Making Peace with America’s History By Honoring Both Indigenous and European Traditions
America remains burdened by two “original sins” that have yet to be adequately atoned for: The first original sin is slavery and the century of Jim Crow laws that followed it. The second sin is the destruction of America’s indigenous cultures and the ethnic cleansing of its native peoples. In this article, I focus on atoning for the second sin of destroying indigenous ways of life, which has recently become an explicit goal of the Federal Government.
Since taking office, President Biden has been actively working to mandate the inclusion of “indigenous knowledge” within the policymaking process of Federal agencies.1 According to a White House statement from December 2022, “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.”2
The question of what will constitute sufficient atonement for America’s transgressions against its native peoples remains a contentious political issue. But I believe our ongoing cultural wrestling with this question is ultimately necessary for the preservation of healthy patriotism, which every democracy needs to remain functional. Simply put, until we make adequate amends for our historical crimes and misdeeds, our nation’s basic moral legitimacy will remain an open question.
For many on the left, the demands of social justice require large-scale economic reparations and the transfer of millions of acres of public lands back to the indigenous tribes who previously occupied them. Many on the right, however, view progressive proposals for broad economic reparations as divisive and unworkable. But notwithstanding the right’s opposition to economic reparations, when it comes to atoning for America’s second original sin, conservatives may actually come to find common cause with those who seek to include and respect traditional indigenous knowledge
Traditional Indigenous Knowledge
The value of traditional indigenous knowledge stems from the unique understanding of the natural world held by America’s native peoples. Indigenous tribes sustainably subsisted on their lands over generations through careful observations framed by a sense of stewardship for their local environments. This comprehensive placed-based knowledge provides a valuable supplement to environmental science. For example, In Washington State, indigenous oral histories have been used to identify the timing and distribution of the spawning runs of endangered fish species. In Alaska, indigenous monitoring of wild berry crops has been used to track changes in the underlying permafrost. In the intermountain West, indigenous knowledge of native plants has been used for sustainable habitat restoration. And the widespread indigenous practice of controlled burns has been shown to be the best method for limiting wildfires.3
The value of indigenous knowledge, however, transcends its ability to merely supplement scientific observations. Indigenous ways of knowing broaden the horizon of science overall by adding a spiritual dimension to the project of understanding the natural world. For most native peoples, nature is understood as a living web of relationships within which all beings are kin. A good example of this kind of holistic approach to the natural world is found in the famous Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) “Seventh Generation Principle,” which holds that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. Strong affinities can thus be found between the holistic orientation of indigenous knowledge and progressive notions of environmental ethics, as embodied, for example, in Aldo Leopold’s influential “land ethic.”4
While indigenous ecological knowledge expands the scope of environmental science and has proven helpful for ecological research, as the White House’s recently issued Guidance Statement on including indigenous knowledge makes clear, the primary goal of this project is to show respect, and even reverence, for Native American cultures. And an important part of this renewed respect includes the ongoing acknowledgment of America’s past injustices. In other words, the Biden administration’s push for inclusion of traditional indigenous knowledge in the business of government can be seen as a symbolic form of reparations.5
Although I agree with conservatives that a policy of large-scale economic reparations in cash or in kind would be divisive and unworkable, I also agree with progressives that further efforts to atone for America’s historical sins against its indigenous peoples are necessary. This kind of official contrition is not only valuable for restoring the dignity of native peoples, it is also crucial for America’s general sense of collective national identity. I therefore think that the kind of “cultural reparations” currently being forwarded by the White House, which emphasize acknowledgement, inclusion and respect, are important and worthwhile.
Australia and Canada are further along in this process of including traditional indigenous knowledge in their public policymaking. The experience of these countries demonstrates that the movement for what is termed “indigenization” has both a liberal side and an illiberal side. The liberal version of including indigenous knowledge entails honoring ancient ways of knowing, helping “indigenous people build a healthy sense of identity,” and “advancing reconciliation.” The illiberal version, however, calls for mythical beliefs to be given equal status with established science, and the fostering of racial grievances based on a demonizing narrative of these countries’ history and national cultures. In a recent article, two Australian academics (who favor a liberal approach to indigenization) argue that the illiberal version of this process is contrary to the long-term interests of indigenous people themselves, and also harmful to the institutions of the larger societies in which they live. This illiberal, militant push for what is termed “decolonization” is harmful because it prioritizes politics over science, and because it seeks to distort history in the name of social justice.6 Indeed, the stated goal of the decolonization movement is to “deconstruct settler-imposed systems.”
