'This Is Extremely Dangerous': Inside the Biden Administration's Push To Swap Science for 'Indigenous Knowledge'

The White House urges federal agencies to consider tribal religion alongside scientific studies

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images).
September 6, 2023

Just five days before President Joe Biden entered the White House, his team handed the Washington Post an exclusive story: Biden would keep his campaign promise of "following the science" by turning the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy into a cabinet-level agency.

On Nov. 30, 2022, that office did something rather unscientific: It issued a memo directing more than two dozen federal agencies to apply "Indigenous Knowledge" to "research, policies, and decision making." The 42-page document encourages the agencies to speak with "spiritual leaders" and reject "methodological dogma" when crafting policy as a way to remedy injustices against Native peoples.

Federal regulators are to consider the folk wisdom of the Comanche Nation, for instance, just as they consider lab results when trying to determine the pH level of rain. Long relegated to university campuses and fringe activist groups, the idea that Native people have a privileged understanding of the physical and metaphysical world is now the official view of the United States government.

With nearly 600 federally recognized Native tribes in the United States alone, there is no single definition of Indigenous Knowledge. Defenders and critics of the idea agree that, broadly speaking, it constitutes the traditions, stories, and religious rituals passed down orally through generations of Native Americans and aborigines in places like Australia.

This investigation is based on a Washington Free Beacon review of previously unreported federal documents, hours of recorded lectures by federal officials, and interviews with nearly a dozen experts, many of whom declined to speak publicly due to fear of reprisal. Together, the materials show how a once-fringe theory made its way to the heart of the federal government and shine a light on the Democratic Party’s struggle to balance its commitment to "the science" with its commitment to "inclusivity."

The Biden administration is not the first national government  to embrace Indigenous Knowledge. Canada began incorporating Indigenous Knowledge into its policymaking in the latter half of the 20th century, often with counterproductive results. A 2006 Canadian academic assessment concluded that "the acceptance of spiritual beliefs as ‘knowledge’ by governments was dangerous because it could be used to justify any activity, including actions that were environmentally destructive."

On Jan. 16, 2021, the Biden administration officially elevated the Office of Science and Technology Policy to the cabinet level. Biden said in his announcement that the office would help to restore "faith in America’s place on the frontier of science and discovery."

In the first few months of Biden’s term, the Office of Science and Technology Policy announced a number of unsurprising initiatives meant to advance climate science, artificial intelligence, and "equity in science and technology."

The Nov. 30, 2022, memo on Indigenous Knowledge was different. Rather than bolstering existing federal projects, the memo directed agencies to "include Indigenous Knowledge as an aspect of the best available science" and said it can be cited in "Highly Influential Scientific Assessments."

Highly Influential Scientific Assessments are some of the most consequential reports that the federal government produces. The reports analyze the impact of policies that are expected to alter annual federal spending by more than $500 million. A Department of Commerce proposal to outlaw a particular fishing method responsible for $600 million in annual revenue, for example, would require a Highly Influential Scientific Assessment.

Until now, Highly Influential Scientific Assessments have relied on tools like seismometer readings and controlled lab experiments. The Obama administration stated in a 2012 memo that the reports should include a "body of scientific or technical knowledge" that includes "meta-analyses; health, safety, or ecological risk assessments."

Use of Indigenous Knowledge as evidence in Highly Influential Scientific Assessments poses serious risks, experts told the Free Beacon.

"This is extremely dangerous," said Anna Krylov, a professor of science, engineering, and chemistry at the University of Southern California. "When I conduct experiments, I need to follow the rules and procedures and think about safety. I have to keep track of what I’m doing. I'm not thinking about chants or dancing."

In addition to the Office of Science and Technology Policy memo, the White House has released more than three dozen documents that favorably cite Indigenous Knowledge. In one memo, the White House said Indigenous Knowledge is part of its "commitment to scientific integrity and knowledge and evidence-based policymaking." In another, the White House said that science faces "limitations" given its refusal to incorporate Native religious principles.

