each year he could fill an entire bag with the harvest it produced.
He learned the traditional method of hunting sturgeon, venturing out in dugout canoes under the light of the full moon, luring the sturgeon to the surface of the water with torches, and harpooning their vulnerable lower stomachs. Because of the collapse of the sturgeon population, however, Jonathan has seen very few in his lifetime.
He learned how the moon corresponded with key harvest times. He followed lunar phases for planting, timing of crops, the arrival of certain fish, and migration patterns.
“For my ancestors, learning is a lifelong journey that stops only when your heart stops,” Jonathan says. “There is no knowing it all, and there is no getting to a point where you’re done. It just goes until you can’t do it anymore, and then the mantle is taken up by the people who hopefully you’ve taught your whole life, who are able to take it a little further.”
Jonathan’s son Tristan, named after family ancestors, is five years old. Like his father, he is growing up with a family dedicated to passing down elements of TEK. He already wanders through the woods, identifying species of plants and gathering wild edibles. He digs for quahogs at low-tide. He taps maple trees, helping boil the sap down to syrup and sometimes even to granular sugar for baking and coffee.
“He thinks it’s totally normal,” Jonathan says. “It makes you acknowledge the abundances and makes you sensitive to drought and environmental concerns. It teaches you to have respect for the land around you and take care of it as opposed to thinking of it as something that’s convenient and can be exploited in whatever way you see fit.”
Bettina Washington: Watching traditions fade
When Bettina Washington was born on the Island in 1959, most Aquinnah Wampanoag had a daily routine that was what we’d now call subsistence living. She remembers an abundance of family gardens — her grandfather, great aunt, and uncle each tended to the earth, growing sunflowers, squashes, beans, and tomatoes. Meals came from the ground or the ocean. The Wampanoag community didn’t have a word for money, she says. The wealth was always in the food itself, and it came in its own time.
The timing of food provided opportunities for ceremony and celebration, she says, noting that it’s difficult for others to understand now the joy that the Wampanoag felt in the spring when the herring returned. After surviving the cold months eating stored smoked and dried fish, she says, they would rejoice in their newfound abundance. Her family focused on self-sufficiency, rarely venturing down-Island and learning to make do with what they had. Her older cousins told her of a time that her grandmother would pick a chicken from the backyard to prepare for dinner.
But soon enough, neighbors within the community turned to the Island grocery stores, and practices such as slaughtering chickens dwindled.
“For the majority of the population, all that unsavory business has been taken care of. We’ve met the sterilized version,” she says. “But it’s all alive. We have to say thank you, we need to acknowledge their life.”
As long as people can pay for it, she says, food is always accessible, regardless of the Earth’s season.
“When you walk into the grocery store, you see all this food — it’s like it just magically appears,” Bettina says.
“You can get strawberries anytime. But nothing tastes as sweet at those strawberries that you pick right from the ground. When you see the little white blossoms, you know that nothing tastes like that.”
Disruptions to TEK — climate change, colonization and urbanization
Generational TEK has been threatened by a multitude of factors over the past few centuries. The interrelated challenges of climate change, colonization, and separation from the land have taxed Indigenous communities’ ability to practice traditions and pass down knowledge. “The key to being able to do what my ancestors did frequently was having a healthy environment,” says Jonathan.
He says the assumption that the devastation of Indigenous communities is because of sickness and guns is over-simplistic and unrealistic. Rather, he points to environmental degradation from invasive species imported by Europeans, overfishing, over-hunting, clear-cutting and deforestation, and the replacement of commercially valuable species that sustained communities. Each of these contributed to the destabilization of Indigenous cultures, he says.
Extractive practices diminished the availability of resources that were critical for TEK. Certain types of woods or plants, for example, are necessary to frame the cordage to form the eel trap, he explains, but during European contact, these sources were overharvested or cleared for animal grazing. “Then guess what? No more eel traps,” Jonathan says. “Nothing is what it was for our ancestors.”
Europeans also introduced a completely different way of looking at the environment, Jonathan says, “a different way of valuing the diversity of plant and animal species is one of the things that ended a lot of traditional practices and a lot of opportunities to maintain our communities.”