While the White House’s recent Guidance Statement was clearly influenced by American proponents of the illiberal version of indigenization,7 the administration’s directives mostly avoid endorsing the radical proposals of those who call for thoroughgoing decolonization. So as long as the Federal government’s push for the inclusion of indigenous knowledge remains focused on recognizing the value of local ecological knowledge, and the forwarding of symbolic forms of respect and acknowledgement, I’m in favor of it.
Yet in addition to forwarding healthy forms of cultural atonement for America’s mistreatment of its native peoples, the Federal Government’s honoring of traditional indigenous knowledge also establishes a path for the similarly necessary process of honoring another kind of traditional knowledge. Namely, the “traditional social knowledge” that provides much of the historical foundations of American culture overall.
Traditional Social Knowledge
Traditional social knowledge is primarily derived from America’s cultural roots within European civilization. This “socially conservative” knowledge is therefore most closely associated with the Judeo-Christian heritage which continues to constitute the ethnic background of the majority of America’s people. However, similar kinds of socially conservative knowledge (as understood by today’s culture) can also be found in other ancient religious civilizations (such as Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism), all of which continue to contribute to American culture’s enduring body of traditional social knowledge.
Traditional social knowledge was, until relatively recently, embodied in the social norms and mores of American culture. Examples include: the sacredness of human life; the desirability of a two parent household for raising children; the personal rewards of being virtuous; the need to protect women from male predation; the emotional dangers of promiscuity; the relevance of biology to gender; the need to shield young children from exposure to adult sexuality; and the importance of values education in public schools. Even though traditional social norms such as these have been largely rejected by progressive culture, this kind of traditional social knowledge is nevertheless founded on thousands of years of hard won human experience.
While it would be unwise (and unconstitutional) to elevate traditional social knowledge to the status of law, a greater degree of “acknowledgement, inclusion and respect” for this kind of socially conservative knowledge, on the part of both the Federal Government and American culture overall, would go a long way toward ameliorating our nation’s debilitating culture war.
The White House’s official Guidance on including indigenous knowledge states that: “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.”8 Traditional social knowledge has likewise been acquired over millennia through direct contact with humanity’s social challenges. Stated otherwise, this ancient body of traditional social knowledge has been developed over time within a living anthropological context.
As with proponents of traditional indigenous knowledge, advocates of traditional social knowledge can take either a liberal or illiberal approach. Proponents of the illiberal version of socially conservative knowledge seek to enforce their religious moral code on the rest of society. Examples include attempts to outlaw abortion in the first fifteen weeks of pregnancy, efforts to permit the exclusion of gay people from public accommodation, and mandatory prayer in public schools. I oppose these essentially “theocratic” initiatives, and believe strongly in the constitutional separation of church and state.
However, even though I’m not culturally conservative, I’m in favor of a liberal approach to honoring traditional social knowledge. Just as a liberal approach to honoring traditional indigenous knowledge can include this ancient wisdom without negating the authority of science or rewriting history, a liberal approach to traditional social knowledge can similarly show respect without trampling on our civil liberties or negating our secular culture. As an example, a liberal approach to honoring traditional social knowledge could validate the preference for two-parent households while expanding this preference to include same-sex couples. As Andrew Sullivan argues, monogamy and stable families are good, and gay people want to be a part of that.
In the same way that a liberal approach can safely integrate indigenous knowledge into our understanding of the natural world, a liberal approach to traditional social knowledge can restore respect for our cultural heritage without violating the separation of church and state. In the case of both indigenous knowledge and socially conservative knowledge, these ancient ways of knowing can serve as valuable supplements to our modern secular scientific worldview. But again, our attempts to honor and include all forms of traditional knowledge must always be constrained by liberal values such as civil rights, freedom of conscience, secular pluralism, free inquiry, and the authority of reason over myth.
Why Should We Honor the Culture of the Colonizers?
Even if we take a liberal approach to reincluding traditional social knowledge in policymaking and education, those who oppose European-derived forms of traditionalism may ask: “why should we honor the oppressive culture of the colonizers?” These progressive anti-traditionalists may argue that we have a duty to honor indigenous knowledge because it has previously been repressed and ignored. The push to include indigenous knowledge is therefore a kind of cultural reparations, which traditional social knowledge is not entitled to because it has never been systematically excluded.
