Indigenous academics gather over restoration for ecosystems and from injustice

A tree on the edge of a forested bluff which looks over a green valley below.

The view from a bluff in the Ponca Wilderness in Compton, Arkansas. These lands, like much of what is now the state of Arkansas, are native to Indigenous peoples including the Osage, Sioux, Quapaw, and Caddo. (Image courtesy of Thomas Shahan/Flickr

Related Topics:
Colleges & Education, Justice

At University of Arkansas’ “Gathering to Transcend Barriers to Success: For This Generation and Those to Come,” Indigenous professor Dr. Bethany Henry Rosenbaum asked a powerful question: How do we bridge the Indigenous understanding that removal of Native people is still impactful today with the Western understanding that it’s in the past?

In recent months, that gap in understanding has become increasingly apparent. Twenty-one states, including Arkansas, have introduced or passed legislation to ban “critical race theory” in public schools, according to The Hill. This has corresponded with a ring-wing media fixation on the academic framework, which calls attention to the impacts of systemic racism. If enforced, these laws could discourage teachers from telling students about racial inequities in the United States, including in the distribution of environmental burdens.

For the predominantly Indigenous attendees at the gathering, held digitally from May 20-21, knowledge of the continuing impact of colonization comes by lived experience. Marty Matlock, chair of the Environmental Protection Commission of the Cherokee Nation, executive director of the University of Arkansas Resiliency Center, professor, and Cherokee citizen, and Summer Wilkie, University of Arkansas Indigenous student coordinator, arranged the gathering to discuss solutions to the ongoing challenges faced by Native people in relationship to the environment and to academic institutions.

On land

The first of four sessions focused on environmental and land-based projects. Moderated by Matlock, the panel incorporated the environmental insights of Osage citizen Jann Hayman, Choctaw citizen Ryan Spring, and Cherokee citizens Rebecca Jim and Clint Carroll. For the Indigenous communities represented, the global challenge of climate change is amplified by the legacy of displacement by the U.S. government.

“Two of our communities represented here — Choctaw, Cherokee — and many others — were relocated 150 years ago,” Matlock said. “So we’re on new lands effectively for our communities and we’re trying to figure out how to live on those new lands and bring life from those new lands and put our life back into new lands.”

Ryan Spring, who works in the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department and specializes in GIS geographic data, expanded on this point.

“From a traditional Choctaw perspective, our people were to be stewards of the land and have a relationship with the flora and the fauna that we lived beside,” Spring said. “And we’re not able to do that anymore, being removed from our lands, coming here to lands that were ancestral to other people.”

And, in addition to the challenges tied to relocation, over the past 150 years, climate change and environmental pollution have caused their new land, and the resources on it, to change.

Matlock recalled the analogy, “If climate change is the shark, water is its teeth.” Those teeth come in many shapes. According to Spring, in Choctaw Nation in Southeastern Oklahoma, water can’t be absorbed by the degraded soil. In Osage Nation to Choctaw’s north, Hayman noted a lack of drinkable water. In Ottawa County in Northeastern Oklahoma, Jim has spent decades calling attention to the contamination of Tar Creek, where the lead-laden waters run orange due to the toxic remnants of ore mining.

“In the Northeast tribes in Ottawa County, when it floods, it floods toxic water,” said Jim, who now serves as Executive Director of the environmental justice organization LEAD Agency. “And as it spills over, it contaminates the land that could’ve been great gardens.”

Tar Creek is a federal Superfund site, meaning it is recognized by the EPA as contaminated land that their Superfund program has the responsibility of cleaning up. Hazardous contamination often comes from profitable manufacturing, mining, and extractive industries. Yet, communities are left to bear the environmental and health burdens. As of 2014, nearly 25% of the 1,322 Superfund sites were in lands occupied by Indigenous people, according to Indian Country Today.

“The challenges are: When can you garden? When can you gather, when you know, and we found out, that there’s not a single blackberry you should eat along that creek bed? Not a single one on the Spring River that you should eat. Not a single wild onion,” Jim continued. “And so, how do you learn and how do you go back to your culture when you’re not really sure where the boundaries of ‘safe’ are?”

The challenges of adapting to changing lands and shifting boundaries of safety could soon be universal. As the climate crisis continues, and more people are displaced by natural disasters and altered ecosystems, the knowledge developed by Native communities could be integral to shaping a resilient future. To the speakers at the gathering, sharing that knowledge with younger generations is part of being a good ancestor.

“Our future generations are going to have a huge responsibility ahead of them,” Spring said. “And what we need to be doing now is doing the best job that we can to help give them the tools and to help try to… limit those effects.”

A small body of orange-hued water surrounded by waste in a wooded area.
At the Tar Creek Superfund site in Ottawa County in northeastern Oklahoma, contaminated, orange-hued waters are the legacy of ore-mining. (Image courtesy of Janice Waltzer/Flickr

On knowledge

During the second session, which focused on health and wellness, knowledge of the past was raised as a relief to the challenges of the present and future. Melissa Lewis, assistant professor of family and community medicine at University of Missouri and Cherokee Nation citizen, said she had co-authored a study that found that Cherokee people who learned their “language, history, and culture had improved mental health.”

