Over the past few months I’ve had the pleasure of organising a symposium session for the 33rd meeting of the Society of Ethnobiology (The SoE) meeting held at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada earlier this month.

Birds are of great importance in the local traditional cultures on Vancouver Island, throughout British Columbia and beyond into north-western Canada. The program for the SoE conference noted the centrality of at least one bird in local culture and the respect accorded that culture by the conference organisers:

The logo for the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Society of Ethnobiology was generously donated for the event’s use by Kwaxsistalla, Clan Chief Adam Dick and was created by his nephew, Chief George Shaughnessy and Verna Barker. The artists hold the copyright to the specific design and Kwaxsistalla owns the cultural and IP rights to the dance and all its uses.

The design is the Grouse dancer, the principle character of the Atla’gimma or Spirits of the Forests Dance Complex. Kwaxsistalla inherited the Atla’gimma from his father’s side through Chief Pasa’lathl of Wuikinuxv (Rivers Inlet).

Only four sets of Atla’gimma dances came out of Wuikinuxv generations ago and today’s owners are Kwaxsistalla, Chief Richard Johnson, and the Mountain and Webber families.

Our conference theme, “The Meeting Place” is well represented by the Grouse and the other Atla’gimma spirits who gather in the ceremonial “bighouse” to share in the song of sacred interactions that keep the forest ecosystem alive. Just as each Atla’gimma character has their own dance, every ethnobiologist has their own discipline and interests. But, the synergisms of shared knowledge, like the magic of each Atla’gimma spirit dancing to the same music, is far more powerful than the sum of the parts. At our conference, we will “integrate ethnobiological knowledge” by embracing the many different ways of knowing, teaching, and learning about the complex relationship between humans and the natural world, and in doing so, discover a brighter reflection in the eyes of our colleagues.

The following week I co-chaired a similar session at the International Society of Ethnobiology (yes, I know it is confusing, similar names but very different organisations) and I’ll post the abstracts from the second conference as they come to hand.

Organising and Chairing this session at the SoE meeting was an absolute pleasure, with a diverse range of topics from across the globe that generated plenty of discussion. It was particularly exciting to have two presentations from India, a country that for me has long held tantalising prospects – due to its enormous biological and cultural diversity – for a great deal of future development in ethnoornithological research. I look forward to spending more time with Drs Suruchi and Satish Pande and their colleagues in the near future and expanding awareness of the work of the Ethnoornithological Research and Study Group and the various ethnobiological societies in that country and the region in the near future.

Thanks to all of those that presented at this session – it continues the proud and continuing development of ethnoornithological research and study. Hopefully we will be able to keep it up next year at the 34th Annual Meeting of the Society of Ethnobiology, with the theme of “Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on Ethnobiology” and which will be held from May 4– May 7, 2011 in Columbus, Ohio.

The four days of this year’s SoE meeting were a wonderful immersion in international ethnobiological research, capped by a wonderful performance of the Atla’gimma or Spirits of the Forests Dance Complex on the final night of the meeting at the First people’s House at Victoria University. To see the rest of the Abstracts and more information on the meeting – and previous SoE meetings – have a look here.

Here are the presentations from the Society of Ethnobiology meeting:


Session Organiser and Chair: Robert Gosford

1 – Leslie Johnson: Thinking About Birds, Thinking With Birds: Perspectives from Northwest North America

Birds are salient actors in human environments around the world, and are carriers of meaning, their actions invested with a range of significance. This paper will present thoughts on the significance of birds in several cultures in Northwest North America based on long term research with Gitksan, Witsuwit’en, Kaska and Gwich’in. The observations I share were made by spending time on the land with people and in conversation—that is, in everyday circumstances and through commonly repeated traditional stories. Accordingly what I present is a series of examples of certain salient birds and their meanings across the range of localities where I’ve worked. As such they are common birds, frequently observed. Relationships with these birds include: commensalism and sharing; power; birds as food; symbolic and metaphoric associations; and ecological relationships. Birds often appear as art motifs, and have strong roles in traditional narratives. Birds also enrich human experience.

