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Resilience in Pre-contact Pacific Northwest Social Ecological Systems

Ronald L Trosper, Northern Arizona University

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Abstract

If, like other ecosystems, the variable and dynamic ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest exhibited cycles and unpredictable behavior, particularly when humans were present, the indigenous societies of that region had to have been resilient in order to persist for such a long time. They persisted for two millennia prior to contact with people from the “old world.” The Resilience Alliance (2002) proposes that social and ecological resilience requires three abilities: the ability to buffer, the ability to self-organize, and the ability to learn. This paper suggests that the characteristics of the potlatch system among Indians on the Northwest Coast, namely property rights, environmental ethics, rules of earning and holding titles, public accountability, and the reciprocal exchange system, provided all three required abilities. The resulting resilience of these societies confirms the validity of many of the ideas now being discussed as important components in providing successful and sustainable relationships between humans and their ecosystems. That so many separate ideas seem to have been linked together into resilient systems in the Pacific Northwest suggests that social ecological resilience is complicated.

Key words

Northwest Coast, adaptive management, buffering disturbance, environmental ethics, indigenous societies, property rights, reciprocity, resilience, self-organization
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087