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Natalie Michelle, PH.D Interdisciplinary Studies and Research Assistant  of Native Environmental Studies in Climate Change at the University of Maine, 2021

Wabanaki lifeways are inextricably linked to local landscapes and ecology and profoundly connected to major waterways and tributaries. Cultural identities and meaning are reflected in the place-based relationship expressed  through the Native languages and intergenerational knowledge handed down through family and kinship ties (see Figure 3).  The ability to participate in cultural activities, such as language use and the passing down of environmental knowledge and wisdom from elders and traditional harvesters enable the holistic relationship with the natural world that has existed for countless generations.


Source: Donald Soctomah, Wabanaki lifeways are profoundly connected to major waterways and tributaries. Passamaquoddy Tribal Members on the waters of the St. Croix estuary.

Through traditional stories representing the terrestrial and aquatic systems, important values are imparted that safeguard culturally significant resources from overuse and ensure the persistence of the people and culture.  The intimate knowledge of the plants and animals in relation to seasonal changes and migratory patterns of wildlife determined Wabanaki movement on the land and water to engage in traditional harvesting of food and medicine.  Sustaining these quality relationships through cultural access and transmission of ecological knowledge are paramount to sustaining cultural identity.

There has been little scholarship addressing indigenous – nature interactions within ecological systems experiencing climate change.  Most importantly, the dimensions of  environmental changes and their impact to resiliency within Maine tribes have remained largely undetermined and unexplored.

Wabanaki Ways of Knowing and Kinship with Ecological Systems

The ways of knowing through ancient human interactions with the ecology are  founded on the sacred covenant with ‘t’olonapemkowakk’- all our relations (human and non-human) as depicted in the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet, and including ‘Msit Noqkmaq’ in Mi’kmaq language. The conceptual framework of  ‘holism’ links the Wabanaki as co-participant through cultural connections to the greater ecology that have been  handed down through generations. Values of interrelationship and  interdependence form the foundation of ecological mutualism in which indigenous society operates in their interconnection to the ecology. 

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Source: Donald Soctomah

Indigenous ecological knowledge is informed by the sacred covenant with ‘t’olonapemkowakk’- all our relations (human and non-human). Here Passamaquoddy Tribal Elders thank the water during a traditional water ceremony. 

Indigenous knowledge systems’ response to environmental changes are expressed in the indigenous languages.  The ancient knowledge system, known today as ‘traditional ecological knowledge’(TEK) may illustrate a new phase of stability and ecological transformation by which cultural relationship reshapes and adapts to a changing environment.  TEK as a Native construct is used to ensure sustainability of the ecological community and for the indigenous people as co-participants-holism (See Figure 1). 

Native author Gregory Cajete defines Native Science or TEK as a broad term that is inclusive of  ecological practices that may include aspects of metaphysics, philosophy, art,  architecture, technologies, agriculture, ritual, and ceremony.  Cajete describes TEK as a ‘relational’ construct that is based on tribal philosophies, cultural ways of living, customs, and language that are applicable to ancestral lands, history and to the earth.

Example of Traditional Ecological Knowledge

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Source: Figure 1, Fred G. Miliiken, courtesy of the Maine Historical Society. Wabanaki fish weirs ensured the survival and reproductive capacity of the fishery, safeguarded marine biodiversity, while providing quality nourishment for the people. Extensive indigenous knowledge of the species, migration behavior, tide, and water currents, along with Native technology were essential. Fishing weir, Sipay’k (Pleasant Point), Perry, Maine, ca. 1935

An example of TEK can be seen in the basic premise of fish weir harvesting used by the  Wabanaki. Fish weirs were used during the ebb of high tide to ensure the unimpeded movement of the spawning salmon school to the reproductive grounds to maintain healthy runs for socio-ecological benefit of the natural community.  The Wabanaki fishing method  ensured the survival and reproductive capacity of fishery species, and safeguarded marine biodiversity, while providing quality nourishment for the people.  Extensive indigenous knowledge of the species, migration behavior, tide, and water currents, along with Native technology were essential. 

