In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indigenous Ecologies

  • Introduction
  • Multimedia and Films

Ecology Indigenous Ecologies
Pamela McElwee, Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, Marian Ahn Thorpe, Kyle Powys Whyte, Beth Rose Middleton, Kaitlin Reed, Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy, Alysse Marie Moldawer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0199


Indigenous ecologies cover a wide range of approaches, spanning academic fields from biology to anthropology to the humanities, and discussing a myriad of issues from the nature of knowledge to how to conduct collaborative research with indigenous peoples. Defining what indigeneity means, and identifying the world’s indigenous peoples and the ecological spaces they occupy, has been part of this literature. Other related issues include attention to the gendered aspects of knowledge and identity, reflecting increasing space for indigenous women’s voice and scholarship. Other key concepts include biocultural diversity, defined as the global overlap in the geographic distribution of biological and cultural diversity, resulting in indigenous peoples co-residing in some of the biologically richest ecosystems (and often being displaced from them by conservation projects and by extractive industries). Documenting and understanding indigenous ecological knowledge has been a particularly rich field of interest, with disciplines such as ethnoecology growing in stature in the last decades. Scholars have noted that indigenous ecologies are often tied to language, religion and spirituality, philosophies and ideologies, and the politics of land recognition and land rights. Key concepts in indigenous ecological cosmologies include a lack of division between concepts of nature and culture and the idea that many nonhuman entities are considered persons with whom interactions must be based on relations of kinship. These philosophies are reflected in indigenous ecosystem knowledge, practices, and management, although not always recognized in formal national laws and rights. Indigenous peoples have been active managers of ecosystems from forests to grasslands to river and marine systems, and scholars have documented the ecological impacts of these management regimes, including important debates over whether indigenous peoples are inherently conservationists. Many authors also reveal how colonization has shaped the relationships between indigenous peoples and their ecological worlds, from resettlement, expropriation, forced conversions, or language losses. Scholarship also shows how indigenous peoples are negotiating this context into the future, as increasing international activism to assert environmental rights and cultural sovereignty has resulted in a growing body of international law on the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, natural resources, and cultures. The challenge of climate change, which is increasing the vulnerability of many indigenous peoples, has been another source of indigenous activism. Indigenous people’s long experience and knowledge of local environments has been a key source of information about the impacts of climate change, and how adaptation to it might be fostered. Much of the work on indigenous ecologies is not necessarily in peer-reviewed scientific literature; rather, it is found in “grey” literature or in oral histories. Therefore, attention to decolonizing methodologies and to working collaboratively with indigenous peoples through free, prior, and informed consent and equitable benefit sharing is emphasized in the literature as well.

General Overviews

No single authoritative source on “indigenous ecologies” exists, but a handful of works take a generally broad approach to some of the key issues relating to this topic. Most general histories of the indigenous peoples of the world pay some attention to ecological issues and thought, including stressing the importance of understanding land, agriculture, and ecological imperialism (particularly the loss of access to native lands and the imposition of Western notions of science and knowledge) (Coates 2004). There are also approaches that more explicitly address ideas of ecology and ecological knowledge, as well as regional overviews of indigenous ecologies that are linked to specific places. Like the indigenous ecologies field in general, the scholarship is heavily weighted toward indigenous North America. Some authors provide an introduction to concepts such as indigenous environmental knowledge and its applications (Anderson 1996, Cajete 2000, Berkes 2008). Some overview works have also examined broadly the connections between nature and culture in indigenous thought, understandings of nature, and approaches to living within landscapes (Berkes 2008, Pierotti 2012), and the systems of governance that affect indigenous ecological management (Richardson 2009). Some overviews also address conflicts over environmental management between indigenous peoples and others (Howitt 2001). Each of these general topics (indigenous knowledge, indigenous ecological management, and ecological conflicts) are addressed more thoroughly by multiple authors in subsections of this article. Finally, a few overviews are located specifically within the field of political ecology, which seeks to understand the political, social, and economic interactions between people and the environment, and which uses the concept of indigeneity to explore the politics of nature.

  • Anderson, Eugene N. 1996. Ecologies of the heart: Emotion, belief, and the environment. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Using examples from indigenous groups in the Pacific Northwest, Central America (the Mayan), and different parts of Asia (China, Malaysia), the author, a cultural ecologist, argues that human relationships with nature are always mediated by culture, morals, emotions, and religion.

  • Berkes, Fikret. 2008. Sacred ecology: Traditional ecological knowledge and resource management. New York: Routledge.

    A book featuring case studies from Canadian First Nations groups, examining the importance of traditional ecological knowledge, social institutions, and indigenous worldviews as a complement to scientific ecology by including ethical, social, political, and spiritual perspectives.

  • Cajete, Gregory. 2000. Native science: Natural laws of interdependence. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light.

    Detailed overview of how Native American thought views “science” issues through the lenses of perception, philosophy, experience, and relationality, by a Native American scholar. Broadly discusses ecological management, understanding and use of plants and animals, and senses of place and identity. Serves as a useful overview for those new to indigenous philosophy.

  • Coates, Kenneth. 2004. A global history of indigenous peoples. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230509078

    General overview of origins of indigenous peoples globally, and how they have encountered others through occupation, ecological imperialism, missionization, globalization, and domination, culminating in the current struggles for indigenous rights. Stresses the importance of the role of land, agriculture, and environmental changes in the subjectification and political marginalization of indigenous peoples.

  • Howitt, Richard. 2001. Rethinking resource management: Justice, sustainability and indigenous peoples. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203221020

    Argues that resource managers must acknowledge most lands on earth are the dispossessed homelands of indigenous peoples, and reviews histories of conflicts and disputes. Uses case studies of mining’s impact on Aboriginal Australians, treaty rights between the US and Native Americans, and conflicts over hydropower in Quebec.

  • Pierotti, Raymond. 2012. Indigenous knowledge, ecology, and evolutionary biology. London: Routledge.

    The author presents an overview of how traditional ecological knowledge of different indigenous groups has parallels with scientific ecological concepts from community ecology and evolutionary biology. Also strongly critiques Krech 1999 (cited under the “Ecological Indian” and “Ecologically Noble Savage” Debates).

  • Richardson, Benjamin J. 2009. The ties that bind: Indigenous peoples and environmental governance. In Indigenous peoples and the law: Comparative and critical perspectives. Edited by Benjamin J. Richardson, Shin Imai, and Kent McNeill, 337–370. Oxford: Hart.

    Provides a useful overview of how indigenous peoples have dealt with the norms, values, and institutions that make up environmental governance. Examines both the values that indigenous peoples bring to environmental decision making as well as the legal regimes and frameworks in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.