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Learning as You Journey: Anishinaabe Perception of Social-ecological Environments and Adaptive Learning

Iain Davidson-Hunt, University of Manitoba
Fikret Berkes, University of Manitoba


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This paper explores the linkages between social-ecological resilience and adaptive learning. We refer to adaptive learning as a method to capture the two-way relationship between people and their social-ecological environment. In this paper, we focus on traditional ecological knowledge. Research was undertaken with the Anishinaabe people of Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 Independent First Nation, in northwestern Ontario, Canada. The research was carried out over two field seasons, with verification workshops following each field season. The methodology was based on site visits and transects determined by the elders as appropriate to answer a specific question, find specific plants, or locate plant communities. During site visits and transect walks, research themes such as plant nomenclature, plant use, habitat descriptions, biogeophysical landscape vocabulary, and place names were discussed. Working with elders allowed us to record a rich set of vocabulary to describe the spatial characteristics of the biogeophysical landscape. However, elders also directed our attention to places they knew through personal experiences and journeys and remembered from stories and collective history. We documented elders’ perceptions of the temporal dynamics of the landscape through discussion of disturbance events and cycles. Again, elders drew our attention to the ways in which time was marked by cultural references to seasons and moons. The social memory of landscape dynamics was documented as a combination of biogeophysical structures and processes, along with the stories by which Iskatewizaagegan people wrote their histories upon the land. Adaptive learning for social-ecological resilience, as suggested by this research, requires maintaining the web of relationships of people and places. Such relationships allow social memory to frame creativity, while allowing knowledge to evolve in the face of change. Social memory does not actually evolve directly out of ecosystem dynamics. Rather, social memory both frames creativity within, and emerges from, a dynamic social-ecological environment.

Key words

Anishinaabe, Canadian North, adaptive learning, boreal, ecological perception, ethnoecology, resilience, social learning, social-ecological systems, sustainability science, traditional ecological knowledge

Copyright © 2003 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087