Monday, August 3, 2009 - 2:15 PM

SYMP 3-3: How territorial systems contributed to socio-ecological resilience of Pacific Northwest Indigenous communities

Ronald L. Trosper, University of British Columbia


Because the peoples of the Northwest Coast had a social-ecological system that persisted for well over 2,000 years, I wondered what characteristics of the territorial system of the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast contributed to the resilience of those systems.  The method of analysis consisted of using published literature about the societies to determine what characteristics they shared, followed by analysis of those systems using economic and political models generally available.  Because fisheries were the primary source of livelihoods, common pool models were most relevant for economic analysis, as was the literature on sustainability and resilience.


Resilience resulted from the interaction of six characteristics.  First, a system of ethics defined proper resource use; the ethical beliefs defined abuse of land in terms of reduction of its productivity for future generations.  Second, a system of territoriality assigned rights of access and use of valuable lands and fishing sites to recognized leaders, meaning that individuals or groups could exclude others from using the valuable sites, both on land and in the sea.  Third, systems of reciprocity defined economic exchange relationships among people, both individually and in groups.  Reciprocity provided incentives that supported proper use of lands both by providing insurance against misfortune and by reducing the incentive to harvest too much. Fourth, enforcement of reciprocity rules were totally public.  Fifth, proprietorship over territory was contingent on demonstrated knowledge of the past and proper management of the land and sea.  Sixth and finally, rules about the behavior of chiefs and joint decision-making provided a system of governance that could maintain the other five elements and allow modifications as needed. The six characteristics, by supporting each other, can persist through both stabilizing dynamic and complex systems and by accommodating change.  Consistency among the characteristics and the resulting ecosystem emergent structures is the basic explanation for persistence.  Ethics support sustainable use, people in power can be removed if such use does not occur, territoriality provides control, and reciprocity provides a system of insurance as well as an incentive system that supports moderate use of common-pool resources, helping people in power act correctly.  The system of checks and balances prevented the emergence of a small ruling class and the resulting excessive complexity that caused other social-ecological systems to crash.  The full analysis is provided in the book Resilience, Reciprocity and Ecological Economics:  Northwest Coast Sustainability (Routledge, 2009).