English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World Living Arctic) No. 4, 2000

Traditional nature use and traditional knowledge:
The rights and responsibilities

A report to the International Youth Seminar "Indigenous Peoples and the Environment of the Russian Arctic”

Olga Murashko

A separate Article of ILO Convention 169 deals with the rights of indigenous peoples to traditional lands. The Constitution of the Russian Federation protects the indigenous living environment and traditional ways of life of ethnic communities. The Draft Law on Territories of Traditional Nature Use, now under elaboration, is oriented at realization of this right in Russia.

Several years have passed since some administrative units of the Federation passed their own laws on traditional nature use. However, these laws have practically not been implemented. This is not only due to shortcomings in the laws themselves, unwillingness of authorities, or lack of funds.

In many cases the indigenous peoples themselves have shown to be unprepared to put the laws into practice. One of the reasons is the fact that there are practically no specialists (lawyers, economists, ecologists, hunting experts, rangers, production managers, etc.) among the indigenous peoples required to rationally use and administer territories of traditional nature use. Another reason is the lack of a general understanding of what really is traditional nature use in the minds of the majority of young leaders and, consequently, unawareness of how to realize its revival.

Three questions should be answered: What is traditional nature use by legal and scientific definition? What is the link between traditional nature use and participation of indigenous peoples in the protection of the nature? What can the indigenous youth do to preserve and develop traditional nature use and keep traditional knowledge?

The only definition of traditional nature use given in the implied Federal legislation is in the law ‘On the Fundamentals of State Control of Socio-Economic Development of the North of the Russian Federation’ (1996)[1]: “‘Traditional nature use’ is assigned to historically formed methods of mastering the environment on the basis of long-term ecologically balanced use of basically renewable natural resources without undermining the ability of steady reproduction or reducing the diversity of natural resources.”[2]

The strong point of this definition is the fact that it incorporates an element of historical dynamics indicating that traditional nature use is a process of historical transformation of methods of mastering the environment with certain constants.

Definitions of traditional nature use can be found in the scientific literature: ‘For traditional societies nature use is very close to the notion of an ‘economy’, habitual in ethnography, but it includes, to a greater extent, the natural side of economic activity (resources and the ecosystem as a whole) implying as a must its spiritual component of rational knowledge, empirical ideas about environment, a system of their transfer and training’ (Igor Krupnik, 1986).

In his doctoral thesis ‘Traditional nature use of indigenous small peoples of the North’, Dr. K. Klokov defined the subject of his geography-oriented work as ‘a process of interface between indigenous small Northern ethnic groups, on the one hand, and the feeding landscape and socio-economic environment of ‘the dominating ethnos’, on the other’ (K. Klokov, 1998).

Some scholars doubt the modern reality of the definition of ‘traditional’ in this context: ‘Traditional nature of both an economy and a way of life is a scientific category which can be ‘recognised’ in real life with a considerable stretch of imagination only’ (V.Stepanov, 1998).

A witty attempt to define ‘a traditional sector of economy (of the peoples of the North)’ was made by A.N. Yamskov who suggested to assess ‘traditional nature’ by such pragmatic criteria as ‘preservation of succession in using territories and water areas..., in types of labour activities...; preservation of the kind of products received to be consumed or sold... along with preservation of a natural change of generations among the corresponding groups of population’ (A.Yamskov, 1998).

All research into traditional nature use emphasises its indissolubility with the living environment, its cultural and adaptive function providing flexibility and adequacy of traditional nature use to climatic changes. It has been ascertained, for example, that during the periods of local climatic warming some reindeer herders switched over to sea mammal hunting, then switched back to reindeer herding when it became colder, since climatic changes entailed changes in the resource basis of traditional nature use. Comprehensiveness is recorded as a combination of different types of nature use on various landscapes in one and the same area.

