Indigenous Knowledge Goes to Washington

The Biden administration is pledging to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into federal policy making. Tribal leaders support the move, but say guidelines must be carefully written to protect ‘sacred and sensitive’ information.

By Melanie Lenart

A view of Pyramid Lake on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation. Dan Mosely, foreground, is former executive director of Pyramid Lake Fisheries. The Biden administration is planning to tap into the deep reservoir of ecological knowledge found in Indigenous societies.

The Biden administration announcement, made at the November 2021 Tribal Nations Summit, that it would require federal agencies to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into their research and policy making was widely hailed by Native leaders as a milestone in federal-tribal relations, and an important validation of the accrued knowledge of Indigenous societies.

However, STEM leaders in Native communities also acknowledge that mingling the rules guiding a federal bureaucracy with evolving traditions of Indigenous knowledge holders poses challenges as well as opportunities. While Indigenous leaders and researchers indicated they welcome the effort, they also highlighted some of the nuances that should guide the process.

“There’s a lot of hope,” said Ann Marie Chischilly, the executive director of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals based at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. “Seeing President Biden‘s memo on traditional ecological knowledge was a long culmination of efforts by all the tribes and tribal experts in the country working on climate change initiatives. It’s been a long process.”

In a fact sheet released in conjunction with the Tribal Nations Summit, the administration called traditional ecological knowledge “one of the important bodies of knowledge that contributes to the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of our nation.”  It also pledged to develop a plan for the “collection and application of such knowledge” in a way that is “mutually beneficial to Tribes, Native communities, and federal agencies.”

The process is kicking into a higher gear now, as representatives from at least 25 federal agencies have begun to meet. With ongoing input, they plan to produce guidelines on incorporating what they call Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or ITEK, for presentation at next year’s White House Tribal Nations Summit. The many ramifications for the guidelines will include affecting federally funded research projects among and with tribes.

“We are eager to connect with Native communities and Tribal leaders to ensure that their input and expertise are taken into account early and often,” Gretchen Goldman, an assistant director with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, explained in an email to Native Science Report. The OSTP is co-leading the effort to produce the guidelines alongside the Council on Environmental Quality.

The interagency working group meetings are for employees only, Goldman indicated, but the group plans to hold several formal consultation sessions with tribal nations and others. The White House Council on Native American Affairs hosted its first “engagement session with Tribal leaders” on January 31, with plans to hold three consultations every year.

Elevating the importance of traditional knowledge

Some federal agencies have already developed guidance relevant to their agencies, noted Council on Environmental Quality General Counsel Justin Pidot, and many agencies have been working with Indigenous knowledge holders for years to improve decision-making.

“This White House effort is intended to elevate the importance of Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge in federal work and to build off of the great work and collaboration we’ve already seen,” Pidot explained by email, including some provisional guidelines developed in 2014 by a group of tribal leaders in climate change research.

Chischilly, a citizen of the Diné (Navajo Nation), helped produce the 2014 provisional guidelines. She said the Obama administration’s Sally Jewell, secretary of the Department of the Interior at the time, invited the input for an Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science. 

“One of the first questions we raised in that committee was respect and acknowledgement for the TEKs with an ‘s,’” she said. She explained that there are 574 federally recognized tribes, and each tribe can have more than one knowledge holder with varying views.

When Chischilly recognized that the federal employees on the advisory committee struggled to understand that concept, she and others formed a committee of national Indigenous scholars to produce the 2014 provisional guidelines. Currently, their guidelines are featured on some government websites, including the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit.

The group settled on the phrase “traditional knowledges” for the provisional guidelines, but it’s also known as traditional ecological knowledge, Native science, Indigenous knowledge and, now, Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge. The variety of monikers hints at the difficulty in pinning down systems of knowledge that not only evolve in time but also retain roots in a cultural reality that differs in distinct ways from the conventional western science worldview.

The federal government does seem to be focusing on knowledge relating to ecological endeavors, as the memo defined ITEK as “a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, practices, and beliefs that promote environmental sustainability and the responsible stewardship of natural resources through relationships between humans and environmental systems.”

Still, the guidelines will not be limited to situations involving land stewardship, Goldman indicated.

“Our interagency working group partners represent agencies from across the Federal government, and we do not envision the guidance we’re developing to be specific to environmental management applications,” she stated.

The question of ownership

As provisional guidelines co-author Preston Hardison, a retired policy analyst for the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, explained to a group of legal scholars during a talk at Case Western Reserve University, traditional knowledge eludes an easy definition. Unlike what the name implies, TEK encompasses not only information, but also values, and how they are expressed in daily life.

“In a way, I think it was a mistake to invent the phrase. Because if I use ‘traditional knowledge’ with Indigenous peoples, often they know I’m not from around there,” Hardison said, eliciting laughter. “(That’s) because that’s not the way they express it. They say ‘this is the way we do things, ‘this is the way it is,’ ‘this is the way it was intended by our ancestors.’ ”

Traditional ecological knowledge is “a gift that has to be used wisely and used appropriately. Otherwise, it will be taken away.”

Hardison said he has read thousands of articles about the related topic of intellectual property, and he has noticed some similarities among the many forms of Indigenous knowledges, such as a tendency to include spiritual undertones. In general, when knowledge holders pass down the concepts, they also expect the recipient to accept the burden that comes with it, such as responsibility for stewardship.

“It’s a gift that has to be used wisely and used appropriately,” he said. “Otherwise, it will be taken away.”

Unfortunately for tribes, U.S. laws regarding copyrights and public access to federal research projects make it challenging to protect information shared for one purpose from being used for other purposes.

