Indigenous knowledges

Significance for mitigation and adaptation to climate disruption

“The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.”

Chief Joseph (Nez Perce) “An Indian’s View of Indian Affairs.” North American Review CXXXVIII 1879, 421-33.

Who are Indigenous peoples?

Indigenous peoples are descendants of the original inhabitants of an area, especially in an area that has been colonized by a now-dominant group of settlers. Indigenous peoples have distinct social and cultural ties to the land, nature, and sacred sites where they live or have been displaced from. The land and connection to nature of Indigenous peoples are inextricably linked to their identities, and culture, language, spirituality, and laws. Globally, Indigenous peoples make up 6% of the population, and speak more than 4,000 of the 7000 languages spoken around the world. Indigenous peoples own, occupy, or use a quarter of the world’s lands, which contain 80% of Earth’s remaining biodiversity. Indigenous people hold vital ancestral knowledge and expertise that can mitigate, adapt and reduce the impacts of climate change.

Indigenous groups vary widely from those in the Amazon basin in South America to the Māori in New Zealand, The Sámi in Northern Scandinavia, to the First Nation tribes in Canada, to the 574 tribes in the United States. Despite this diversity, there are common themes about the importance of Indigenous knowledges in mitigating the climate crisis.

What are Indigenous knowledges?

Indigenous knowledge is a broad category of knowledge developed by Indigenous peoples – and is still developing in a living process. A subset of Indigenous knowledge, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), is

“a body of traditional environmental and cultural knowledge that is unique to a group of people and that has served to sustain those people throughout generations of living within a distinct bioregion. This is founded on a body of practical environmental knowledge learned and transferred through generations through a form of environmental and cultural education unique to them.”

Gregory Cajete, author of Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence

TEK acknowledges that as humans, we are part of nature and ecology, and values this relationality between humans, plants, and animals. TEK is often passed on orally, from one generation to the next, through storytelling, ceremonies, and spiritual practices. The complexity and breadth of TEK is not captured by Western science methodologies, which demand objectivity. TEK derives from an inherently different, but equally valuable worldview. Yet TEK and Western science can co-exist and complement one another, strengthening our understanding of the world. In Braiding Sweetgrass for young adults: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teaching of plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer and Monique Gray Smith write: “science and traditional knowledge may ask different questions and speak different languages, but they may converge when both truly listen to the plants”.

Principles of Indigenous knowledges

Over time, most Indigenous groups have acted as caretakers of the land, and have contributed little to greenhouse gas emissions. This can be largely attributed to the values inherent to Indigenous knowledge systems.

Reciprocity is about “returning the gift”; it is the principle that “we are obligated to give back equal to what we take”. Reciprocity comes in many forms. One example is the beneficial exchanges within plant systems, which are recognized in Indigenous agricultural practices. When grown together, the “Three Sisters” – corn, beans, and squash, support each other’s growth: the corn makes light available, the squash reduces weeds, and the beans, through bacterium, takes nitrogen from the air and makes it available to the corn and squash. Reciprocity contrasts the extractive-based economy embedded in Western society. Extraction and burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and gas), while contributing to modern life, has produced enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – emissions that drive global warming and harm our health and planetary systems.

Relationality is about connection; it is a concept describing that we are in relationship to nature and our surroundings and ourselves. Relationality is located in specific languages and locales of different Indigenous groups. For example, the Navajo people describe relationality as K’é or kinship. K’é is the interdependent, sacred, compassionate relationship between all living things, and the foundation of relationships within Navajo culture. Other Indigenous cultures have strong connections with nature that honor relationality.

Rematriation is an Indigenous women-led movement to restore harmony and balance within our world. Weaving in traditional knowledge of the land, rematriation focuses on returning to a spiritual way of life, respecting Mother Earth, and honoring her life-giving, sacred, and loving energy. Rematriation involves moving away from the patriarchal society we are embedded in, which perpetuates the stealing of Indigenous lands, and the extraction of resources from Mother Earth for profits.