Archeologists are aware of the fact that traditional nature use for ages has included the exchange of products and minerals between territorial groups. Stone tools were found hundreds of kilometers away from the deposits of the siliceous materials the artifacts had been made of; reindeer herders used to make reindeer harness out of seal skins while sea mammal hunters ate venison in winter months.

Basic principles of traditional nature use have always been a high degree of adaptability, long duration, extensiveness across vast areas, a system of recreation of renewable natural resources, an extremely low level of energy consumption, and rationalism. All these principles have served their purpose until recently, until the beginning of the period of administrative integration which was marked by the liquidation of villages, the destruction of the traditional settlement and economic development systems, the erosion of the upbringing and education systems, the introduction of new, intensive economic methods breaking up the ecological balance.

The environment-oriented legislation hand in hand with environmental organisations, therefore, have been the major legal allies of indigenous peoples in the defense of their traditional nature use and indigenous living environment. To preserve areas of traditional nature use and to protect biodiversity on the territories of traditional settlement, indigenous people can offer the authorities their participation in the defense of the natural environment by mutual management of resource use in the areas of traditional settlement. One can learn about one of these models, applied in a special protected area of traditional nature use, ‘Tkhsanom’, in Kamchatka from an article on ‘How can the constitutional right to protect a traditional way of life and indigenous environment of habitation be put into effect?’’ in ‘The Peoples of the North of Russia on the way to a new millennium’ (P.Sulyandziga & O.Murashko, Moscow, 2000).

Meanwhile, to pass on to the next subject of what the indigenous peoples themselves can do to revive traditional nature use, let us go back to defining the term of traditional nature use. Here is my own definition accentuating the interfaces that exist between traditional nature use and all aspects of culture:

‘Traditional nature use of indigenous peoples and ethnic entities of the North includes historically formed anthropogenic ecosystems, i.e. the areas as such with biological resources, populations of wild and domestic animals and methods of their use (all three components linked with reindeer breeding and other Northern forms of raising local and aboriginal breeds of domestic animals, river, lake and sea fishing, sea mammal hunting, flesh and fur-trapping, small-scale gardening and plant gathering, crafts) as well as traditional social institutions providing permanent use of renewable natural resources and transfer of ecologically and ethnically significant information (such as systems of self-administration, organisation of economic teams, disposition of stationary and seasonal commercial activity-oriented settlements, camps, nomadic routes, systems of land and catch distribution, traditional economic calendar, commercial activity bans, systems of recreation of renewable natural resources, temporary withdrawal of some land allotments from economic turnover as sacral, prohibited zones, the knowledge of edible and medicinal plants, methods of trapping, fishing, hunting, gathering and processing of products, skills in making implements of labour and domestic articles, handicrafts, forms of applied art, a system of education and upbringing of children, etc.).’

It is precisely the last point, referring to the transfer of ecologically and ethnically significant information, that finds itself in the most precarious situation, since the last generation of carriers of this information gradually disappears. And it is precisely this very part of traditional culture that is in the hands of the indigenous peoples themselves.

There is an external reason for the interruption of the tradition of traditional knowledge transfer − the period of administrative management of indigenous peoples’ economy, of education of the young generation in boarding schools. But there is an internal reason just as well − the younger generation of indigenous people does not know their ancestors’ traditions because they do next to nothing about learning and safeguarding them.

At present, with the protection of traditional culture, traditional nature use and indigenous living environment becoming major slogans of the indigenous peoples’ movement towards protection of their ethnical identity as one of their most important fundamental rights, the problem of preserving and transfer of traditional knowledge becomes most pressing.

I have learnt a lot from the experience of rendering assistance to Kamchatkan peoples in the organisation of the protected traditional nature use area ‘Tkhsanom’ as it is described in the mentioned article. Methods of indigenous population’s participation in the recording and transfer of ecologically and ethnically significant information have been elaborated in practice.

