Becoming Birds: Decolonizing Ecoliteracy

By Teresa Wicks, Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator

ʔa x̣est sx̣lx̣alt. xʷixʷey̓uł łu hi skʷest. Hello, good day. Throughout my life I have spent countless hours observing, learning from, and talking with our feathered relatives. This life full of birds has not only taught me much of what I know about the places that I have lived in, but reinforced much of my belief that I can teach almost anything through birds. For me, this idea of birds as pedagogy (method of teaching/as teachers) is represented in the line “bird by bird, I’ve come to know the Earth” from Pablo Neruda’s poem “The Poet Says Goodbye to the Birds.” This idea of knowing the Earth, or a place, through birds is likely familiar to many birders, educators, and scientists.

A Sandhill Crane stands in the midst of dozens of Snow and Ross's Geese.
Sandhill Crane and Snow Geese, photo by Mick Thompson

Can observing birds teach individuals about ecology? After all, time spent outdoors, connecting to a place and the species within it, has long been considered an important part of developing an ecoliterate populace, capable of building a sustainable and climate-resilient future. But what does it mean to be ecoliterate? How do we build ecoliteracy? And whose ecological knowledge is centered? For decades, researchers, educators, and ecologists have defined ecoliteracy through the ecological knowledge and competencies of western science and cultures. Meaning to be ecoliterate one must only know what western science says you should know, and that you should learn it through western knowledge holders or practices.

Because of this, other ways of knowing are frequently treated as mythologies, rather than as accepted knowledge. Indigenous Ecological Knowledges come from the land and from cultural values, and are found in Indigenous languages, stories, and ceremonies. To be ecoliterate is to understand the relationships between the land, species, natural forces, and people. It’s important to note here that Indigenous Ecological Knowledges are diverse. In Oregon alone there are seven language families and 100 tribes and bands, each with an intimate knowledge of the ecology, species, medicines, etc. of their lands.

To understand ecoliteracy through a more equitable and just lens, and in a way that embraces the complexity and diversity of knowledge systems that exist outside of western science, it is useful to consider what constitutes ecoliteracy. Educators and scientists agree that facts are an important part of ecoliteracy. While ideas discovered through western science and ideas discovered through Indigenous science may be similar or the same, forcing Indigenous Knowledges into a western worldview is another form of colonization, as though western societies discovered this knowledge. Indigenous knowledge systems classify and name species in different ways than western knowledge systems. For example, western society groups birds by genetic relationships; some Indigenous peoples, for example, classify birds by their role in the ecosystem. The physical relationships between these species is as important as their classification. Because of this, we need to expand what it means to truly know and understand ecosystems. 

To do this, we can use socio-ecoliteracy, critical place pedagogies, and critical Indigenous pedagogies. Critical pedagogies embrace the idea of learning from a place through reconnecting people and communities with places, including developed, disturbed, and otherwise altered by colonial/capitalistic activities, such as parks, suburbs, and urban areas, etc. This process is known as rehabitation. Critical place pedagogies also focus on un-centering the white narratives of a place and learning the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) histories and cultures of a place (decolonization/unsettling). This means learning not just whose Indigenous lands you’re on, but how settler-colonial activities have affected and continue to affect those communities. For example, asking questions like how their Tribe is recognized today, did they cede their lands, and how they steward the land. Critical Indigenous pedagogies require the re-centering of Indigenous voices, cultures, and knowledges of place, and making sure that work is Indigenous-led (indigenization).

One example is the use of fire. Many of the Tribes whose homelands are in what is known today as Oregon managed ecosystems with fire. These fire-dependent cultures use fire to fulfill their reciprocal responsibilities to the plants and animals that sustain them, including camas, huckleberry, acorn, and big game such as black-tailed deer. This cultural view sees fire as a way to honor our responsibilities to our four-legged, winged, and plant relatives. When settlers arrived in Oregon, they saw these fires as destroying resources that they depended on, such as timber and grasslands for grazing.

Therefore, fire suppression became the “norm” despite thousands of years of land management achieved through fire. This led to changes in habitat throughout Oregon. To bring ecosystems back into balance requires not just incorporating Indigenous burning practices into western land management, but the inclusions of Indigenous people and voices in the process.

Camas, photo by BobandCarol/Flickr

When we use this expanded framework, how does ecoliteracy shift? Using only facts from western science to measure ecoliteracy in Oregon birders, we find moderate ecoliteracy. Participating in community science, which requires spending time observing a species and the surrounding land, appears to slightly increase ecoliteracy (over birding by itself). However, when we use the expanded framework for ecoliteracy, we find that Oregon birders that have a strong connection to place have higher ecoliteracy. These birders appear to have a strong connection to the land, and an understanding of Indigenous histories (though, sadly, not present) of these places. Moreover, the way in which Oregon birders with strong place attachment discuss the places in which they spend time indicates that they are “becoming birds,” meaning they are understanding the places in which they spend time through birds and their needs. While there is a need to understand “global ecology,” it is important to understand the fine-scale information that we lose when we allow the globalization and colonization of knowledge, systems, and place.

To enact positive change for the future requires balancing the needs of BIPOC peoples around the world with the needs and knowledges of Indigenous Peoples of the places we occupy. A balance between general knowledge and place-specific knowledge. Dismantling the way we talk about ecosystems and ecological knowledge does not require that we ignore facts over opinions. It does mean re-envisioning what it means to learn and to know information and how we talk about place/the land.