Gift economies are communal systems of exchange based on reciprocity and gratitude. They are evident in how Indigenous people distributed bounty after a salmon run catch or a corn harvest. In potlatch ceremonies practiced by Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest, status is achieved by what is given away (food, clothing, material goods), rather than what is owned. In this way, potlatches function to redistribute wealth, avoid waste, and create equity and equality amongst the community. The ceremonies were prohibited by the Canadian federal government from 1884-1951. Relationships are the centre of gift economies, in contrast to capitalist market economies common to Western societies. However, a new western economic model by Kate Raworth called “Doughnut Economics” incorporates some concepts central to Indigenous gift giving, such as the understanding of planetary boundaries and the interconnection of systems.

A legacy of inequality

Indigenous peoples and local communities customarily hold more than 50% of the world’s lands, yet governments formally recognize their ownership rights to only 10%. Indigenous women, who increasingly play outsized roles as community leaders, forest managers, and economic providers, face disproportionate discrimination and lack of recognition of their rights.

Indigenous people are disproportionately harmed by the impacts of climate change. Much of this vulnerability is the result of, and continues to be exacerbated by, the legacy of colonialism. Invasions, land dispossession, and the creation of reservations and forced relocation of tribes onto less desirable lands have led many Indigenous communities to lose their rights, face poverty, and live in areas already experiencing some of the harshest impacts of climate change. These areas include: along the coasts with sea level rise, salt water intrusion and coastal erosion; areas above the Arctic Circle with permafrost melting; or in areas disproportionately affected by wildfire and bushfire.

Colonialist practices, like assimilation, have equally damaged the transmission of Indigenous knowledges. For example, in the United States and Canada, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families to attend government-supported residential schools. Many children were victim to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at these schools, as well as poor nutrition and sanitation, leading to illness and death. In the United States, it is estimated that over 500 children died at residential schools; in Canada, over 6,000 – but the true numbers are not known, and could be higher. This led to the disruption of Indigenous culture, family structure, and language and ceremonies, and intergenerational trauma, with lasting impacts on mental and physical health – impacts that make Indigenous populations more vulnerable to climate impacts, and less able to adapt. Climate change is further threatening opportunities for the transmission of Indigenous land skills to young people, such as hunting and harvesting.

Indigenous knowledges in the climate crisis

Indigenous knowledges have long been dismissed by Western scientists and authorities as anecdotal, but it is now largely recognized as legitimate, accurate, and useful, and that Indigenous knowledges should be central in responses to climate change. However, Indigenous knowledge remains undervalued, and power imbalances in decision-making continue.

Some examples of traditional ecological knowledge include:

  • Agricultural practices: Over hundreds of years, Indigenous people of Peru developed over 300 different native potato varieties suited for different micro-climates based on weather, altitude, soil conditions, and need as a staple food. These varieties are extremely valuable for climate variability: some potatoes are resistant to blights or pests, or tolerant to floods, droughts, heatwaves, or extreme variability in temperature – all of which the climate crisis is increasing.  The same is true for the multiple types of corn grown from Mexico to Canada, where corn seed was cultivated for a wide range of micro-climates. The spiritual and ceremonial aspects of corn (e.g., it’s use in Navajo prayer and ceremony, or the Corn Maiden in Zuni culture) were important to its success.
  • Harvesting practices: Sweetgrass grows in different parts of Turtle Island (a name for North America used by some Indigenous people) and is used in basket-making and as a ceremonial medicinal plant. Traditional knowledge about harvesting sweetgrass is to never take more than half, and that it will thrive only if treated with care and reverence. In an experiment to test the effect of different harvesting methods on sweetgrass population growth, lead researcher Laurie Aileen Reid found that picking sweetgrass at a 50% harvest level increased stem density, an indicator of plant growth. These results show what Indigenous basket-makers knew all along: that if you use a plant respectfully, it will flourish with our nurturing.
  • Forestry stewardship: Indigenous communities around the world, from the Yanomami of the Amazon to the Nuu-chah-nulth in Ahousaht, British Columbia, Canada, have championed the protection of forests. Forests remove and store carbon dioxide as they grow, a process known as carbon sequestration, and old growth forests sequester even more carbon than younger forests. Since cutting down trees releases that stored carbon back into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming, it is vital to protect them. Protecting old growth forests also preserves the exceptional species biodiversity living within them. Western research now shows that when Indigenous communities have rights to manage their land, their land holds more carbon, their forests are denser, more biodiverse, and there are reduced rates of deforestation, than when their land is managed by others. Indigenous knowledge is also invaluable in forest regeneration after logging, such as knowing which species of trees to plant, though it has been disregarded in the past.