After the publications featuring the organisation of ‘Tkhsanom’ I was contacted by representatives from various regions with the request to assist in organization of the other traditional nature use areas. They had a lot of questions: how to substantiate the boundaries of the territory, the various types of intended activities, how to raise funds to prepare a project and to accomplish it.

When ‘Tkhsanom’ was initiated, the indigenous population of a small village had a claim on a vast territory, where they wished to develop various kinds of the almost abandoned activities. A huge though non-verbalised potential of traditional knowledge stood fast behind these claims. To turn it into scientific and legal documents, a new system of methods to record such knowledge was required.

For instance, how could territorial claims of nature users of a small settlement of 400 residents be substantiated? To do so, it was necessary to collect genealogies which made it clear that grandmothers and grandfathers of present-day villagers − that resettled, hardly willingly, in Kovran almost 50 years ago − had their origins in five − now non-existent − villages, and used economically the very territory later claimed by their descendants.

The native language was practically not used in everyday life. However, its carriers − a dozen old men − have survived who, recollecting their childhood and youth, described various traditional types of activities, remembered corresponding terms omitted in the existing dictionary, like the names of locations, plants, animals, and implements of labour available for traditional nature use. The customs − regulations of life described by ethnographers a hundred years ago and even earlier − happened to be further developed and used in real life on the memory of today’s older generation.

But this time the old people shared their memories only with scholars who asked them about the past, not with their grandchildren who, unfortunately, were not inquiring.

Recording of traditional knowledge is in the hands of ethnographers, and they publish the collected information in their scientific articles. Regretfully, this procedure is coupled with unavoidable transformation of information, set out in a different, scientific language. Scholarly studies cannot replace a direct transfer of traditional knowledge and, therefore, ensure its succession. It is important to have this knowledge, disappearing along with the older generation, saved and later transferred to children by the indigenous youth.

One does not have to be an ethnographer to do so, it is enough to be a regular literate and interested person using a simple system of methods. I am going to describe a number of such systems drawn up in the process of my work in Kamchatka and then tested among the Udege people of Krasnyy Yar.

Making genealogies of the population residing in the village

There are several methods to make an account of family relations with the help of genealogies. It is fit to use graphical schemes; writing down a story of one’s relatives also suits the purpose. The main thing is to try and record the place and date of birth, at least an approximate age, and the date of death of every relative named. Everything that could be learnt about the person concerned should be registered just as well: his peculiar features, interesting true-life stories of what happened to him.

Locally stored archival documents, i.e. old household books, parish registers, archives of the Register Offices issuing certificates of registration of one’s status should be used for documentary acknowledgment of genealogies (which might be needed to substantiate claims on the areas of traditional nature use).

Several goals could be pursued while compiling genealogies of your fellow-villagers: to preserve and record case histories of clans residing in the village, to reconstruct the scheme of their former settling, to record the local topographic names by mapping out the names of birthplaces or locations of the life and economic activity of grandfathers and grandmothers and, if lucky, those of great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers. You can learn and take a note of many interesting stories of your ancestors’ lives and produce a chronicle of lives of the most remarkable villagers while writing down genealogies.

Traditional knowledge of objects of the natural world and the recording of terminology in the native language

One can find out about the traditional ecological calendar, that is about what and when things were done, about the properties of medicinal and edible plants, animal habits, how many and which animals there were in the past, which species of animals and plants became extinct and which new ones appeared, whether animals became smaller or bigger, etc. while conversing with village elders.

In case you talk to a native speaker ask him to pronounce names of plants, animals, traditional dishes in his native language. Try to preserve the words by turning them into a written form, with the help of their phonetic transcription and tape recordings. It should be noted that the lexicon of even those languages of the Northern peoples which are backed up with text-books and dictionaries is very meager indeed. It is void of the larger number of names of plants and animals to be found in the living areas of the Northern peoples. Some notions pertaining to traditional nature use have no equivalents in Russian, and for this reason such information is of great scientific interest.

