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Traditional Knowledge

Nature's LawTraditional Use Studies (TUS), also known as Traditional Land Use Studies or Traditional Land Use and Occupancy Studies, are based on the traditional knowledge of a given Aboriginal community. The definition of traditional knowledge is important, particularly since Aboriginal communities, by-and-large, do not have self-created histories. Knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next through an oral, that is, a spoken tradition involving all aspects of the life of a people bounded by a geographical area. Traditional knowledge includes legal codes and governance, land use, the sacred, cultural traditions and all aspects of life, whether tangible or intangible. Elders, ceremonialists and others are the keepers of such knowledge, and that responsibility defines them and their role in the community as well as being a sacred charge.

Carving Faces, Caving Lives At the root of the differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Peoples is the importance of traditional knowledge and how it is codified. The western democracies have governments, constitutions, legal systems and a range of other systems that determine how people live together and interact. These are not only codified but also available in print form such as the Magna Carta or Great Charter, which in the early Middle Ages began to define the relationship between the English king and his barons and, by extension, the people as a whole. It is, thus, a tradition based on written texts.

Carving Faces, Caving Lives The history and traditions of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada began to be recorded by explorers and missionaries and, later, in the twentieth century, by anthropologists and historians. It is only in the 1960s that, as a result of Native activism with respect to Treaty and other rights, that Aboriginal peoples began to write about their own history, culture and traditions. Among the best known is Dr. Olive Dickason, Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta. She tackled a range of topics including stereotypes of Native Peoples, and also common ownership and use of the land so important to issues of land title. Her most important publications that provide information about Aboriginal traditional life and values include The Myth of the Savage (1984 and 1997), The Laws of Nations and the New World (1989 with L. C. Green) and Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times (4th edition with David T. McNab, 2009). Her work and that of other academics, historians and a new generation of Aboriginal novelists, journalists and playwrights challenged western notions of Aboriginals and began to suggest the complexity of traditional knowledge and ways of life as well as Aboriginal religion.

The process is ongoing. An important tool was added to the arsenal of primary and secondary research into print resources when oral histories began to be conducted as a part of cultural memory and living tradition research undertaken by universities and museums as well as historical societies. The development of this important tool arose out of the fact that "official" history largely dealt with political, economic and other events that were recorded through a range of print media and that a tool was required to study the lives of ordinary people so that their stories could be told. Oral history has been particularly important in the writing of histories about marginalized individuals and communities including Aboriginal, gender, class and ethnic histories.

With respect to Aboriginal Peoples, oral histories have become increasingly important in Treaty and land claims litigation but, perhaps even more significantly as vehicles for documenting the richness of Aboriginal life and traditions to pass on to the next generations. Colonialism and settlement as well as the residential school systems resulted in loss of religion, culture and traditional ways of life resulting in what some Aboriginal Peoples have described as cultural genocide. Oral history projects are viewed as vehicles for not only documenting and capturing traditional knowledge but also as a means of empowering a new generation of Aboriginal People educated outside of the residential school system.

A central part of the traditional knowledge of Aboriginal Peoples is viewed by them as "Nature's Laws." As has been noted by Dr. Earle Waugh, Cree scholar and expert in religious studies, in the Nature's Laws Website (www.albertasource.ca - the Alberta Online Encyclopedia): "The spiritual dimension of existence is always operative in First Nations' culture. Spiritual concepts were expressed in terms of 'truths' or 'laws' and people were expected to act according to these laws in every aspect of their daily life. In other words, the laws were meant to be 'lived,' rather than 'obeyed.' Such 'living-out' of Nature's Law promoted a balanced, healthy and well-rounded community."

In the Nature's Laws website, Dr. Waugh and Ceremonialist Chief Wayne Roan have categorized such laws, which are inter-related and aspects of a holistic view of life as pertaining to:

  • Spiritual Life-In Nature's Laws, culture is shaped by ideas about "the sacred." This lens explores the notion of sacredness leading us to the interconnectedness of all things. Through it, the notion of what is "religious," in Western thought, is expanded to include all cosmic reality.
  • Traditions-Each of the world's peoples have their own special ways of behaving over long periods of time. Some of these ways are unnoticed; others are seen or designated as "tradition." Some traditions appear repeatedly in ordinary daily life; others appear in special ceremonies or "Ritual Law."
  • Culture-Culture is the all-embracing system in which individuals live. Often, it is invisible to the people who live within it, but is easily seen by people of different cultures. In Nature's Laws, Culture includes such areas as Relational
    Law, Personal Law, Language and Linguistics, Local/Oral Law and Constitutional Law.
  • Governance-"Governance" is the way in which authority and power are expressed and experienced. In indigenous culture, "Governance" differs significantly from western notions of power and authority vested in government. This section presents Governmental Law, Legislation and Self-Governance.

