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Episode 3: Let’s Talk TLEK

A Conversation with Sabra Comet about respectfully engaging with Indigenous Knowledge Holders

In this episode of On My Coast, we connect with a Traditional Knowledge holder who shares their experiences and discusses how they share their knowledge.

Tune in for an in-depth conversation with Sabra Marie TallChief Comet (Coastal Training Program Coordinator, South Slough Reserve).

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is a knowledge system or worldview of human-environment relations that incorporates spirituality, cultural values, ethics, and the basic norms of society, and is passed down through generations, often through oral tradition. Local knowledge reflects the observations and experiences of people living in a region who may be, but are not necessarily, indigenous. Together, Traditional and Local Ecological Knowledge are pragmatic, holistic, and often emphasize interconnectedness between people and nature.


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Sabra Comet  00:00

On my coast, the landscape is harsh but bountiful.


Amara Davis  00:18

Welcome to the on my Coast podcast, where we share the stories of people on America’s coasts, whose experiences and challenges have inspired and been the focus of Sea Grant work for over 50 years. I’m Amara Davis–


Hallee Meltzer  00:31

and I’m Hallee Meltzer. The National Sea Grant College Program for Sea Grant is a Federal University Partnership program that brings science together with communities for solutions that work. It was originally created through an act of Congress in 1966. And the state and national secret programs work together with community partners to create maintain a healthy coastal environment and economy.


Amara Davis  00:54

These stories are relevant because they show the important and necessary work that can happen through diverse inclusive collaborations.


Hallee Meltzer  01:03

In this episode of On My Coast, we’ll be connecting with a traditional ecological knowledge holder about their experiences and what it means to respectfully share knowledge.


Sabra Comet  01:14

My full name is Sabra Marie TallChief Comet. I’m a member of the Osage Nation, and I am a second generation born in California Osage. I am currently the Coastal Training Program Coordinator at the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve and I was a Maloof scholar and a Knauss fellow for Oregon Sea Grant that took me over to Washington DC before my current position.


Amara Davis  01:43

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is a knowledge system or worldview of human environment relations, that incorporates spirituality, cultural values, ethics and the basic norms of society, and is passed down through generations, often through oral tradition.


Sabra Comet  02:01

My father worked for a tribe when I was growing up in the northern California area, and through not not on purpose, but I ended up going a similar route. Before grad school, I worked for a tribe, a different tribe in Northern California, the Trinidad Ranch area, which is the southernmost Yurok affiliate. And during grad school, I had the opportunity to work with the Oregon coastal tribes, the Confederated Tribes of Coastal Oregon , ah the Coos,  the Coquillle Tribe, both of which the NERR that I now work with work with regularly. I also worked with the way I had conversations with the Grand Ronde tribe. And I also worked with the Siletz Tribe on a project that was asking questions around how marine protected areas and other sorts of restricted take or restricted use areas on the coast were affecting tribal members, as well as if they had recommendations for how to manage the marine protected areas, the state control funds. And this was done in the form of long answer interviews to where I tried to make it as conversational as possible to allow the stories to flow naturally. And instead of question answer question qnswer, it was more of here’s the overall view.


Sabra Comet  03:33

But a lot of really valuable stories came out of that. Not only was there a management report generated for the marine protected areas, but all the original, all the original audio files, as well as the spatial files that were generated when people would mark on Google Maps, what they were talking about, all of those went back to each of their member tribal governments to use for their own management, oral history, cultural uses. And I learned a lot about the area that I was somewhat familiar with, you know, working living in Oregon for quite a few years. But I got to see it through a whole different lens, I got to know a lot more about the history about the human footprint that had sculpted some of these very natural resource diverse areas. And really gave me a lot of context for how the relations are right now. How policies affect tribal members. And since I then went on to do more of a policy focused fellowship through the Knauss, it really helped set up a set me up for seeing how these really broad over reaching laws and policies can affect people on the ground level.


Amara Davis  05:01

Traditional Knowledge often emphasizes interconnectedness between people and nature. Traditional Knowledge and knowledge gained via modern Western scientific methods are different, and often complimentary and parallel ways of knowing. However, integrating multiple ways of knowing Foster’s a more holistic practice of science.


Sabra Comet  05:22

The real value here is twofold. One of which is some of this information predated the technology. So like fish counts, or sonar, or anything that you would use nowadays to track these kinds of things. So the people were there way beforehand, and they could point that out. So having a bunch of earlier baseline data set is very valuable. And also, people are built to recognize patterns. Oral histories, and people’s mental timelines or people’s noticing of patterns can be analyzed quantitatively, not just qualitatively, if they noticed any booms or busts, in any of the populations–say, you know, a particular clam had disappeared from an area or anything like that, as well as if they remembered any significant habitat or weather changes around the same time, they asked someone to think back, they can spot patterns really well. And that’s something that technology isn’t necessarily great at.


