Take a swim through Clear Lake, North America’s oldest (and California’s largest) natural body of fresh water, and you’ll encounter the outsiders: bass, catfish, crappie, and a dozen other predatory fish with no ecological basis for being there. The fish began arriving in the 1870s when state agents, ignorant of the local ecosystem, recklessly introduced wave after wave of invasive animals that permanently wrecked the lake’s aquatic balance. These predators drove local extinctions, devastated food webs, and destroyed tribal fishing culture. Four endemic fish species were ultimately wiped out, and a fifth—the Clear Lake hitch—is nearly extinct.

For some 150 years, authorities managing the region introduced alien species, never consulting the tribal bands who had successfully managed the lake for millennia. Likewise, scientists studying Clear Lake’s toxic mercury levels and harmful algal blooms failed to alert Indigenous communities to the looming threat. Local involvement came only when tribal experts began monitoring the waterssharing their findings, and joining lawsuits to protect native species in the lake. Fish kills on Clear Lake are persistent and frequent, but only the tribal EPA office of the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians records the assaults.

Ignorance of Native science and the centuries of knowledge it represents is hardly limited to Clear Lake. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s historical inability to distinguish among seven separate species of abalone (well known to coastal tribes, including the Chumash, Ohlone, and Yurok) led to successive waves of over-exploitation. All seven species are currently in trouble; the one remaining viable fishery—red abalone—was shut down in 2017 and will remain so until 2026. In the western United States, which is experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years, government-mandated fire-suppression plans replaced millennia of Indigenous wildland stewardship that included vegetation management and the intentional burning known as “good fire.” Instead, every year, millions of acres burn, homes are annihilated, and people die in catastrophic wildfires that cost billions of dollars.

With climate change escalating superstorms, heat waves, mega-floods, and drought, Indigenous science can no longer be ignored. For almost two millennia, beginning with local inhabitants of the Mediterranean who provided baseline data for the 600 plants described in Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica in 77 CE, Indigenous peoples have furnished substantive source material for scientific research.

Read the full article about Indigenous knowledge by Jeanine Pfeiffer at YES! Magazine.