Successful policy as a source of authority in traditional ecological knowledge
Among many indigenous peoples of North America, leaders variously known as titleholders, head trappers, chiefs, or (more simply) elders, hold authority both in knowledge and in caring for the land. Their authority rests on continually demonstrating their knowledge of the land as well as upon their ability to share and maintain the land’s productivity. Many of these leaders have provided books which explain how knowledge and knowledge holders are evaluated. Not every old person is an elder; the position is earned. What is similar and what is different in these knowledge systems compared to ones which use validation with statistical tests of well-defined hypotheses? Can ecology learn from the traditional methods of granting authority to traditional knowledge holders?
Because knowledge holders and policy makers are the same people, successful policy is itself a test of knowledge. Because of this, community values also became part of the test, because leaders are expected to comply with community expectations. In some communities, knowledge is reviewed primarily by those already respected for their knowledge. In other communities, all adults offer their views on the quality of leadership and knowledge. Because successful leaders have to satisfy both other leaders and much of the community, knowledge is judged on its ability to deliver according to community standards. A primary standard of evaluation regarding knowledge in leaders is the attainment of satisfactory wellbeing of both the land and the people. A leader who supervises destruction of the system’s productive capacity loses his or her authority. A leader who fails to provide access to good harvests also loses authority. These standards mean that leaders have to cope with events not under their control which can affect the desired outcomes. While an experimenter can control the conditions of an experiment, a traditional leader must succeed without full control, creating a need to focus on adaptive actions as well as an ability to predict how the external factors might change. A lesson for ecologists is that being responsible for outcomes may focus a project differently than usual. Another lesson is that evaluating outcomes with values that might seem to compromise objectivity may be necessary for social acceptance. A third is that knowledge has to help improve well being to be valuable. A high F-value or chi-square is a small part of what is required.