2 – Robert Gosford: Birds, People and Money: Can Local People Make a Living from Culturally-­Based Bird Tourism?

In this paper I will examine the potential for culturally-­based bird tourism to provide opportunities for employment and economic development for local groups and people. Birding tourism is widely regarded as a lucrative sub-­set of the broader tourism market, with a variety of services provided by a wide range of local and international suppliers. Those services range from tours where birds are included in a broader, general product to dedicated birding-­â€only tours. I will examine and compare recent proposals in Australia and several countries in eastern Africa that have sought to develop economic and employment opportunities for local people to enter the birding tourism market by developing and offering birding tourism products that are distinguished by the inclusion of local cultural knowledge of birds intoproducts offered to potential clients. Issues that will be considered include local training requirements, marketing, issues related to access to land and the involvement of national peak bodies and organizations, government assistance and the potential benefits and risks involved in culturally-­â€based birding tourism.

3 – Dr. Suruchi Pande: Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) in Sanskrit literature and The Role of Indian Culture in Its Conservation

Sanskrit literature (chronologically going 5000 years back to Vedic literature) and Indian culture have paid significant attention to birds and their relation to human beings. Indian culture still is an existing, a vibrant and a living culture, having a peculiar structure of ideas, sensitivity, symbols, beliefs, sentiments and values that are passed on from one generation to another. I present my findingon our National bird Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) in relation to Sanskrit literature and how the Indian culture has offered a unique respectful place for the Indian Peafowl. The observations cover various aspects such as the oldest references, mythology, religion, traditions, augury, etymology, 34 lexicons, descriptive references correlating recent ornithological information, aesthetic appreciation, philosophical context, paintings, sculpture, music, dance, yogic postures and the reference in the Ayurveda (Indian system of medicine). To support this data, I have discussed the present status of Indian Peafowl; have given concrete examples of its conservation prevalent in the Indian community, to prove how the Indian culture has played an important, active and educative role in conservation.

4 – Henrik Moller, Sam McKechnie, Corey Bragg, David Fletcher, Peter Dillingham, Jamie Newman, and Rosemary Clucas: Mathematical Modeling of Mātauranga Māori: Quantifying the Sustainability Value of Traditional Seabird Harvest Lore

Mātauranga Māori (Traditional Knowledge of Māori) and ecology have been applied in partnership since 1994 to assess the sustainability of the traditional tītī (`muttonbird’, sooty shearwater) harvest by Rakiura Māori in New Zealand. A firm teaching of the ancestors was to only harvest chicks and never disturb the adults. This is part of a wider Traditional Knowledge construct to “eat the babies and leave the breeding stock alone“. Our Bayesian model simulated the comparative impact of harvesting shearwater adults, chicks and eggs. It predicted that many more eggs and chicks than adults could be harvested to have the same effect on the next generation’s abundance. More examples of quantification of the value of traditional environmental knowledge\ for harvest sustainability could help debates on the relative efficacy of science and ethnobiology for sustainability and invite more respectful partnerships between lore, science, TEKexperts and ecological manager

5 – Dr. Satish Pande and Anvita Abbi: An Ethno-­Linguistic Perspective of Names of Birds in Great Andamenese Language

Present Great Andamanese (PGA) is a moribund language and is on the verge of extinction. The current study is an outcome of the first-­hand collected data in the interdisciplinary research in Linguistics and Ornithology. We present all the 14 avian Orders, 35 Families and 100 Species recognized by the Great Andamanese people including the current conservation status, threats and distribution of avianspecies, endemic to the region. Indigenous names in PGA language were analyzed linguistically and discernible categories were classified empirically. Since the identifiable categories include avian names with single, double and triple attributes the semiotic analysis of the names of birds exposes the world view of the Great Andamanese people. What emerges is a typology of attributes where each attribute signifies a distinct avian related morphological, ornithological and semiotic behaviour. The present study, which is first of its kind, is of immense historical nature and can be used in future to establish any relationship with other languages and tribes of the Andaman Islands.