Indigenous scholars have found that accompanying changes in our societal relationship to nature and culture have led to momentous cultural losses including language, and ecological knowledge preservation and transmission. This is mainly due to the inability to practice indigenous culture, deteriorating intertribal-clan relationships and traditional values and diminishing interconnectivity to the landscape, oceans and waterways that define Native American culture (Daigle et al., 2019).  Access to culturally significant resources is central to building resilience through cultural expression, identity, spirituality, and physical well being (Grossman & Parker, 2012) (See Figure 2).

At the same time, human-induced environmental changes exacerbate the limited access to culturally significant species, leading to economic and cultural  hardships for many indigenous people of North America. These hardships are primarily a result of environmental challenges and the unfair allocation of culturally significant resources to commercial industry.

Figure 2.png

Traditional tribal knowledge fosters an atmosphere for co-creating and co-partnering with mutual support. This includes the holistic value of kinship, whereby individual problems become a community problem.  The interdependency and  interrelationship with the ecology through the acquisition of cultural resources have defined the foundations of Wabanaki culture and identity.  The ability to practice tribal culture, while utilizing indigenous language, simultaneously restores knowledge transfer systems and ensures cultural permanency for the Wabanaki people.  Loss of access to culturally significant resources and ecological knowledge transfer places the Wabanaki culture at risk of extinction. 


A decisive shift in policy to sustain the vision of ‘Woli-litu’ (Living in a
Good Way) and to take steps toward ‘Wolankeyutomuk’ (Stewardship), a resource  management approach that fosters community stewardship, is an essential step for Maine  tribes.  Under this framework, TEK will be retained, rediscovered, and renewed into a  community-based cultural resurgence and reawakening that is evolving daily to support cultural resiliency efforts for the Wabanaki. 

Fig 2


Climate change is having a serious impact on the Wabanaki Tribal Nations, threatening livelihoods, cultures, and self-determination. That was the message from Darren Ranco, a University of Maine professor who gave a July 10 webinar presentation called “Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and the Wabanaki Tribal Nations,” hosted by Augusta-based Maine Conservation Voters.

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Nibezun celebrates culture as medicine, provides an inclusive space for healing, and promotes sustainability for all people and future generations.

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In the fall 2017 Climate Change Summit at the University of Maine, the five tribal regions
expressed an interest in identifying commonalities for network building (Bureau of Indian
Affairs Comprehensive Report, 2017, unpublished work) and for identifying economic
impacts through the perspective of native culture. Tribal cultures of Maine are heavily
interlinked with traditional economies contingent on the utilization of the ocean and
freshwater ecosystems, land, wildlife and native plants.


These eco-economic systems provide the same security as any other employment or career dependencies present in contemporary economies. Eco-economic activities may include traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering, as well as the provision of shelter materials for dwellings for families or farm animals, education through the transfer of ecological knowledge, commerce through trading, barter items, or outstanding financial obligations, elder-care, energy (wood fuel), traditional and non-traditional governance systems and values, land or water travel, native guides, arts, and ceremony and spiritual support to traditional leaders within the communities (Michelle, 2021). These very same activities provide a means of cultural information flow on the status of the environment within communities and between the ecology and the traditional harvesters (Figure 3). 

Figure 3.png
Native Science
TEK: primary impacts

Tribal environmental experts have reiterated throughout discussions on climate  changes that scientific ecological knowledge (SEK) may help explain some of the historic  events of climate changes.  However,  modern scientists must also listen to native science (TEK) to fully understand shifts in the ecology, anthropogenic landscape changes, water quality, water runoff and anthropogenic concerns of pollution, fisheries, invasive species and the impacts of increasing temperatures on wildlife and forestry.


In 2017, a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Tribal Comprehensive Adaptation Planning project was initiated through a collaborative partnership with the Maine Tribes and University of  Maine Northeast Center for Climate Science (NECCS).  It was coordinated through the Wabanaki Center Native Scholars Outreach and Research Program at the University of  Maine.  The primary goal of the educational partnership was to assist the Maine tribes in developing an adaptation and mitigation plan for long-term impacts of climate changes.  In addition, the information collected would provide baseline data to the tribes for future comparisons in adaptation planning. 