How can Indigenous knowledges help heal the climate crisis?

Indigenous knowledge systems and practices have much to offer in tackling the climate crisis:

  • Learning from Indigenous Knowledge: Reductions in carbon emissions are urgently needed. The Indigenous concepts of reciprocity and relationality – taking only what you need and giving back – are simple yet powerful Indigenous wisdoms that can teach environmental stewardship and help create more equity and equality.
  • Weaving Indigenous Knowledges with Western science: The first thing is to recognize that Indigenous knowledge systems are equally as important as Western science. Each have benefits to understanding complex systems. Traditional ecological knowledge observes systems over time and attends to changing relationships between the land and other beings. This makes it dynamic and responsive to the natural world, which is important for adapting to climate change. There are increasing calls for the scientific community and decision-making bodies to center Indigenous knowledge and address the power imbalances in the knowledge systems. 
  • Ecological restoration and climate adaptation: Indigenous knowledge can inform many agricultural, harvesting, and soil fertility practices, and forestry management, including managing wildfires (see “cultural burning”). Some governments are finally recognizing Indigenous land practices by legislating the protection of forests and incorporating Indigenous knowledges into their policies and practices. One example moving in the direction of restoration and adaptation is Land Back, an Indigenous-led movement to reclaim sovereignty and stewardship of their traditional land (for instance, the return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo community).

What else might we need to recognize about Indigenous knowledges?

Tribes have great resiliency through their connection to nature and cultural practices. Yet their ability to adapt to the climate crisis is impacted by structural burdens, such as poverty, poor healthcare, and lack of resources to rebuild following climate disasters. Indigenous-led programs and Western services (such as the Indian Health Service in the United States) would benefit from further support and resources.

Indigenous knowledge needs to be applied and supported in a place-based manner.  Although they face common challenges, the ways of coping with climate change are going to be very different between the Sámi in Scandinavia, the Sioux in Montana, or the Maori in New Zealand. 

In summary, we need the best of Indigenous knowledges and the best of Western science if we are going to adapt to this crisis. Everyone will need to be at the table, learning from each other and deciding the best strategies forward. Indigenous wisdom, “Use Less, Give Back, and Love More” can guide us in the necessary reframing of our relationship to the Earth.

Further reading


Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, published in 2013 by Milkweed Editions.

Braiding Sweetgrass For Young Adults: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, And The Teachings Of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (author), Monique Gray Smith (author), and Nicole Neidhardt (illustrator), published in 2022 by Lerner Publishing Group.

Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science by Jessica Hernandez, published in 2022 by North Atlantic Books.

Generation Dread, Finding Purpose in an Age of Eco-Anxiety by Britt Wray, published in 2022 by Knopf Canada. 

Groundswell: Indigenous Knowledge and a Call to Action for Climate Change, edited by Joseph Neidhardt and Nicole Neidhardt, published in 2019 by Strong Nations Publishing.

Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, by Gregory Cajete, published in 2000 by Clear Light Publishing.

Articles and Online Sources

Bushfires disproportionately impact Indigenous Australians, published by the Australian National University Newsroom on April 13, 2022.

