By  Raychelle Aluaq Daniel, Deputy Director for the Arctic Executive Steering Committee and Policy Advisor for Indigenous Knowledge 

T. ‘Aulani Wilhelm, Assistant Director for Ocean Conservation, Climate and Equity 

Haley Case-Scott, Policy Assistant, Climate and Environment and Vice-Chair for the Interagency Working Group on Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge 

Dr. Gretchen Goldman, Assistant Director for Environmental Science, Engineering, Policy, and Justice 

Dr. Larry Hinzman, Executive Director, Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee &  Assistant Director for Polar Sciences 

This week, something historic happened.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) released the first-ever Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Indigenous Knowledge at the White House Tribal Nations Summit. The guidance, and accompanying implementation memorandum, recognized that in order to make the best scientific and policy decisions possible, the Federal government should value and, as appropriate, respectfully include Indigenous Knowledge.

Never before has humanity faced the confluence of crises we face. And never before has there been such a driving need to expand and diversify the kinds of evidence and knowledge we rely upon to make critical decisions to address them.  

“Had our traditional cultural practices and ceremony not been outlawed and had our information keepers been listened to over the centuries, we probably would not find ourselves in the position we are today – with the losses and extinction and contamination we face as our global community.  

This is a valuable component of being able to face not only climate change but the preservation and protection of all of our resources.”  

The insight behind the words of Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, Chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, shared recently during Tribal consultations, was sourced centuries if not millennia earlier. That same insight is also at the core of what drives us as a team to elevate the role of Indigenous Knowledge in Federal policy making.

Some of us are Indigenous, from communities and cultures deeply rooted in the natural world. Others (of us) strive to understand both the power and limits of western scientific evidence alone and advance more inclusive evidence-based policy making. Collectively, we have worked within and with governments at the Tribal, local, state, national, and international levels, and we have seen evidence of success when knowledge systems are brought together.

This week’s release of this Guidance is important because respectful inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge at all levels within the Federal government can result in decisions that are based on a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of the world.  After all, developing wise policies and effective, equitable programs to improve the lives of all Americans and the health of the planet is what drives the work of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and many others in the Federal government. 

What is Indigenous Knowledge? As the Guidance details, Indigenous Knowledge – also referred to as Traditional Knowledge or Traditional Ecological Knowledge  –  is a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, innovations, practices, and beliefs that promote sustainability and the responsible stewardship of cultural and natural resources through relationships between humans and their landscapes. Indigenous Knowledge cannot be separated from the people inextricably connected to that knowledge. It applies to phenomena across biological, physical, social, cultural, and spiritual systems. Indigenous Peoples have developed their knowledge systems over millennia, and continue to do so based on evidence acquired through direct contact with the environment, long-term experiences, extensive observations, lessons, and skills. 

This familial intimacy with nature enables the ability to detect often subtle, micro-changes and to base decisions on deep understanding of patterns and processes of change in the natural world of which people are a part. The information and summative historical and cultural ecology contained within Indigenous languages, practices, values, place names, songs, and stories hold data and knowledge that are relevant today. 

For example, it is estimated that, currently, at the global scale, Indigenous Peoples – and long-standing, place-based communities – manage over 24% of land, which contains ~40% of all ecologically intact landscapes and protected areas left on the planet, and a staggering ~80% of the world’s biodiversity. In short, evidence suggests that the most intact ecosystems on the planet rest in the hands of people who have remained close to nature. And Indigenous Knowledge isn’t just applicable to land and water use; it is relevant to all human systems.  

Why Now? When more forms of evidence are considered, better decision-making results. Recognition and inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge in Federal decision-making benefits everyone. Tribes and Indigenous Peoples have long requested that Indigenous Knowledge be consistently and meaningfully included in Federal decision making.  We have heard from people well versed in this work during the consultations and engagement, that progress has varied widely across agencies and policy processes.  

Recognizing the importance of Indigenous Knowledge is part of a necessary process of recognizing history and rectifying relationships. As one of his first actions after taking office, President Biden issued the 2021 Presidential Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships to strengthen the relationship between the Federal Government and Tribal Nations and advancing equity for Indigenous Peoples, including Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. states and territories. The Guidance identifies opportunities to include Indigenous Knowledge across all levels of Federal agency decision making.  

Acknowledging history and context. The Biden-Harris Administration has also taken critical first steps to acknowledge and address past harms to Indigenous communities, and this initiative is no different. Such efforts include a Federal effort to preserve Native languages, the Interior Department’s removal of derogatory place names, and the Interior Department’s effort to understand harms and help communities heal from the Federal boarding school initiative, which was intended to erase Indigenous identity. For over 150 years, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families and communities, and many never returned. With respect to Indigenous Knowledge, U.S. colonial history and U.S. policy-making frameworks have ignored Indigenous Knowledge, and have resulted in  the disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and termination of Tribes and Indigenous Peoples. Official governmental policies sought to separate (both physically and intellectually) Indigenous Peoples from the places they are connected to, severing relationships with lands, waters, and social systems that are critical elements of Indigenous Knowledge. 

Many others have worked to build a foundation for improving relationships and recognizing the historic wrongdoings of the Federal government on Indigenous Peoples. This foundation includes a 1993 Apology Resolution by Congress, acknowledging the role of the U.S. in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and a 2009 apology, to all Native peoples “for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States.   

History and context matter; therefore, understanding these historical harms and past relationship between Indigenous communities and the Federal Government is critical for Federal employees seeking to meaningfully include Indigenous Knowledge in their work. And this Guidance is an important step in the right direction.

Guidance for Agencies.  Complementing the above activities, last November, the Biden-Harris Administration released a historic Memorandum recognizing Indigenous Knowledge as a critical contributor to the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of the United States and to our collective understanding of the natural world. The Memorandum committed the Administration to craft White House Guidance on Indigenous Knowledge for Federal agencies. One year later, the release of this Guidance is an important next step.

Looking to the future; where do we go from here? With the Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Indigenous Knowledge now issued, OSTP and CEQ will work with agencies to ensure that the Guidance is meaningfully implemented into Federal decision-making. Building on the collaboration of an interagency working group of more than 25 agencies that developed the Guidance, OSTP, with CEQ, is establishing a National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on Indigenous Knowledge to provide a mechanism for agencies to focus on Guidance implementation. The Guidance is intended to include and benefitall Indigenous Peoples, not only Federally recognized Tribes and Peoples. It will also aid Federal agencies in their ability to bring forward Indigenous Knowledge for the benefit of all Americans. The Guidance is one step towards successfully elevating Indigenous Knowledge as a common practice. In the words of one of the participants at the Pacific Peoples’ Roundtable in Hawai‘i,  

Continuity is important. Once the Administration leaves…we want to make sure the work continue[s] on and becomes an approach any administration can refer to. It should have reciprocity. 

 When people are part of the solution, they invest in it.” 

We are privileged to be part of this ongoing work.

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