The NECCS experts at the University of Maine identified and shared relevant  information in paleo ecology, climate modeling, river ecology and hydrology, marine issues and information concerning climate vulnerable species and natural resources unique to the various tribal regions.  Each region identified key issues in climate change involving forestry, fisheries and wildlife, including human health concerns that were applicable to tribal cultural and economic livelihoods.  Some indicators were identified by all tribes such as increased temperatures, extreme precipitation, changing freeze/thaw conditions, increased invasive species and loss of habitat.

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Source: Steve Underwood, Invasive variable milfoil was first discoverd in Big Lake in 2019, setting off a collaborative community response, with the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township playing a key leadership role.

"Climate change has impacted and will continue to impact indigenous peoples, their lifeways and culture, and the natural world upon which they rely, in unpredictable and potentially devastating ways. Many climate adaptation planning tools fail to address the unique needs, values and cultures of indigenous communities. This Tribal Climate Adaptation Menu, which was developed by a diverse group of collaborators representing tribal, academic, intertribal and government entities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, provides a framework to integrate indigenous and traditional knowledge, culture, language and history into the climate adaptation planning process."

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The tribal regions include three separate temperate zones in Maine. The Wabanaki tribes include the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq located respectively in Houlton and Presque Isle in northern Aroostook County, the Passamaquoddy located in Perry and Princeton in the Downeast Maritime regions of Washington County, and the southern tribe of the Penobscot located in Old Town in the lower regions of Penobscot County (see Figure 4).

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Source: Figure 4, Public Domain via Legends of America, Map showing ancestral homelands of four of the five principal Tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy. Not depicted on this map homeland of the Abenaki. 

What would 'meaningful involvement' of native perspectives in current systems, decision- and policy-making look like? 

Native perspectives as co-participants and co-inhabitants with the ecology may provide a basis for which policy is made and carried out by Maine’s tribes and lead to better environmental ethics for ‘t’olonapemkowakk’- all our relations (human and non-human).  State support and encouragement of individual agency for Maine tribes may provide an important foundational framework for the generation of alternative knowledge bases that are critical to the restoration and revitalization of culturally significant resources as  climate change increases.  It is imperative that the Federal, State and local agencies include the tribes in the process of ‘meaningful involvement’ if the tribes are to be successful to adequately manage and foster common benefits in mitigating climate change impacts in Maine.

Thus, reevaluating the current system may spur opportunities to recombine sources  of experiences and knowledge for learning, innovation, and cooperation in government-to government relationships for mutually beneficial outcomes that includes all Maine citizens.   The utilization of culturally relevant models that center Wabanaki ways of knowing within  management planning and strategy would provide more meaningful involvement of tribal  harvesters as co-partners.  


Wabanaki Alliance Legislative Bill Tracker

Use this resource to track issues related to the Wabanaki Nations. Find details on many  bills and actions you can take to stand with the Wabanaki.

Wabanaki Commission on Land and Stewardship

The mission of the Wabanaki Commission on Land and Stewardship Nil yut ktahkomiq nik (the whole earth is our home) is to improve the health and well-being of Wabanaki people through a sustained effort to expand our access, management, and ownership of lands to practice our land-based cultures across Wabanaki homeland in what is now the State of Maine. 

Integrating Wabanaki Traditional Cultural Knowledge With Technology And Science

WaYS’ priority is working with and for Wabanaki communities to provide experiential learning opportunities for indigenous youth. This is accomplished with the inclusion of Cultural Knowledge Sharers, western science professionals, and educators in various settings and forms. We work with youth in elementary school through college-age. 

New US climate report says land theft and colonization amplify the climate crisis for Indigenous peoples

The Fifth National Climate Assessment, a collaboration between 13 federal agencies and an array of academic researchers, takes stock of just how severe global warming has become and breaks down its effects by geography. Read about how climate change will impact your region of the country, and explore potential solutions to the crisis.

DISCOVER MORE | Suggested topics


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