Socially conservative traditionalists, however, may disagree. They can point to numerous examples of how traditional social knowledge is currently repressed or ignored within contemporary American society. Bible stories, for instance, are rarely read in public schools, despite their central role in the formation of Western civilization. And Evangelical Christians are one of the few groups who can still be safely ridiculed in mainstream popular culture. In fact, the issue of “religious liberty” remains a hotly contested political battleground precisely because traditionalists believe they are being discriminated against. While traditional European culture has not been nearly as victimized as indigenous culture, traditional social knowledge, which is a significant part of America’s cultural heritage, is not receiving the respect it deserves. Even though progressives show abundant deference to religious traditions such as Islam, they continue to repudiate Judeo-Christian sensibilities.
Within Federal agencies, in America’s education establishment, and in other institutional settings such as museums, progressive attempts to honor and include indigenous knowledge often conflict with conservative attempts to promote patriotism and honor America’s pioneer heritage. This conflict of historical emphasis is, however, only a subset of the larger cultural conflict between progressives and conservatives that has significantly impacted American politics over the last several decades.
For most of America’s history, patriotic pride served as a uniting principle that facilitated the political compromises and bipartisan agreements that kept our democracy relatively functional. But over the last fifty years, as progressive culture has gained traction among America’s elites, patriotic pride has come to be largely replaced by national shame. In the same way that pride serves as a unifying force, a sense of collective shame serves to unite progressives through a kind of reverse-patriotism. Yet as I discussed in a previous article, The Politics of Pride and Shame,9 the value-creating power of both pride and shame are ultimately interdependent. Ideally, these two sentiments should work together in a mutually-correcting relationship of challenge and support.
When patriotic pride is held in a way that ignores or erases our national shortcomings and historical misdeeds, it can result in jingoism, xenophobia, and hubris. But conversely, when feelings of national shame remain unmoderated by a willingness to recognize the abundant goodness embodied in America’s story, such pessimistic sentiments can cause us to lose confidence in the American project overall. And if this loss of confidence were to become widespread within American culture, our nation would not long endure.
This point about the cultural necessity of both national pride and shame brings us to the central question implicated by the White House’s policy of including indigenous knowledge in government policymaking: does America’s colonial origins render it morally illegitimate?
Making Peace with Our Colonial Origins
Over the last decade, in America, Britain, Canada, and Australia, the decolonization movement has gained significant power in Academia and related institutions. Decolonial scholars harshly condemn Western civilization and seek to elevate or “center” indigenous ways of knowing. The few scholars who have dared to offer an opposing view defending the civilizational benefits of colonialism have been “cancelled” and vilified within academia.10 Indeed, the growing power of the decolonization movement is what led to the Biden administration’s new policy of including indigenous knowledge in the operations of government. The White House’s Guidance Statement from November 2022 cites the work of numerous decolonial scholars, whose views provide a basis for this new policy.11
However, if we reject conservative pride in America’s pioneer heritage and side exclusively with progressive shame for our nation’s crimes against its native peoples, we will miss an important opportunity. By showing due respect for both indigenous and European traditions, and by reconciling the competing historical narratives that motivate activists on both sides, we can begin the larger process of overcoming America’s ongoing culture war. Indeed, this debilitating cultural conflict continues to thwart both progressive and conservative goals. The way forward can thus be found through the practice of holding two contending truths within our personal understanding of what it means to be an American.
The first truth is that the European conquest of North America resulted in the unjust destruction of the indigenous cultures who had previously occupied this land for thousands of years. In what many now call a “genocide,” Native Americans were systematically exterminated by settlers and the U.S. Army. As an enduring legacy of these crimes and misdeeds, many contemporary indigenous populations continue to suffer from griding poverty and cultural alienation. The movement to honor indigenous knowledge and restore the dignity of America’s native peoples is thus a necessary corrective for past injustices which is only getting started. It will take generations for these historical wounds to be healed. The Biden administration’s new policy of including indigenous knowledge in government decision-making can accordingly be seen as a positive beginning of the necessary process of providing cultural atonement for our collective sins against Native Americans.