Federal agencies have held dozens of seminars on the topic as well.

A March 2022 Environmental Protection Agency webinar entitled "Advancing Considerations of Traditional Knowledge into Federal Decision Making" featured an Indigenous Knowledge expert who explained that the "Native Worldview" does not consider time as "sequential" but rather "cyclical." Another participant, Natalie Solares, who works for a tribal consortium, suggested paying tribal elders $100 an hour to assist in federal rulemaking.

Gretchen Goldman, a senior official in the Office for Science and Technology Policy, lamented during the seminar that federal processes can be biased against "something that's not a peer-reviewed academic document."

"There are places we can, you know, just remove any barriers to fully incorporate Indigenous Knowledge into the process the same way that we would for academic science," she said.

The U.S. Geological Survey drew on Native religious traditions in an April webinar called "Incorporating Indigenous Knowledges into Federal Research and Management: What are Indigenous Knowledges?" Federal regulators and scientists were told to consider whether various food cultivation methods were considered sacred by a Native tribe. Failing to do so would "disrespect the spirits," said Melonee Montano, a traditional ecological knowledge outreach specialist for a consortium of native tribes.

City University professor Massimo Pigliucci, a biologist and philosopher of science, told the Free Beacon: "When I start hearing things about how there’s this other dimension where, you know, the animals interact with humans at a different level of reality, that’s just not a thing. It’s not a scientific thing. You can believe that and you have the right to believe it, but it’s not empirical evidence."

San Jose State University anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss warned that official reliance on Indigenous Knowledge could easily go from "dumb" to destructive. She pointed to reports that a Hawaii official delayed the release of water that was urgently needed to fight last month's deadly wildfires on Maui by requiring consultation with a local farmer.

"The case is still out about the Maui fires and whether withholding the water was based on Indigenous Knowledge decisions, for example," Weiss said.

A critical problem with Indigenous Knowledge is that its definition is borderline circular: Nearly anything can be considered Indigenous Knowledge if it was declared so by a Native person. Gregory Cajete, a University of New Mexico professor who lectured NASA on "Indigenous Perspectives on Earth and Sky" in July, said in his book Native Science that it is "a broad term that can include metaphysics and philosophy" as well as "art and architecture" and "ritual and ceremony practiced by Indigenous peoples past and present."

"Much of the essence of Native science is beyond literal description," Cajete wrote.

Given the lack of clarity on the definition of Indigenous Knowledge, it is difficult to discern what role it can play in federal policymaking. Some tribes are working to keep it that way.

Records obtained by the nonprofit organization Liberty Unyielding show that the United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund asked senior Biden administration officials to shield any Indigenous Knowledge from public access through mechanisms like Freedom of Information Act requests or "from being shared on publicly available maps, guides, or other online tools/databases."

Speaking during the March 2022 EPA webinar, Demarus Tevuk, a self-described "Native American community outreach consultant," said that "knowledge is community-owned and if you are asking a traditional knowledge holder for information, you have to prove your right to access that information."

Indigenous Knowledge consultants who participated in webinars with federal officials were often cautious about offering any concrete examples of how they could improve upon ways to tackle issues such as air quality.

In Canada, Native input on climate change studies often proved useless. A 2004 academic survey there from "16 [Native] community members and elders considered to be local experts on ice" provided no unique insights on the effects of climate change. Quotes from participants included "'Ice goes up quicker now … It is different,' 'Freeze-up is way later,' and 'The weather nowadays [is] sometimes cold, but sometimes hot too … [but at the] wrong time.’"

Reached for comment, the EPA referred the Free Beacon to the White House. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Frances Widdowson, a Canadian political scientist who was recently fired over her criticisms of left-wing political movements, said the push to include Indigenous Knowledge in the policymaking process reflects "irrational beliefs" that indigenous people are "noble savage[s]" who have access to stores of wisdom that are out of reach for white people.

"There’s not an ‘Indigenous Laws of Physics’ and a Laws of Physics," she said. "There’s just the Laws of Physics."