Colonization and compulsory processes of assimilation also diminished TEK, explains Linda Coombs. “Civility,” enforced through Christianization, mandated relocation and dictated that Indigenous communities change their relationship with the land.
“We didn’t just one day lose everything,” says Linda. “That was a gradual process … We lost language, we lost culture, we lost land. One of the biggest factors in losing culture was losing our land, because it was our relationship with the entire landscape that really formed the parameters of how we acted. Our whole culture is based on that.”
Urbanization and development continues to impact the Wampanoag community, many of whom left their traditional lands because of resource scarcity, and relocated to Boston or other urban centers. “We’ve been removed in some ways from the stewardship that we once had with the land, and our responsibilities to it,” says Camille Madison, a member of the Wampanoag nation, who grew up in the Gallivan housing project in Mattapan. Separated from her land and community, she has spent her adult life reconnecting with Wampanoag culture.
Camille’s grandmother, Freda Belain, was raised in Aquinnah, where she became well acquainted with the landscape, knowing where to find the cranberry bogs and abundant food. When she was older, Freda spent the summer sea-scalloping. Yet, as the conditions of the Island changed and the scallops depleted, she and other members of the Wampanoag community could no longer rely on those methods to feed their families. Freda moved her family to Boston in the late 1960s, to a new high-rise apartment on Tremont St. where even gardening was not possible. Separated from the land, it became challenging for Freda and Jean Anne, Camille’s mother, to pass down TEK to Camille. “Without having the woodlands there, it’s hard to teach about the woodlands,” says Camille. “It’s hard for a child to even want to engage in learning about the woodlands if [she’s] not there. There’s nothing relatable … I wasn’t raised in the place where I felt like that knowledge lived,” she says.
Every few months, however, Camille would travel with her grandmother and mother to Aquinnah to attend a social event, such as annual family day or cranberry day. The land, she says, filled her with a sense of belonging, wonder, and gratitude. She recognized it as the land of her ancestors, and could breathe the air knowing it was the same air her grandmother and great-grandmother breathed. “It was a completely different experience,” she says. “The land just speaks to you in a different way when you’re there.” In Aquinnah, Camille says, the sky was lit by stars and moons. If she sat in complete silence, she could still hear the rustling of nature and the waves crashing on the cliffs. She had always wondered what it meant to truly be Wampanoag, and while on Island, she was determined to learn more about the land, the plants, and her ancestral culture.
As a high school sophomore, Camille attended the North American Indian Center of Boston. One moment was pivotal for her: An elder asked her to find a pinecone and observe its spirals. After examining the patterned edges, Camille finally saw the design.
“The elder came back to me and started talking about how everything moves in circles,” she says. “And I think that was my introduction to really understanding — maybe not ecological knowledge, but how math ties into nature and also to ourselves. That was my first thought of how nature could potentially mean something bigger or have a greater purpose than what you think it does.”
Camille recalled the times her grandmother asked her to go and observe nature, to watch the frogs or see the squirrels. Nature, often overlooked, she says, was her greatest classroom.
She began gardening, planting the three sisters — beans, corn, and squash — along with cucumber, tomatoes, and strawberries. She learned to weave baskets alongside Miss Victoria, a Mashpee weaver who was raised by a Penobscot medicine man.
When the tribe was making cedar mats for the rematriation of a grave, elders invited Camille to sit with them to witness the process. First, elder men performed a ceremony to cut down the cedar trees and harvest the wood. They then stripped the bark and boiled those strips for weaving. Finally, they taught Camille the patterns to weave those cedar strips into baskets, mats, or belts.
From the women in Mashpee, she learned to skin deer and bears, and from many other teachers along her journey, she learned to fish, gather quahogs, cook, and bake with natural plants, and how to set traps and canoe. “I’ve learned a lot from everybody who was willing to share,” Camille says. “ Our people were very intelligent and in tune with our natural resources.”