The second truth, once taken for granted by most Americans but now rejected in progressive circles, is that the emergence of the American nation is one of the most positive events in all of human history. Despite the destruction attendant upon Europe’s colonial expansion, the consequent connection of the peoples of the world and the flourishing of our global civilization has generally been in the best interests of humanity as a whole. As an extension of European colonialism, the United States’ conquest of North America brought peace and prosperity to a large portion of the earth wherein preliterate tribes had been locked in conflict for the previous 10,000 years. While many beautiful aspects of native cultures were lost in the process of America’s expansion, the resulting decline of warfare, hunger, and child mortality, and the significant increase in average life expectancy, clearly constitute social progress. The good that the United States has achieved doesn’t excuse its historical crimes, but the fact that the rise of the American nation constitutes a net good for humanity does challenge the one-sided view of progressive decolonizers.
Although many prominent voices now predict our impending decline and eventual doom, I reject these pessimistic narratives. Despite the daunting threats and multiple crises that afflict our global civilization, I remain hopeful that through innovation, adaptation, and ultimately cultural evolution, humanity will continue to thrive and progress.
In conclusion, although these two truths about America exist in tension, each points to the need to honor specific kinds of traditional knowledge. As the Federal Government now begins the process of honoring traditional indigenous ecological knowledge, this opens the door for the next important step of renewing our collective respect for traditional European social knowledge. Although social conservatives may continue to resist the growing power of progressive culture, they can nevertheless find common cause with progressives who wish to restore respect for the traditional knowledge of native peoples. It is by wrestling with tensions such as these—working for a cultural synthesis wherein both kinds of traditional knowledge can be honored—that American culture can grow out of its debilitating culture war.
1. See “White House Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships,” issued January 26, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/26/memorandum-on-tribal-consultation-and-strengthening-nation-to-nation-relationships/. See also “White House Memorandum for Federal Departments and Agencies,” issued November 30, 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/OSTP-CEQ-IK-Guidance.pdf.
2. White House Statement from December 2, 2022: “What is ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ And Why Does It Matter? Integrating Ancestral Wisdom and Approaches into Federal Decision-Making.” https://www.whitehouse.gov/ostp/news-updates/2022/12/02/what-is-indigenous-knowledge-and-why-does-it-matter-integrating-ancestral-wisdom-and-approaches-into-federal-decision-making/
3. See: Protecting endangered fish species, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309458329_Traditional_Ecological_Knowledge_Reconstructing_Historical_Run_Timing_and_Spawning_Distribution_of_Eulachon_through_Tribal_Oral_History. Tracking changes in permafrost, https://www.eenews.net/articles/alaska-tribal-wisdom-helps-scientists-track-permafrost-changes/. Using native plants for habitat restoration, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0190052822000037. Controlled burning to limit wildfires, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/tek/pacific-northwest.htm .
4. See “In a time of social and environmental crisis, Aldo Leopold’s call for a ‘land ethic’ is still relevant,” (The Conversation, January 5, 2021). https://theconversation.com/in-a-time-of-social-and-environmental-crisis-aldo-leopolds-call-for-a-land-ethic-is-still-relevant-147968
5. “White House Memorandum for Federal Departments and Agencies,” issued November 30, 2022. Ibid.
6. See Terry Moore and Carol Pybus, “Myth-making Isn’t the Right Way to ‘Indigenise’ Our Universities,” (Quillette, June 26, 2022). https://quillette.com/2022/06/26/myth-making-isnt-the-right-way-to-indigenise-our-universities
7. See e.g., Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press 2015) cited on pages 8 and 9 of the “White House Memorandum for Federal Departments and Agencies,” Ibid. https://www.amazon.com/Indigenous-Peoples-History-ReVisioning-American/dp/0807057835/ref=sr_1_1?crid=10HV8U3DWARBO&keywords=An+Indigenous+Peoples%E2%80%99+History+of+the+United+States&qid=1674846375&sprefix=an+indigenous+peoples+history+of+the+united+states+%2Caps%2C109&sr=8-1.
8. Quote from White House Statement from December 2, 2022: “What is ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ And Why Does It Matter? Integrating Ancestral Wisdom and Approaches into Federal Decision-Making.” Ibid.
9. Steve McIntosh, “”The Politics of Pride and Shame—Integrating 1776 and 1619,” (The Developmentalist Magazine, March 3, 2022). https://developmentalist.org/article/the-politics-of-pride-and-shame/
10. See e.g., Bruce Gilley, “The Case for Colonialism,” (History Reclaimed, December 8, 2021). https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/the-case-for-colonialism/
11. See e.g., Max Liboiron, “Decolonizing geoscience requires more than equity and inclusion,” Nat. Geosci. (2021) https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-021-00861-7), cited on page 5 of the “White House Memorandum for Federal Departments and Agencies”; and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press 2015) Ibid.