By the Numbers: Indigenous and Community Land Rights, published in World Resources Institute, by Peter Veit and Katie Reytar, on March 20, 2017.

Can Indigenous knowledge and Western science work together? New center bets yes, published in Science on October 25, 2023, by Jeffry Mervis

Gender and Indigenous Peoples: Overview, prepared by the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in collaboration with the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women and the Division for the Advancement of Women in February 2010.

Indigenous People, published by the World Bank, last updated on April 6, 2023.

Indigenous Peoples’ Forest Tenure, published by Project Drawdown, by Research Fellows: Abby Rubinson, Adrien Salazar; Senior Fellows: Mamta Mehra, Eric Toensmeier; Senior Director: Chad Frischmann.

Recovering Ancient Knowledge for the Good of the Earth, published in Psychiatric Times on April 29, 2021, by Mary Roessel.

Residential Schools in Canada, published in the Canadian Encyclopedia on January 6, 2023, by J.R. Miller, Tabitha De Bruin, David Gallant, and Michelle Filice.

Returning the gift, published in Humans and Nature Press on October 1, 2013, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

The Potato Guardians, published in Earth Island Journal in Summer 2019, by Camille Von Kaenel.

The Return of Blue Lake, published in the University of New Mexico-Taos Library, by Tetsuro Namba and Chenoa Velarde.

The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance, published in Emergence Magazine on October 26, 2022, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

U.S. Department of the Interior Releases Historic Report on Federal Indian Boarding Schools, published by the National Congress of American Indians on May 11, 2022.

What is Land Back?, published by the David Suzuki Foundation.

Wildfires are disproportionately harming Indigenous communities, published in CTV News on July 14, 2023, by Sissi De Flaviis.

With wildfires on the rise, indigenous fire management is poised to make a comeback, published in Grist on January 30, 2020, by Yvette Cabrera.


Envision: the Big Picture, a multi-media site focusing on Indigenous knowledge and climate change, including a documentary, articles  and interviews on various topics.

The Groundswell Climate Collective, a group of people focused on dismantling the climate crisis through resilience and creativity with artistic expression by youth, with a focus on Indigenous youth.

Scientific Press

Gen Dread, a newsletter with tools on how to cope with climate reality and cultivating resilience.

Selected Research/Scientific Papers

Carmona, R., Reed, G., Thorsell, S. et al. Analysing engagement with Indigenous Peoples in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report. npj Clim. Action 2, 29 (2023).

Kimmerer, R. W. (2002). Weaving traditional ecological knowledge into biological education: A call to action. BioScience52(5), 432–438.[0432:WTEKIB]2.0.CO;2

Kirkland, E. (2012). Indigenous knowledge and climate change adaptation in the Peruvian Andes. Latin American Platform on Climate (LAPC).

Littletree, S., and, M. B.-L., & Duarte, M. (2020). Centering Relationality: A conceptual model to advance indigenous knowledge organization practices. Knowledge Organization, 47(5), 410–426.

National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health (NCCIH). (2022). Climate Change and Indigenous People’s health in Canada. (Reprinted with permission from P. Berry & R. Schnitter [eds.], Health of Canadians in a changing climate: Advancing our knowledge for action [Chapter 2]. Government of Canada).

Reid, L. A. (2005). The effects of traditional harvesting practices on restored sweetgrass populations (thesis). State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1430686.

Sogbanmu, T. O., Gordon, H. S. J., El Youssfi, L., Obare, F. D., Duncan, S., Hicks, M., Bello, K. I., Ridzuan, F., & Aremu, A. O. (2023). Indigenous youth must be at the forefront of climate diplomacy. Nature620(7973), 273–276.

Stevens, C., R. Winterbottom, J. Springer, and K. Reytar. (2014). “Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change: How Strengthening Community Forest Rights Mitigates Climate Change.” Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

Author and version info

October 22, 2023

Authors: Mary Hasbah Roessel, M.D. and Joseph Neidhardt, M.D.

Editor: Colleen Rollins, Ph.D.