For example, as Hardison said during a phone call with Native Science Report in late January, the Klamath tribe had shared information about its water resources with researchers under a Memorandum of Agreement that the information remain confidential. However, some local farmers learned of the project and submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain that data. Despite the promise of confidentiality, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that the Memorandum of Agreement did not apply to the federal government, so the tribe did have to share the information.

Even if confidentiality protections are adopted as a policy, that policy could change with administrations, he said. That’s one reason tribes tend to be resistant to the production of a database of traditional knowledge, even if it’s supposed to be protected or used only by a patent office. Passing laws that include safeguards would be the best way to protect tribes from what he called “switch flipping.” 

“All it takes is a shift in government, a shift in policy, and suddenly after you’ve collected all of this, you just flip a switch and now it’s open,” he explained.

Protecting the ‘sacred and sensitive’

Protecting ITEK shared in federally funded research faces similar issues, given policies dictating public benefits from publicly funded research.

“The fact that Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge can encompass sacred and sensitive information is something we’re thinking carefully about as we develop this guidance, and we recognize the need to protect it,” the Council on Environmental Quality’s Pidot noted. “We look forward to hearing from Tribal Nations and knowledge holders about what sort of protections they’d like to see in place and under what conditions they’d feel comfortable working with agencies in this sphere.”

When asked whether the Biden administration would attempt to ensure a more lasting legacy than an approach that could fall to the wayside with a change in administration, Pidot responded, “We intend to elevate Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge across the Federal government to ensure that partnering with knowledge holders becomes integral to agency practices and processes, and we hope that the practices and guidelines we identify will have a lasting positive effect for years to come.”

Some federal agencies have produced partial guidelines on ITEK, Pidot explained, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Environmental Protection Agency (these guidelines can be found in the links provided below). He indicated that different agencies may have unique ways of implementing the guidance from the current White House initiative, which is intended to “supplement” existing guidance.

Knowledge holders should retain control

In the November White House memo announcing the ITEK initiative, the two agencies heading the effort made an effort to acknowledge some of these issues of ownership and sensitivity in a joint memo stating, “The Administration recognizes that the Federal Government should engage with ITEK only through relationships with Tribal Nations and Native communities and in a manner that respects the rights of knowledge holders to control access to their knowledge, to grant or withhold permission, and to dictate the terms of its application.”

The authors of the provisional guidelines report emphasized the need to ensure Indigenous data sovereignty, even if it means applying different laws when it comes to ITEK than apply to other types of published information.

“When we’re talking about traditional knowledges, they are knowledge that belong to a community, and the community is the one that decides whether or not it should be included in the climate research, whether it should be published, and who should have access to that information,” said provisional guidelines co-author Dr. Karletta Chief, a University of Arizona researcher and member of the Diné (Navajo Nation) whose many research projects often involve tribes. “The community may be willing to share that information for a certain reason for a specific purpose, but they may not be wanting that information to be publicly available to the whole world.”

In other words, they’re suggesting that even if information is published, that does not mean anyone should use it without permission. This poses numerous challenges in the current U.S. legal environment, where the funder, rather than the tribe or community, often controls access to data, and publication is viewed by copyright laws as putting the information into the public sphere.

“So it really centers on the importance of Indigenous data sovereignty and the right to that data, and unfortunately with some of the federal guidelines or rules, some of that could easily be broken. There are a lot of risks related to Indigenous peoples because of that,” Chief said during a Zoom call with Native Science Report. “For that reason, they may be hesitant to even partner with university researchers because of that lack of an understanding.”

Changes in federal grants could help

To help improve the chances that university researchers will be able to interact appropriately with tribes, the authors recommend that the federal government set up a two-tiered grant system. Under the first tier, researchers could apply for funding to seek collaboration with specific tribes. If that relationship-building effort works out, only then would researchers apply for a grant to support the actual project.

“We know that by working with knowledge holders in the right ways, we can achieve better outcomes for people and for the planet.”

“There has been a problem and still is to this day where researchers propose to work with a community but yet they have no partnership with them. Or maybe they have a letter from them, but they haven’t done proper tribal consultation or tribal outreach,” Chief said. “If you don’t have the partnerships in place, you’ll be spending the rest of the grant time to build that partnership rather than actually focusing on the research objectives.”

The interagency working group is currently reviewing concepts with many agency employees, some of whom are Indigenous, and they hope to find resolutions to some of these issues in the coming year.

“We’re eager to speak with Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples in the coming months, and we intend to develop a guidance document that reflects their input and expertise,” according to Pidot. “This is a critical initiative for the Administration, because we know that by working with knowledge holders in the right ways, we can achieve better outcomes for people and for the planet.”

After going more than four years without formal consultation from the White House until the November summit, many Indigenous peoples greeted the Biden administration efforts as a clear sign that the president and his administration recognize tribal sovereignty. The effort to produce suitable guidelines for federal research, policy and decisions appears to be seen as another step in the right direction.

“Having an administration that understands, respects and works with tribes as nation to nation is a huge step. It’s been a long time coming, so I really appreciate everyone’s work,” Chischilly said. “Everything we do now is setting the foundation for the seven generations to come.”

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Melanie Lenart is a regular contributor to Native Science Report.

Additional Resources

Below are links to some of the existing federal guidelines relating to the use of traditional knowledges.

Advisory Council on Historical Preservation

TraditionalKnowledgePaper5-3-21.pdf (

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,in%20a%20more%20environmentally%20and%20economically%20responsible%20way

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Story published February 8, 2022

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