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Coastal management demands local voices, knowledge

George Ahmaogak Sr.

It is too bad the Alaska legislature can't come together on coastal zone management and will lose a program that helps the development process, brings in federal money, and creates jobs.

It seems unfortunate that the implosion of state coastal zone management legislation is credited over the lack of agreement on "a provision to allow local knowledge to be considered alongside scientific evidence," as I've seen reported in several articles.

Most of the time indigenous or traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge doesn't compete and conflict - they complement each other. Our hunters and people get their knowledge by observing day-in and day-out how our environment works. Scientists also gather their knowledge by observation - usually during an eight-week field season.

The goal is the same - we all want to know the truth to better make decisions.

Our knowledge has credibility. Since Inupiat people have lived here in the Arctic for many centuries, our people have learned much about sea ice, snow, ocean currents, and the behavior of wildlife. Traditional knowledge of the physical environment is knowledge passed down between generations of Inupiat people - elders, hunters, gatherers, and whaling captains. This body of knowledge increases through the experience of each and every North Slope residents whose life goes into working in and observing the environment.

Local input is and has always been vital and useful for coastal issues. I hope it continues. Most decisions that affect our development and the management of our lands are made in Juneau, Anchorage, Houston or Washington, D.C., and many of these decisions are made without consulting us.

As indigenous people of the U.S. Arctic, we want our opinions heard, and we also want traditional knowledge to be respected - just as people everywhere want to be heard and respected. In the past, unfortunately, there have been many instances where representatives from Outside have come to us with the attitude that they know everything and that our traditional knowledge is of little significance. While we can view the attitude of ignoring traditional knowledge as simply being insulting, given this attitude ignores knowledge about the environment and its wildlife we have collected from direct observations over many lifetimes - we also see ignoring traditional knowledge as an approach that gives poor results for everyone.

One of my experiences with traditional knowledge is when, in the 1970s, federal scientists and managers came and said that we couldn't hunt bowhead whales - since the "best scientific knowledge" showed that there were less than 2,000 whales available to hunt. Our "indigenous knowledge" told us there were many more whales. Over twenty years, we hired our own scientists and statisticians and showed the international community that we were right - there were many more whales to hunt. Our efforts moved the science forward. Our scientist-statistician ultimately became chair of the international scientific committee that decided scientific recommendations on whale management. The system that the scientists and the hunters developed to count whales is now a standard scientific process in whale biology. Big win for our hunters and for science and scientists.

If locally, people who live on the land say we know something is going on - it is usually worth taking into account. If you know something is true because you lived it day after day why would what you think have to be discounted simply because you didn't spend eight years in a university. Do you need a degree to tell you it is raining?

In the end, most of the time it isn't a Ph.D. biologist that makes the final determination on what is accepted as truth in management and development - but lawyers and judges, with little or no scientific training.

Given this reality - what is so controversial about considering the views of local indigenous people, who are experts about their environment?

George Ahmaogak, Sr. has been former mayor of the North Slope Borough, is a whaling captain and has worked in private industry. He is a candidate for mayor of the North Slope Borough in the upcoming October 2011 election. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.