Sabra Comet  06:24

And it’s very valuable information, especially when you can look pre water level counters, and then up to present day If you have someone that is familiar with the area through that whole period, they can probably figure out a pattern that we wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. But the the one thing that I definitely still talk a lot about is how to analyze these oral histories in a quantitative fashion, which isn’t always easy for career academics to visualize. And then I’ve definitely been trying to push some projects to adapt this style to where yes, you take this information, you can grip it this way into a quantitative sheet, and then spit out, you know, these general patterns and trends and not just keeping it to qualitative analysis. And I think that’s one thing that is very exciting to a lot of folks.


Hallee Meltzer  07:22

Traditional Ecological Knowledge both comes from communities and contributes to community identity. There are knowledge holders in every community, and this knowledge is integral to the way individuals connect with each other, and with the environment around them.


Sabra Comet  07:36

Something that really resonated, especially when I started looking more at a policy focus, this was like, okay, so we really need to make sure that we build in these practices so that they’ll be viable, long into the future, accommodating for better understanding of these places, the other changes that might be coming into them. But also, knowing that there might be some sacrifice in the short term. Going back to fishing, there might be some sacrifice for catch limits for the first couple of years, in order to let these populations bounce back. And knowing that it’s not always a nice conversation with the folks that depend on that for their livelihood. But knowing when to take a firm stance and trying to, again, it’s, you can never truly be in another person’s shoes, but you can at least try to empathize with them.


Sabra Comet  08:37

I definitely noticed that within my generation, there’s more and more native scientists coming out that, you know, go to college, get the hard science degrees, and have an understanding of that academic viewpoint, and then are either going back to their own communities or just working with Indigenous communities in general, as you have more young people able to have a foot in each one of these worlds, being able to be the bridge back and forth. I think that that’s one of the big catalysts for these changes, and for really bringing up the importance of TLEK, in management and policy and science. But one of the other things that I want to definitely bring up is with, again, speaking that same generation with these people that are going to college and then either coming back or if they can’t come back then they are like me, a transplant, but are working still within the broader community, is the struggles of keeping a firm root in that traditional life.


Sabra Comet  09:53

It’s a lot harder to find jobs near these Indigenous communities, which are usually in rural areas. And with that comes the danger of losing these practices or this knowledge. And I haven’t really heard a good solution yet. It’s something that a lot of people are worried about. And it’s not that there’s a lack of interest from the younger generation. In fact, a lot of them go to extreme lengths to try and keep those connections, but with the way that a lot of people have to, they have to go to cities, in order to make money to be able to support themselves, it’s becoming a harder thing to maintain. But I think having a bigger network is really going to be key to make sure that individuals don’t get burned out, but they don’t take on more than they feel comfortable with. And to make sure that we keep a diversity of perspectives going. Because that’s a really big part of it is you don’t want bottlenecks of information, you definitely want to have as diverse of viewpoints, ways of learning and understanding and experiences as much as possible.


Amara Davis  11:09

Putting complementary, collaborative ways of knowing into practice is important, and requires us to consider the customs and cultures, families and histories intertwined with this knowledge. We need to think about how we can move forward together in a way that respects the intricacies of this work.


Sabra Comet  11:26

So part of it is going through the process of relationship building, which is the direction that I see a lot of Tribal communities wanting to go when working with external groups. They want time to build a relationship with someone and and that person to understand more of the context of why certain things are not made public of why this type of information is important. And to share really, their, the lens through which this knowledge needs to be seen, rather than the mainstream American perspective.


Sabra Comet  12:09

But it’s something that one isn’t really known for people in different government agencies that want to work with tribal, or indigenous communities. And it’s the grant system and the funding system, a lot of time really isn’t set up to post that kind of long term relationship. If you have funding only for two years, and you need to have a certain set of deliverables within those two years, it can be really hard to really get that relationship going and solidify it in a way that then both parties feel comfortable proceeding. And I think that needs to change.


Hallee Meltzer  12:50

We need to make room for a diversity of perspectives.


Sabra Comet  12:54

I think it’s extremely important to have, again, not not only be in a room with your peers, but also be in a room with a diversity of people in there, making sure that when we’re trying to get these diverse groups together, the you know, these were when you want to have a thorough discussion with people is not making sure that they’re the token person to check that checkbox. Even if it’s not everyone is represented, the fact that you have a diversity of people represented, I think makes everyone more comfortable, and more willing to share.


Amara Davis  13:38

We all come into this space from different places and different points on our journey. As long as we continue to move forward with each other, with respect and understanding, we can make learning and knowing a more inclusive process.


Hallee Meltzer  13:52

Thank you at home for listening to this episode of the On My Coast podcast. We look forward to having you with us again as we continue to tell the stories of Sea Grant and the communities it serves.


Amara Davis  14:02

If you’d like to hear more from us, please like share and subscribe to our podcast and follow us on Instagram (@seagrant_noaa), Twitter (@SeaGrant) and on our Facebook page (National Sea Grant College Program). We’re your hosts Amara Davis and Hallee Meltzer and on our coasts, salty seas, sustain ways of life,


Hallee Meltzer  14:25

feed many cultures


Amara Davis  14:27

and gives better-seasoned fish!



Music: OUR PLANET, FineTune Music, Adobe Stock License ASLC-12A2C55E-6B2E494BBB
Graphic created using Canva


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