Chaudhari L. Flores-Marcial X, Zappia N, Tyutina S, Lin J, Archer D, Martinez J, Antonio A, Garzon J, Lopez-Florez J, Saetermoe C. Local ecological knowledge: a new evidence base for health research. HPHR. 2023;57.10.54111/0001/EEE1
Local and Indigenous community-university relationships in public health, local/traditional ecological knowledge (LEK/TEK), and other community frameworks can build on Funds of Knowledge (existing strengths and resources within our student population) within and outside of the university boundaries. By broadening academic frameworks to include LEK/TEK as a recognized and effective sources of knowledge, we can re-envision the current academic hierarchy through placed-based and contextual partnerships, emphasizing health promotion and disease prevention alongside biomedical treatment, and supporting local action in the context of larger-scale human and planetary health concerns. During the Spring, 2022, we offered a four-part series of workshops to our campus community that consisted of local-global Indigenous perspectives, embracing a co-discovery model drawing deep connections between environment and health resiliency. This was completed through interactive multilingual talks (Spanish and English) featuring participatory demonstrations by activists in Trinidad, Zapotec Indigenous experts based in Oaxaca, and local Indigenous communities in Los Angeles, specifically Fernandeño Tataviam, Gabrieleño-Kizh, and Chumash experts. Our collaborative of Indigenous experts, faculty, and students revealed that rather than being viewed as a biomedical model of diagnosis and treatment, health is more integral to the natural and built environment around us, our lives, and our daily activities. These communities see health and healthcare as dynamic and synthetic, drawing on local expert knowledge, Indigenous practices, and Western medicine. Integrating critical perspectives, especially TribalCrit that acknowledges the racial components of the historical, cultural, institutional, legal, and interpersonal oppression of American Indians, invites communities to collectively contend with past injustices and bring a compendium of evidence consistent with the needs of the planetary health. Through these workshops and collaborations, our students see how environment, food, and health are related. These conversations offer a new paradigm, drawing TEK/LEK, their own Funds of Knowledge, and academic systems that can support new ways of being healthy.
Most universities in the U.S. have been built on a settler-colonial legacy that insists on “European American thought, knowledge and power structures,”1(p430) serving as the backdrop for American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) students’ sense of cultural dissonance,2 characterized by some as an academic fourth genocide. By building tribal-university relationships in public health, especially through critical perspectives like TribalCrit1 which builds on critical race theory3,4 and acknowledges the racial components of the historical, cultural, institutional, legal, and interpersonal oppression of American Indians. TribalCrit uniquely centers colonization as endemic, based in “imperialism, White supremacy, and a desire for material gain”1(p429); colonization continues to oppress AIAN people in their legal and political autonomy, self-determination, identity, and progress in ways that must be responded to directly through deep Funds of Knowledge5 that have existed for centuries.
By broadening academic frameworks to include Indigenous and Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK) as a legitimate evidence base, we can re-envision the current hegemonic structure through placed-based and contextual research goals, methods, analyses, and conclusions. For example, health and healthcare can be viewed through a lens that (a) deconstructs misrepresentations of Indigenous identities and histories, (b) acknowledges and integrates centuries-old Indigenous beliefs and customs as legitimate forms of knowledge, (c) includes academic and cultural knowledge in research plans and interpretation, (d) emphasizes the legitimacy of stories as data and theory, and (e) directs research actions toward place-based communities and real-world problems1. One example of how TribalCrit praxis can provide a new lens for social change is in the area of health and healthcare, offering innovative paradigms emphasizing health promotion and disease prevention over biomedical treatment, mixed methodology relying on community storytelling as legitimate data, and supporting the value of LEK and action in context of the larger-scale human and planetary health concerns. Two such paradigms are Planetary Health,6-8 an interdisciplinary approach with roots in environmental health movements, and the One Planet approach focusing on the synergy between planetary and human health to reduce disease.7-8 Only through such paradigmatic shifts can universities and local communities explore and put into action new ideas and incorporate students from across disciplines into movements such as TribalCrit and Planetary Health through LEK. At California State University, Northridge (CSUN) we developed a project to share the expertise and opportunities on campus and in the San Fernando Valley (Valley), with a project titled: “Cultivating Local and Indigenous Knowledge: Co-discovery of Environmental Resilience in our Students and Surrounding Communities.”