Dr. Waugh and Chief Roan go on to describe 10 Nature's Laws that include:

  • All of the elements that we would associate with genealogical relationships
  • Ancestral spirits
  • The workings of the cosmos
  • The moral laws expressed in right living
  • The succession of growing things in nature
  • The range of senses and sensory perception
  • The relationships between human beings and plants and animals and, finally,
  • The interconnectedness across time, generations, natural processes and culture.

See http://www.albertasource.ca/natureslaws/context/categories3.html for an overview of the 10 laws, which are based on research, both documentary and oral history, with Alberta Aboriginal Peoples largely comprising Treaties 6, 7 and 8.
The era of Traditional Use Studies has benefited from developments in oral history research methodologies that have taken place over the past 50 years. As a result of such material being used as oral evidence in litigation, Aboriginal Peoples have had to address the issue of who can speak for them and who is a valid "Elder." This varies with different Aboriginal groups and, in some instances, in litigation, the Crown has rejected evidence and questioned the validity of Elders although the communities they represent have validated them and their stories.

Resource Publications:

Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Getting Started in Oral Traditions Research, text: Elisa Hart and Illustrations: Wally Wolfe, Occasional Papers of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, No. 4, 1995.

Resource Websites:

Alberta: How The West Was Young

Alberta: How The West Was Young

Join us as we discover the early history of Alberta going back 11,000 years. The site explores Aboriginal history from the Pre-Contact Era through to the Fur Trade and the Métis-the people who bridged the Old and New Worlds.


Making of Treaty 8

Making of Treaty 8 in Canada's Northwest

This virtual exhibit explores the making of Treaty 8 through text, historic photographs, audio, video and contextual information, as well as exploring the culture and lifeways of First Nations people.


Treaty 7

Treaty 7

This website explores the making of Treaty 7 through text, historic photographs, audio, video and contextual information, as well as exploring the culture and lifeways of First Nations people.


Treaty 6

Treaty 6

This website explores the making of Treaty 6 through text, historic photographs, audio, video and contextual information, as well as exploring the culture and lifeways of First Nations people.


Nature's Laws

Nature's Laws

Experience the culture and traditions of the First Nation People with Nature's Laws - a website describing aboriginal views on the governance of life.


Elder's Voices

Elders' Voices

They are the ones who remember. They are the keepers of knowledge, and the living memories of ancient cultures. They are the Elders of Alberta's Aboriginal communities. Read and hear the stories of the Elders in Elders' Voices, a multimedia testament to the resilience of those who have struggled to keep the old world from being completely swept away by the new.


People of the Boreal Forest

People of the Boreal Forest

The People of the Boreal Forest website retraces the footsteps of Terry Garvin who, between 1954 and 2000, recorded in text and photographs the lives of traditional Aboriginal hunters and trappers living in Canada's northwest boreal forest. Garvin's material, which has since been published in two books: Bush Land People and Carving Faces, Carving Lives: People of the Boreal Forest, serves as the foundation of this website, and tells the story of ancient peoples in a changing north.


People of the Boreal Forest Edukit

People of the Boreal Forest Edukit

The People of the Boreal Forest Edukit developed by the Heritage Community Foundation. This Edukit is intended to provide a range of information and activities that highlight and promote an understanding of the People who live and work in the Boreal Forest region of Alberta.

In the Teacher Zone, you will find Boreal Forest-specific lesson plans dealing with the Forest, its People, and its Traditions.

The Student Zone contains photographs, audio and video samples, textual information, and various activities dealing with the topics above.


Traditional Use Studies (TUS) are also known as Traditional Land Use Studies or Traditional Land Use and Occupancy Studies. Whatever the name, they are all used for similar purposes, whether the study is initiated by a First Nations community or by the natural resources sector. The main purpose of a Traditional Use Study is to gather and record Traditional Knowledge and patterns of traditional use by Aboriginal communities through various means including oral histories with Elders and custodians of knowledge; mapping of traditional uses such as hunting sites and activity areas; and historical research. Depending on the reason for the TUS, studies may include a community's entire land area or may focus on a specific area of concern (usually when initiated by resource developers).

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