The role of narrative in the transmission and contextualization of traditional ecological knowledge in Mortlockese

Odango, Emerson Lopez
Odango, Emerson Lopez
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This paper investigates role that narrative discourse plays in the transmission and contextualization of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in the medium of Mortlockese, a minority language of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). I assert that documentary linguists and ethnobiologists alike must attune to narrative in the course of fieldwork when trying to record, analyze, and contextualize TEK. TEK is best viewed not as a static set of discrete facts, but rather as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and their environment” (Berkes 2008:8). Discussions on the methodology of collecting TEK include emphasis on doing so in the native language of the speech community (Mailhot 1993, Neis et al. 1999, Procter 1999). The ethnobiological literature, however, only makes passing note of the role that discourse plays in the transmission of TEK, not just from consultant to researcher, but also from community member to other community member (cf. Dilts & Appell 2012). Because “the process of becoming a competent member of a society is realized to a large extent through language, by acquiring knowledge of its functions, social distribution, and interpretations in and across socially defined situations, i.e., through exchanges of language in particular social situations” (Ochs & Schieffelin 2009:297), the transmission and contextualization of TEK as a body of knowledge, practices, and beliefs must also be understood as something to be learned and maintained through language socialization. Drawing upon specific examples from my long-term fieldwork on Mortlockese as spoken by a diasporic atoll community in Pohnpei, FSM, I show how members of that speech community use narrative as one of a variety of tools for sharing, passing on, and contextualizing TEK as varied as the distribution of local reef and pelagic fish, cultural uses of local flora, and folk tales associated with local birds. Much like the sharing of knowledge amongst community members, as well as from community member to outside researcher, we can see that there is overlap in the research goals and methodology of documentary fieldworkers who seek to develop a “corpus of recordings of observable linguistic behavior and metalinguistic knowledge” (Himmelmann 2006:10) with that of ethnobiologists studying TEK. Both groups of researchers need to look (and listen) carefully to the role narrative plays in the transmission and contextualization of TEK.
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