LEK includes sets of knowledge, beliefs, and practices regarding ecological relationships gained through personal observation and interaction with local ecosystems. These observations need to be actively shared and maintained, especially when faced with significant threat factors including migration, global socioeconomic and environmental-ecological processes.9-10 The LEK project began in the Fall semester, 2021 with the goal of bringing to light and re-activating the untapped wealth of LEK within CSUN and in the Valley’s Indigenous and migrant communities. The program started with exposure and appreciation of LEK, then focused on applying Funds of Knowledge,11-12 knowledge that exists in our diverse student population while also exploring opportunities to expose students to issues around sustainability and the climate crisis.7,13-15 By developing collaboratives of local Indigenous communities with university students and faculty, we have begun developing an evidence base that is rooted in centuries of knowledge and practices.
CSUN’s population is one of the most diverse in the nation with many students maintaining close ties to their cultural and linguistic wealth, thus expanding our community’s breadth and depth of knowledge, memories, and experiences. CSUN currently has the third most diverse learning environment in the nation according to the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Ranking 2022. CSUN’s Fall 2021 enrollment of 34,275 undergraduate students included 56.9% Latinx, 20.5% White, 9% Asian American, 4.7% African American, 3% multi-race and other, 0.2% Pacific Islander, and 0.1% American Indian. Of these students, underrepresented minority students accounted for 61.8% of total enrollment, and 56.1% were eligible for the Federal Pell Grant.
The community surrounding CSUN includes a culturally and linguistically diverse population. The intricate relationship between language, knowledge and ecology is real, and with Los Angeles County residents speaking over 150 languages and Los Angeles Unified School District students speaking over 90 languages, we can only imagine the myriad of LEK that exists across Los Angeles, with the Valley mostly falling within the city’s boundaries.16 With the largely undocumented and rich sets of LEK, we can confront significant threats to LEK including human migration, global socioeconomic and environmental-ecological catastrophes.17
In our inaugural year of this program, global-local Indigenous perspectives were put to light through a series of interactive multilingual talks (Spanish and English) and participatory demonstrations by Zapotec Indigenous experts based in Oaxaca, as well as local Indigenous communities, specifically collaborating with local Fernandeño Tataviam, Gabrieleño-Kizh, and Chumash experts. We enhanced our reach by including an Indigenous knowledge expert and activist from the island of Trinidad. This initial set of Indigenous experts was derived through current research and collaborations of our faculty; we also provided other collaborative and educational opportunities such as incorporating student translator/interpreters-in-training, providing an opportunity to contribute to this collaborative, community-based initiative.
Translation (written) and interpretation (oral) practices became an integral part of the project’s mission; it allowed for transmission of the LEK in Spanish, a familiar language, during the first series of events. An aspirational goal includes integrating Indigenous languages through TribalCrit. Zapotec, for example, is a language family that includes over 50 separate varieties. Also fluent in Spanish, Zapotec Indigenous experts had a unique opportunity to communicate with the audience directly, yet used specific Zapotec terminology without having to compromise many of the deeper linguistic connections built into the local lexicon linking them to the ancestral knowledge and cultural heritage. Striving to learn from an Indigenous lens, language can bring together students, faculty, and community in meaningful and challenging ways.
Our project was funded by an internal grant at CSUN. We organized four workshops to introduce the CSUN and local community to the power of LEK. The contributions of Indigenous experts from rural communities in Oaxaca were made possible by the virtual format resulting from the COVID safety measures. The first multilingual event was entitled: “Divergent 21st Century perspectives of the Zapotec landscape.” The workshop featured ways in which digital technologies have facilitated the production of 21st century perspectives on the Indigenous Oaxacan genetic modification of corn through the ecosystem known as ‘milpa.’ In this presentation, two Oaxacan collaborators working with CSUN professor Dr. Flores-Marcial and her collaborators presented an updated lexicon through visual and linguistic representations that credit the thirteen-thousand-year-old development of corn in its most relevant form.18 Audience response was overwhelmingly positive and resulted from Garcia-Martinez’s expert description of the ecological and sustainable methods employed by Zapotec agronomists in the ecosystem created by the milpa way of life. The presentation included a rendering of Zapotec agronomists as superheroes through the digital animation work by Oaxacan collaborator Garzon who is also based in Oaxaca, Mexico.
