Change in Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is not easily understood in terms of Western innovation discourses. In fact, innovations in the sense of modern and growth-oriented technologies are common sources for the erosion of TEK. This article brings together current literatures on TEK and innovation studies in addressing questions about the governance of socio-ecological change. First, we connect TEK to shifting meanings of ‘innovation' that emphasize contributions to societal goals rather than economic growth or technological modernization. Second, we situate these shifts in governance frameworks of ‘responsible innovation’. Third, we argue that the case for self-determination of traditional communities also identifies limits of integrating TEK with recent innovation discourses. As change in traditional communities is part of a wider political set of struggles about conditions of change and decolonization, debates about innovation require engagement with underlying social justice issues beyond mainstream debates about responsible governance.