The elders should be questioned about their childhood, about what their parents were doing all the year round, what their own participation was, from what age and together with whom (their grandmother, grandfather, some other relative or non-relative), in which locations, at what time of the year, when they were engaged in this or that activity the last time, which holidays there used to be in spring, fall or winter.

It is advisable to tape-record all the conversations about the above subjects and keep the recordings without erasing any of them, for they all contain unique materials which could be used over and over again to all intents and purposes.

Traditional crafts and forms of applied art

There are connoisseurs of traditional cuisine or skilful people able to make traditional clothes, good at embroidery, carpentry, dog −, reindeer sledge and boat building, who at least have seen how all that could be done or made, in every village. It is vital not only to tape their stories about traditional handicrafts but also to photograph the article shown to you and make videotape recordings in process, if a VCR is available. There might be those among the elders and representatives of the middle-age generation who would be ready to share their know-how with children, at least with one or two of them.

How can the collected information be used and traditional knowledge disseminated

The information collected while making genealogies can be used to map traditional settling and economic activity. Such a map would be very handy when substantiating the boundaries of traditional nature use.

The information about the history of clans can be used while selecting literature on local lore, at least for the native village school. Genealogies could be helpful in organising a village or school museum. The information about traditional activities and nature-oriented knowledge can be of similar use in a museum and when sharing it with schoolchildren on excursions round the neighborhood, or when they are on holidays in their summer camps.

It is possible to compile a small dictionary of animal and plant names, local topographic names even in the areas where the native language is almost totally extinct to turn it into an instrument in children’s educational games played during extracurricular activities and excursions.

One should not try to use the collected information in teaching traditional knowledge at school. The introduction of any knowledge into a school program entails a danger of psychological seizure of offered information among pupils, compels the teacher to test their knowledge in some way or rather. Traditional knowledge is a lost side of everyday life, and children must learn it after classes.

The knowledge, though far too modest, of the native language vocabulary is most successfully implanted at kindergartens while the kids memorize rhymes, play games and go on excursions around the village.

The process of collecting such information would give its collectors a lot just as well, helping them find and register traditional knowledge, try and discern their own ethnic culture in real life.

The use of the above simplified systems of methods in independent work of indigenous youth to preserve traditional knowledge has been tested several months ago while compiling programs of small grants in the village of Krasnyy Yar. The first reaction on the part of young people trained as teachers or having other specialised education was quite common: on the one hand, the young people are convinced in the former wealth of their own ethnic culture; on the other hand, they regret its loss and doubt greatly that it is possible to find and preserve anything at all. Little by little, it has become clear while discussing concrete themes and systems of methods that interviews with the older generation make it possible to collect both clan histories and local topographic names to map the system of traditional settling, to record Udege names of plants and animals, to collect the names of medicinal and edible plants and recipes for their use. It has been discovered that there are, after all, those who could teach children the traditional art of wood carving and embroidery.

Four small-scale projects on preservation and transfer of traditional knowledge of the indigenous population of Krasnyy Yar have been, therefore, elaborated and supported by a representative of the Danish Environmental Protection Agency. Such projects are viewed as a real and necessary step towards preservation of traditional knowledge, development of traditional nature use and, above all, awakening the children’s and young people’s interest in their own ethnic culture thus paving the way for the generation-to-generation transfer of living traditions.

The direct participation of the indigenous youth in collecting, recording and disseminating traditional knowledge is a method of making their own ethnical identity relevant to them. It will help the indigenous youth to speak up for their rights to traditional nature use, the preservation of indigenous peoples’ culture, and the protection of their natural environment with competence and greater confidence.

[1] There is no definition of the notion of traditional nature use in the Federal law 'On Guarantees of the Rights of Indigenous Small Peoples of the Russian Federation' recently signed by the President. It occurs only in the context of 'lands of traditional nature use'.

[2] The concept of this definition was worked out by L.S. Bogoslovskaya and E.E. Syroyechkovskiy in the 1980s.