The second event, also multilingual, was entitled, “Multiple Visual and Popular Narratives of Corn.” In this event, two Zapotec collaborators, a chemist and a photographer documented the social life around the tortilla. They also discussed the different colored maize and how each is utilized in the preparation of specific foods made out of corn, the chemical process of nixtamalization that enhances the dietary properties of maize,19 and the ways in which Indigenous community members share this knowledge through social media. Garcia Antonio, a Zapotec chemist, described the ways in which Zapotec women are at the forefront of nixtamalization and the manner in which Indigenous peoples incorporate these processes into their lifeways. Her presentation revealed the power of food sovereignty in the face of 21st century challenges such as the cultural appropriation by media companies like Netflix which named the Oaxacan tlayuda (a large Oaxacan tortilla) Mexico’s “Best Street Food” dish in 2020 (on Twitter @NetflixLAT July 23, 2020).20 The snapshots presented by a Zapotec photographer who is also a member of the community prompted the audience to consider how outsiders who photograph Indigenous peoples are using their camera in an act of violence by forcing the images from the communities and never returning to properly credit or deliver said images to the Indigenous subjects. In addition, the four Oaxacan experts delivered evidence on how Indigenous communities continue to reproduce ancestral knowledge while facing the challenges presented by powerful entities, be they media companies, universities or other outsiders. Together, these two programs on Zapotec Ecological Knowledge demonstrated the value of intentional inclusion, by breaking down the academic hierarchies that serve as gatekeepers to experts outside academic walls.
The third event was titled: Rethinking and “Revisiting Food Security and Sustainability in Trinidad and Tobago under COVID.” Speaker Archer, a lifelong gardener and food activist advocating for sharing the wealth of local knowledge and practices related to plants for food and health in the culturally diverse island of Trinidad. She has actively learned from local Indigenous knowledge experts while also engaging in various food gardening programs. Archer discussed how she has engaged in home and community gardening including local and non-local methods since COVID restrictions which have significantly affected the food environment and food security in Trinidad.
Although Archer has long lamented the loss of transmission of knowledge and practices in a context that does not generally promote local food production or LEK, she has been active in both subsistence food production, medicinal plant use, and supporting LEK in Trinidad. The colonial legacy cannot be discounted from Trinidad’s history, which was a considerable force in obliterating native LEK upon European colonial contact.21-22 A diverse local and Indigenous knowledge system resulted as African slaves and South Asian indentured laborers incorporated a wealth of plants, knowledge, and practices in their new setting, going well beyond sugar and cocoa production.23 More recently, fossil fuel, oil production, and tourism, have been the economic drivers, resulting in a heavy reliance on food imports (85%, up from 60% in 2000),24 much of which is processed food. During the prolonged COVID restrictions, the scene changed dramatically and gave people the opportunity—and sometimes forced people—to start growing their food. The health and nutritional profiles continue to be impacted generally negatively due to COVID restrictions; however, this has offered opportunities to rediscover the role of whole foods and root vegetables like dasheen and tannia that served as staples for years.25 Archer compared and contrasted three subsistence food projects where both conventional and Indigenous plants are grown: (1) supported by the United Nations Development Program, (2) grassroots effort spearheaded by a motivated community activist, (3) service-based nonprofit organization. These programs enable building community, sharing and transferring knowledge across socioeconomic status, age groups, building skills, addressing food insecurity, and re-discovering local health-medicinal and food crops through, what Archer calls “sweat equity.”
The fourth event was titled: “Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Protecting Native Resources.” Indigenous communities in the U.S. and around the world are at the forefront of efforts to develop mitigation strategies related to climate change, enhance biodiversity, and reimagine local ecological landscapes. In this event, a group of TEK experts shared their recent work and perspectives that advance tribal food sovereignty, mapping Native landscapes, and moving beyond land acknowledgments. This was the only in-person, interactive event held in the Institute for Sustainability’s food garden that is an educational space incorporating a variety of botanical projects including native species used during the event. As we shared and learned about Indigenous and local forms of ecological knowledge, we built community around new ways of thinking about history, our planet, local cultures, and health.
While each event had unique properties, they collectively represented an opportunity to learn from an evidence base of Indigenous frameworks and ancestral linguistic, cultural, and historic knowledge. Instead of embracing a mechanistic and white supremacist frame with rigid positivist values,26 frameworks such as TribalCrit and Planetary Health offer new ways of building a new Indigenous lens for higher education that requires a broader evidence-base for health. Through our events and workshops, several messages were carried forward, central among them was our understanding that health must include a holistic approach rooted in history, culture, linguistic practices, and drawing on Funds of Knowledge rarely measured or accepted in conventional and natural sciences.
Instead of health being viewed as a biomedical model of diagnosis and treatment, our program revealed that health is seen as integral to the environment, our lives, and daily activities – eating, playing, not a separate topic for 30 minutes a day nor a separate place, like a gym or a hospital. Health and healthcare are seen as dynamic, drawing on elder knowledge, Indigenous practices, multi-generational collaboration, and biomedicine, highlighting the dynamic and integrative nature of health and wellbeing. For example, a theme that arose during the events related to how COVID-19 offered a stark opportunity to re-envision our connection to the planet through food, medicine, culture, and land, especially in bounded places such as the island of Trinidad. Table 1 displays the events, details, panelists and participant count.