Camille began attending native language lessons in Quincy — reclaiming the language her ancestors spoke and were prosecuted for speaking. Five years later at Weetumuw Katnuhtôhtâkamuq (The Weetumuw School), she began teaching elders to reconnect with their lost roots. For Camille, it’s been sacred and eye-opening, she says, “a journey that has kept me grounded in place.”
TEK in climate science
After centuries of ignoring and underestimating the role of TEK, the western scientific community is realizing its value. Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, TEK has garnered global attention and has increasingly been sought for emerging models of ecosystem management, conservation biology, and ecological restoration. TEK was incorporated formally into Article 8(j) of the United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity, which states that the knowledge and practices of Indigenous and local communities are relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and should be respected, preserved, and applied. Accordingly, in 2007, the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability launched a “Traditional Knowledge Initiative,” which studied contemporary TEK practices for resource use, waste management, and adaptation to climate change. Advocates for the recognition and implementation of TEK include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“A lot of Native people today are wanting to share this type of knowledge because it worked,” Linda Coombs says. “And it will work.” If TEK is ignored, she says, “the Earth isn’t going to last. There’s nothing more to say about it.”
A demand to right wrongs
Given the history of colonization, many Indigenous activists worry how TEK might be appropriated and exploited by the western scientific community. As Douglas Nakashima and Marie Roué explain in Indigenous Knowledge, Peoples and Sustainable Practices, “Through this process, knowledge corresponding with the paradigm of Western science is extracted, and the rest is rejected. While this cognitive mining may be profitable for science, it threatens Indigenous knowledge systems with dismemberment and dispossession.”
This is precisely what worries Linda Coombs — that only certain elements of TEK will be incorporated to allow present modern-day Western society and culture to continue in a “green way.” Rather than reconsidering humans’ integrated role in nature, she says, they want to make current consumption patterns “sustainable.” But this, she argues, only compounds the issue.
Camille Madison fears that Indigenous voices may be wrongly swept aside. “Indigenous people remain here today because of the knowledge that we carry. Because of our ancestors, because of those people that came before us and the way that they have kept the Earth, the ways in which they were stewards of the Earth,” she says. “And I think we still remain here today because we have something to give to the world. I think we are a reminder of our understanding of how we are to be in the world and how we ought to treat the world and the Earth.” Indigenous people should be leading those conversations, Camille says, noting that “the knowledge that we have is ancient.”
Bettina Washington fears that TEK will be abused or inappropriately mimicked. She has seen western society appropriate her lifestyle, customs, ceremonies, and celebrations and, given this history of exploitation, worries the incorporation of TEK will be no different.
“If I invite you to join me,” Camille says, “that means we’ve developed some kind of relationship and that I trust you. That doesn’t happen overnight.”
Jonathan Perry notes that the history of violence against Indigenous people is difficult to ignore. “For hundreds of years, our people have been pushed off our lands and forced into living in a system that is contrary to what we have followed for thousands of years. We have to deal with the removal of land, of traditional government, and for hundreds of years have battled for our own bodily autonomy with the efforts to enslave our people and levy indentured servitude against us, all the while watching these devastated, big forests stripped, replanted with invasives that have much less nutritional value than the plants and trees that were cleared to make way for them, and to see animals that are also very nutritious, wild, and self-sustained killed and cleared out to make way for far more inferior farm-raised animals.”
In the face of this devastation, he says, Indigenous people became environmental activists, spending centuries trying to not only liberate themselves, but educate westerners on the lasting impacts of their destruction.
“Native people still care, but at the same time, we’ve been disregarded for so long,” Jonathan says. Indigenous peoples are still fighting for their land, their sovereignty, and for protections against violences that leave Native people missing or murdered at the highest rate of any people in the United States. “I think, honestly, in order to really get people’s total and true buy-in, then there needs to be an effort to ensure Native people will survive it as well. It’s not, ‘hey — before you go, how can you fix our mistakes?’. There needs to be protections, there needs to be acknowledgement, and there needs to be opportunity for Indigenous societies to retain their knowledge, for tribal knowledge keepers to be safe and be able to come together and share knowledge again, and to be compensated so that they can actually learn more, share their knowledge, and still be able to feed their families.”