The following is an excerpt from an article written for Natural Resources Canada.  You will be using this article to answer some questions.  A worksheet with those questions may be found here (please only print if you are doing this at home, and do not have the sheet).  Start by getting a worksheet from your teacher, and then read the information below (please do not print the information).  A question pertaining to this information will appear on your end of unit test.

Traditional ecological knowledge of Aboriginal people


When pioneers explored western Canada in the late 1850s, the lush, apparently natural grasslands they saw were in fact the result of centuries of Aboriginal land-use management. What they probably did not know was that Aboriginal people periodically burned the prairies to increase forage for bison and other ungulates—a working example of their traditional ecological knowledge.




Today, roughly 1 million Aboriginal people live in Canada, the great majority belonging to one of some 600 First Nations (Indian bands). The Métis population represents 200 000 persons, and the Inuit in the Arctic account for 30 000. Each of these groups (with their subgroups) has its own culture, territory and system of governance.

Some 80% of Aboriginal people live in areas covered by boreal or temperate forests. From their land-use practices, they have developed a unique cultural and spiritual connection with the land and an intimate knowledge of the forest and other ecosystems. Their traditional way of life is based on the idea of using and managing a resource so that it will last in perpetuity. It stands to reason, therefore, that their ecological knowledge can contribute to sustainable forest management practices.

What is Traditional Ecological Knowledge?

The traditional ecological knowledge of Aboriginal people consists partly of local, site-specific knowledge regarding the natural environment (e.g., knowing where to find medicinal plants and berries, local fish-spawning sites and moose-calving areas). It also involves understanding the relationships between life-forms, for instance, between soil types and plants, or between trees and animals. It can include knowing the medicinal properties of local weeds, shrubs and trees; whether to use the fruit, flowers, leaves, stalks or roots of these plants; and the season or time of day to gather them. Traditional ecological knowledge can also include equally detailed information regarding animals, weather and other natural phenomena.

In short, traditional ecological knowledge is the knowledge that Aboriginal people have accumulated over generations of intimate contact with all aspects of local ecosystems, including plants, animals and natural phenomena. It includes knowledge of animal behaviour, seasons and cycles, and the interrelationships that exist among life-forms.

Using Fire—A Practice Valued in Tradition and Science

Aboriginal people used fire in the forests as well as grasslands, modifying the structure of Canada’s temperate and boreal forests. In the 17th Century, the Acadian region was dominated by deciduous (hardwood) forests. These stands of red and sugar maples, birch, ash and oak were regularly burned to create clearings for shrubs and herbs, as well as browsing areas for moose. Burning also removed conifers (softwoods) from the hardwood stands that the Aboriginal people used to make houses, canoes, baskets and tools. The people also collected medicines from these forests.

Setting controlled fires is a complex forest management technology. The fires set by Aboriginals were seasonally timed. Determining which species would be removed and which ones would regenerate depended on the intensity of the fire, as well as the temperature and humidity of the tract when it was burned.

Recently, a consensus has been evolving among professional foresters on integrating fire into forest management. Wildfires are now seen as a natural means of renewing specific types of forests (e.g., Jack pine, which needs heat to release seeds from cones), and they are sometimes allowed to burn. In other cases, fires are set to remove the large amounts of forest debris that could fuel a severe fire—also a traditional Aboriginal practice.

Observing, Experiencing and Experimenting

Traditional knowledge is acquired and passed on in subtle ways. An apprentice hunter travels the land with an experienced older hunter, learning by observation rather than instruction what cues to use in forecasting the seasonal and daily movements of wildlife to be able to intercept them reliably and with the least effort.

Many factors, such as the time of day, temperature, humidity, distribution of forage plants and movements of other species, are experienced until the pupil begins to think, subconsciously, like the prey. At the same time, stories are told that explain symbolically, perhaps in terms of kinships and alliances, the ecological relationships between the prey and other species. Eventually, the young hunter travels alone and begins to notice new connections, either because they were not observed by previous generations, or because they result from changes in the ecosystem.

In such ways, individuals gain knowledge through observation, direct experience and experimentation. This information is passed from one person to another, one generation to another, and one group to another. The tradition of Aboriginal ecological knowledge is not static—rather it is evolving. Typically, elders are the repository of this knowledge.

Cultural Laws

The unwritten cultural laws by which Aboriginal people live add another dimension to their traditional ecological knowledge. These laws are based on a set of principles that help community members understand their place in the natural order of the world. Humans, other animals and plants are all seen to be connected. That being so, hunters and gatherers must show respect for the plants and animals they harvest.


Canadian Attitude Shift

In Canada, attitudes toward forests and Aboriginal involvement in forest management are shifting. More and more, forests have come to be regarded as integrated ecosystems with a wide range of values. Canada’s 1992 National Forest Strategy and the Canada Forest Accord enshrined our commitment to sustainable development and recognized the unique perspective of Aboriginal people toward forests.

More recently, the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers (CCFM) released a national framework of criteria and indicators for measuring forest sustainability. The need to recognize Aboriginal and treaty rights and to consider Aboriginal land use in forest management planning is included in this framework.

Growing Recognition in Academic and Research Communities

Traditional ecological knowledge has made the greatest headway in the area of human health. For example, elders with expertise in medicinal plants and other healing methods are increasingly accepted as professionals in hospitals and clinics. Many weeds, shrubs and trees are used for a variety of ailments, from earaches to respiratory problems.


The Aboriginal view of the forest is similar to current concepts of stewardship—caring for the forest—and the forester’s creed. Aboriginal people aim to protect forests in perpetuity.

Since time immemorial, Canada’s forests have met the cultural, spiritual and material needs of Aboriginal people—the first stewards of those forests. The Aboriginal land ethic is deeply rooted in their beliefs, which hold that the land and forests should be viewed as a whole. This ethic embodies the concept that the land and its resources must be protected out of respect for past, present and future generations. The knowledge Aboriginal people have gained through their enduring relationship with the land can bring a special perspective to sustainable forest management.