Table 1. Local Ecological Knowledge Program
# of Participants
Mar 9, 2022
Divergent 21st Century perspectives of the Zapotec landscape
Two Oaxacan collaborators working with Professor Flores-Marcial and CSUN students present an updated and refreshed lexicon through visuals and vocabulary that credits the thirteen-thousand-year-old development of corn in its most relevant form. Working languages: Spanish/English.
Mar 16, 2022
Multiple visual and popular narratives on corn
Two Zapotec collaborators, a chemist and a photographer document the social life around the tortilla. Working languages: Spanish/English.
April 19, 2022
Revisiting food security and sustainability in Trinidad and Tobago under COVID
Food activist Danette Archer discusses how she has engaged in home and community gardening including local and non-local methods since COVID restrictions which have significantly affected the food environment in Trinidad. Working language: English.
April 20, 2022
Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Protecting Native Resources
A group of traditional ecological knowledge experts share their recent work and perspectives advancing tribal food sovereignty, mapping Native landscapes, and moving beyond land acknowledgments. Working language: English.
Integrating critical perspectives, especially TribalCrit, invites community around collectively contending with colonial injustices and brings the collective to a base of cultural evidence that is consistent with the needs of the planet. Newer paradigms including Planetary Health are being implemented in various types of projects like the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health and the Rockefeller-UNFCC project.6,27 Planetary Health and TribalCrit draw on academic and cultural knowledge bases, highlighting how human health depends on Earth and seeks to understand the damage of anthropogenic activities on ecosystem health. A third type of knowledge in TribalCrit is survival knowledge.1 “Knowledge of survival includes an understanding of how and in what ways change can be accomplished and the ability and willingness to change, adapt, and adjust in order to move forward as an individual and Community”.1(434-435) Stories derived from the LEK program brought to light the significance of biocultural diversity15, 28-29 and how this can support local sustainability and sustainable development, commonly described as the triple bottom line of environment, equity, and economy in the service of health.15 TribalCrit contributes to the understanding of human impact on urbanization, pollution, and climate change, out of balance and impacting our health through new infectious diseases, poor nutrition, alienation, and poor mental health.7,15,25 By considering Earth as a part of ourselves, our food and planet and health as connected, we can begin to tackle some of the difficult problems we face as a planet: dietary diversity, food security, ecological footprint, carrying capacity, biocultural knowledge and practices, social and environmental justice, and ethnomedical practices.
Although uprooting or being uprooted from one’s native home and establishing roots in another completely different environment has a host of negative consequences, it also brings opportunities to explore the new homeland and value knowledge that is carried by migrant Peoples, such as the co-discovery of the biocultural diversity that we find in sites like CSUN and Valley, home to so many cultures. While it is increasingly difficult to find sources of LEK in such urbanized contexts, universities can support the transmission of knowledge across generations and culture groups by introducing students and faculty to new paradigms, like TribalCrit and Planetary Health, that help them to see themselves as integral to sustaining their own futures. In some ways, incorporating LEK as TribalCrit gives space and voice to students to expand their awareness and priorities to include many ways of knowing. An important aspect of TribalCrit, praxis, is found in the collaborations between Indigenous groups and local academicians whose work can expand current paradigms at a time when we need it most.
The four events had a deep impact on the audience who engaged in critical discussion on these issues. The post-event questionnaire of the student participants of the workshops revealed interesting and important shifts in their understanding of their role in the land, in food, and in changing practices that are damaging to the Earth and to health:
“The Zapotec way of agriculture proves to be a process that not only can be healthier, but keep a culture alive, in this case the process of Nixtamalization has become a tradition for this Indigenous community.”
“I myself, refuse to eat GMO corn as I have read in the news about the dangerous chemicals used in big scale agriculture and their effects on farmers, ecosystems and possibly consumers.”
These, and similar comments highlight how the contextualization of the health-related practices rooted in the Indigenous cultural, linguistic, and historic knowledge helps the audience reflect on their own practices and understanding of the environmental health and sustainability.
