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The people of the Quinault Indian Nation, in western Washington State, have harvested an abundance of bluebacks, a flavorful and fatty salmon that's been unique to their tribe for thousands of years. Elders can remember their grandparents trading bluebacks as far south as the Columbia River.

Years ago, the Quinault, scrupulous about keeping oral historical records, realized their blueback harvest had started to decline. The likely culprit: widespread logging, which denuded forestlands and sent torrents of water through the watershed, washing away the channels on the Quinault River, home to the bluebacks.

The Quinault, together with federal agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service, are restoring the river—and the Quinault's long-term ecological knowledge of river patterns is providing vital data to the recovery project.

This sort of data has become increasingly valuable to scientific research. For example, when scientists discovered the Quinault and other tribes in western Washington return salmon bones to the rivers from which they're fished, they found that fish carcasses release nitrogen into the water, according to Quinault tribal biologist Joe Schumacher, which aids in the stream's health. Now, biologists plant salmon bones in streams that are being prepared for the reintroduction of the fish.

But Native Americans are also wary of disclosing traditional knowledge, because doing so risks opening a door to exploitation that can undermine tribal values, harm their resources, or fail to provide benefits in return, says Preston Hardison, a policy analyst in the Tulalip Tribes Department of Natural Resources, which oversees traditional knowledge guidelines in western Washington.

Put simply, traditional knowledge is the accumulation of observations of the landscape and local resources passed down through generations. Tribal peoples may object to sharing such information because it belongs to an individual, family, or tribe. Knowledge may be closely guarded because it is linked to a medicinal or food plant, or points to a location reserved for sacred ceremonies, or is central to a tribe's closely guarded spiritual identity.

And there are fears that knowledge shared with scientists could end up in published reports, which, in turn, could lead to outsiders plundering Native Americans' environment (say, by over-harvesting plants or game, or depleting a valuable water source).

Spawning blueback salmon.

Spawning blueback salmon.

Recent history suggests those fears are merited. When botanists from the United States Department of Agriculture discovered in 1962 that tribes in the Pacific Northwest used the Pacific yew tree to treat a variety of ailments, including cancer, they released studies about a chemical they found in its bark, called paclitaxel, that stopped cancerous tumors from developing. The conifer quickly fell victim to overexploitation by pharmaceutical interests. Thousands of Pacific yews were stripped of their bark, putting the species' survival in danger.

Current laws offer few protections against biopiracy. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office claims to have jurisdiction and authority over traditional knowledge (such as a plant's medicinal properties) once it is shared by anyone, tribal member or not, outside the reservation.

But identifying the medicinal properties of a plant used by a tribe as a curative or in sacred ceremonies invites outsiders to explore what might be a ceremonial area reserved for sacred rites, or an ancient burial ground.

The USPTO policy runs counter to the unique legal and political relationship the U.S. has with sovereign Native American nations as set forth in the Constitution as well as various treaties and federal statutes, all of which require federal agencies to consult with a tribe on a nation-to-nation basis on any matter that affects them.

Hardison, the Tulalip Tribes Department analyst, and Terry Williams, a Tulalip tribal member and commissioner of its Treaty Rights Office, have long asserted that tribal nations in the U.S. have sovereignty and hold the rights to their traditional knowledge. To commercialize this knowledge, Hardison says, one must have the tribe's free prior and informed consent, a principle under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that requires consultation with and consent of tribal governments prior to a project's commencement.

"Scientific research must first honor indigenous peoples' long traditions of studying environmental ... and climatic change, which most always precede the origins of the field of climate science," says Kyle Whyte, an associate professor at Michigan State University and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

"Climate scientists must also grasp a higher vision ... that involves support and reciprocal engagement on indigenous peoples' own interests in strengthening education, community cohesion, and intergenerational relationships," Whyte says."Where climate science begins to rethink itself in relation to indigenous peoples' own stories and aspirations pertaining to climate change, they can better be in the position to work meaningfully with knowledge keepers who have concerns about trust and sharing with people who have good intentions."

Indigenous knowledge-holders don't have concepts of property like westerners do, Hardison says. "In the western world you own it, you can sell it and exchange it and give it completely away. Tribal society has stewardship obligations. When knowledge is exchanged you're expected to treat that knowledge in the right way and then use it in the right way. These obligations never expire, they never go away."

In 2013, Williams and Hardison wrote to the U.S. Department of the Interior, urging it to protect their community's knowledge sovereignty. Following Hardison and Williams' letter, 400 tribal leaders followed suit, making similar pleas to the department.

Sensing a sea change, the National Congress of American Indians subsequently issued two resolutions, "Federal Government Develop Guidance on Recognizing Tribal Sovereign Jurisdiction Over Traditional Knowledge," and "Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Climate Change," which together assert the processes and considerations the federal government should abide by when working with tribes for their knowledge on climate change and other issues.

When it comes to the federal government, negligence can be assessed on an agency-to-agency basis. The Environmental Protection Agency, for one, has a strong history of collaborating with federally recognized sovereign tribes, and has developed policies for how to integrate traditional ecological knowledge into the "agency's environmental science, policy, and decision-making processes." And in Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service has successfully partnered with the indigenous communities along the Yukon River to identify and collect data on drying wetlands, lakes, and waterways.

Salmon bluebacks spend several months in Lake Quinault, living off their fatty flesh before spawning in the Quinault River.

Salmon bluebacks spend several months in Lake Quinault, living off their fatty flesh before spawning in the Quinault River.

This compliance isn't consistent, however. The National Park Service archives all information it collects, including traditional knowledge, in its public library. The USPTO exploits the Internet to find "Traditional Knowledge websites" to identify botanicals cited in patent applications that hope to produce profits from medicinal plants originally identified by native peoples and who may be denied their benefits if they are patented.

Gabe Galanda, a lawyer who represents tribal governments, businesses, and citizens, says the USPTO, as an arm of the Department of Commerce, unquestionably has a duty to consult with tribes regarding their assertion of dominion over cultural knowledge and expression. Should an agency fail to confer, the tribe can actually sue under the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal statute that can challenge the methods by which agencies establish regulations. Whether a tribe is ultimately deemed to possess rights in their traditional cultural knowledge expression has yet to be tested in court, however.

Until the issue of who has rights to traditional knowledge is resolved, any conversation about climate change, adaptation, or natural resource management will be difficult, Hardison says.

"Any knowledge shared outside the tribes for any reason will not be recognized as a privileged conversation under a government-to-government relationship, or as the property of tribes to regulate in their own ways," he says.

"Tribes want to ensure that if you do share it in some way, they control its use. Sharing it and helping others is their reward, but if you develop something that makes goods, medicine, could be money, could be education or training, they want to share in the benefits too," Hardison says. "The tribes are really tired of sharing things, and then looking around and saying we're still the poorest of the poor."

Trust is a big issue. Recalling a conversation with a Tulalip elder, Hardison sums up the issue most succinctly: "They've come for everything else, now they're coming for our knowledge."