Several implications result from adopting a TribalCrit perspective in health and healthcare. First, implementing LEK as a foundation for cultural and survival knowledge while finding common ground in academic knowledge can solve local and real-world problems by expanding academia’s knowledge base, leaving room for humility in our methods and representations of the human experience. Second, LEK as an informed source of data is authentic, place-based, and reflective of deep historical knowledge. In part because the established literature itself is biased by racism and coloniality, the way we search for literature, for example, can change from a sole reliance on large studies in peer-reviewed journals to unrefereed journals, chapters, books, and local documents can drastically expand the way we conduct science – marginalized and invisible, much of the literature on Indigenous groups can be found in dissertations and books and may not meet the demands of “rigorous” scientific methods and are, therefore, often overlooked. Third, scientists who start with mixed methods, recognizing the value in large demographic surveys as well as LEK are given a broader set of perspectives and tools with which to interpret results that may have real-world implications for American Indian health for example. The small numbers of Indigenous people in large databases are often too small for analysis and even left out of tables, reflecting the invisibility of AIAN groups. Approaches such as QuantCrit30 that employ critical quantitative methods to reveal injustices can be amplified by LEK approaches that reflect the deep cultural and survival knowledge of the original inhabitants of our nation.
The author(s) have no relevant financial disclosures or conflicts of interest.
We would like to acknowledge the contributions of the following collaborators: Jesus Alvarez (Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians), Director of the Tataviam Land Conservancy, Matt Vestuto (Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians/Chumash), Language Program Coordinator for Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, Matthew Teutinez (Kizh-Gabrieño Band of Mission Indians), Tribal Biologist, and CSUN Spanish graduate students Fidel Jiménez and Elizabeth Chavolla who assisted with Spanish to English interpretation and translation
Lisa Chaudhari is a lecturer in Health Sciences, Sustainability and Queer Studies and a Health Equity Research and Education (HERE) Center co-director at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Her various research projects focus on the nexus among cultural, health and wellbeing, and the environment in indigenous and migrant communities.
Xochitl Flores-Marcial is an interdisciplinary historian, she studies Indigenous Intellectual and Cultural History focusing on the Zapotec society of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, she is a board member and contributor of the Ticha Project, an online Zapotec-language platform and digital text module As a member of the Zapotec community of Oaxacalifornia, she actively uses her scholarly work with indigenous languages to collaborate with community stakeholders, serving as a spokesperson and community leader both locally and abroad.
Natale Zappia is associate professor of history and Director of the Institute for Sustainability at California State University, Northridge. His work explores the intersection of food systems, Indigenous political economies, and ecological transformations across early North America.
Svetlana V. Tyutina is Associate Professor and Spanish Graduate program Director at the Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures Department at CSUN. Her research and pedagogical interests include community-based and service-learning in the field of translation/interpreting, languages for specific purposes, and Hispanic Orientalism.
Judith Lin is research associate at CSUN’s Health Equity Research and Education (HERE) Center. She collaborates with researchers from various disciplines to address health and educational inequities. The interdisciplinary nature of her work enables her to gain a rich understanding of the complexity of human experience.
Danette Archer is a Library Assistant at the University of the West Indies, serving as a researcher for bot the University and academic departments gathering statistics on the changing landscape of Trinidad and Tobago and its people quarterly through interviews and surveys. She is a lifelong gardener and food activist, advocating for sharing the wealth of local knowledge and practices related to plants for food and health in the culturally diverse island of Trinidad. She is an avid social worker and interventionist with local street children who become part of her family and the next generation of food activists.
Araceli Garcia Antonio is a Zapotec chemical engineer. She earned her BS in bionutrition technology from the Universidad Tecnológica de los Valles Centrales de Oaxaca (UTVCO), she has continued to research the area of biotecnology especially as this pertains to food sovereignty in her community of origin: Tlacolula, Oaxaca. Her interests include bionutrition technologies and their application to Indigenous foodways.
Jonatan Omar Garcia Martinez is a Zapotec sociologist. He earned his BA from Mexico’s Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM) and is also a speaker of Central Valley Zapotec. His research centers the rural life of Indigenous agronomists through audiovisual projects in which he amplifies the Indigenous epistemologies communities utilize in facing social challenges.
Jonathan Garzón is originally from the Central Valley region of Oaxaca. He earned his BA in Multimedia design from the Universidad Anáhuac Oaxaca. He won first place in a Mexican National Competition for Design in the animation category for his work titled, “No Pasa Nada.” He is the principal animator for the Zapotec Milpa: Indigenous Science project presented at CSUN’s LEK.
Julio Cesar Lopez Flores is a Zapotec journalist. He received his BA in Communication Science from the Universidad José Vasconcelos de Oaxaca. He uses multi-media technologies to document Indigenous life in his community of Tlacolula, Oaxaca and in neighboring rural communities throughout this southern Mexican state.
Carrie Saetermoe is a professor, researcher, and activist at California State University, Northridge. A white anti-racist educator, Saetermoe is co-Director of CSUN’s Health Equity Research and Education (HERE) Center with Chaudhari.