“Some folks have already done some research demonstrating that people who speak their Indigenous language have (fewer) chronic diseases, like diabetes or obesity or heart disease,” she continued. “And I think, again, our language… Within it is healing and it guides us and how we see the world.”

Lewis was joined by three other panelists: youth services director and Choctaw Nation citizen Nancy Mason, University of Arkansas Ph.D. student and Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma citizen Electa Hare-RedCorn, and Haskell Indian Health Center administrative officer and Chickasaw Nation citizen Commander Shannon Lowe.

While many of the gathering’s panelists and guests are involved in higher education, and all shared an interest in stewarding younger generations of Native Americans, conversation never drifted from an awareness that educational systems have a history of harm toward Native communities. Michael Durglo, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Citizen and Historic Preservation Department Head, remarked that, “we’re just like one generation after the boarding school era days,” during which Native children in the United States were taken out of their homes and sent to residential schools to assimilate them to European American culture.

“My dad was a boarder,” Durglo said. “My dad is no longer with us, but a lot of the elders that I know now basically were just pulled out of their home and beaten for speaking our language.”

Now, Native people in the academic world are moving forward from forced assimilation and, instead, working to “Indigenize” education. Doing so requires difficult conversations about ownership and belonging within the university. 

Wilkie, from the University of Arkansas, closed the health and wellness session, and opened the following session on identity and representation, with an acknowledgment that University of Arkansas itself is a land-grant institution built on land taken from the Osage people.

“Our university would not exist (without), and still benefits from, the theft and coercion of Indigenous land,” said Wilkie, who has written about the need to go beyond land acknowledgements.

According to Matlock, Indigenous people are not only connected to the land at University of Arkansas, they also helped to build it and were among the first students to attend the university.

“This is why I think the reframing of the 1619 Project informs us so much,” Matlock said, referring to the New York Time’s long-form journalism project.

According to the site, the project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

“At our campuses, we’re trying to reframe this to our Indigenous communities,” Matlock continued. “You belong here because your ancestors helped build this place, but it goes beyond that. We have to have contemporary representation, contemporary presence, contemporary identity.”

Sara Barnett, University of Arkansas Ed.D. student and citizen of Muscogee Nation, said Indigenizing education will benefit all.

“We need to make a real commitment to serving our Native communities and to providing those spaces and creating a campus culture that really welcomes and appreciates diversity,” Barnett said while on the identity and representation panel. “It’s not a process of just checking a box, or an afterthought, or having a certain position or taskforce on campus, but it’s really about that change in culture and creating those spaces so that it comes naturally.”

She was joined on the panel by University of Arkansas professor of creative writing and Indigenous studies, Toni Jensen, and fellow UArk Ph.D. student, Andrea Rogers. Jensen’s memoir “Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land” is a New York Times Editors’ Choice; Rogers’ historical fiction novel “Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story” was named one of the best books of 2020 by NPR.

On left, three long-haired Sioux boys pose for the camera in their tribal attire. On right, the same three boys, now three years older with short hair, pose for the camera dressed in trousers and suit jackets.
Three Sioux boys photographed at their arrival at Carlisle Indian Industrial School and then three years later. Founded in 1879 in Pennsylvania, Calisle was a federally funded, off-reservation boarding school intended to force Native children to assimilate to Euro-American culture. (Image courtesy of the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center

On the future

The idea of “Indigenizing education” may seem vague, particularly to those who haven’t questioned the prevalence of Western history and thought in our schools. In the closing general session of the gathering, anthropologist Dr. Robert Franco gave one concrete model, titled “Transcending Barriers to Success.” Franco is director of the Office for Institutional Effectiveness at University of Hawaii and his research focuses primarily on the people of Samoa. 

The four components of the Transcending Barriers to Success model include making connections between Western and Indigenous knowledge in redesigned curriculum and supporting Indigenus students in STEM fields. Yet, Franco also emphasized a “need to humble the science and the academic perspective” and amplify community-based knowledge.

This point is informed by the “place-based” nature of Franco’s recent work; he focuses on biocultural restoration, a concept that centers on healing the cultural, spiritual, and physical relationships between humans and nature. Franco noticed a shift to this framing amongst his associates during the The University of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu’s 2019 Grand Challenges Summer Institute, which sought to address water issues through new academic approaches.

“The first thing we should do is restore those water systems,” Franco said. “By restoring those water systems, we then are more resilient for the impacts that climate change will bring. So then you see a subtle shift from climate change to biocultural restoration.”

Franco put an emphasis on active learning, through which students get outside and into ecosystems with the guidance of cultural specialists.

The final speaker of the gathering, Durglo, already is putting these concepts into action on his ancestral lands in northwest Montana. There, he started the Environmental Advocates for Global and Local Environmental Sustainability, or EAGLES. He said the youth program that began with 40 members now has 400. It’s his dream for it to go international.

In 2012, Durglo developed a climate action plan for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He recorded visits with eight elders and incorporated their knowledge into the plan. Now, as he’s empowering the next generation, it’s possible to see how the lessons of the past can be used to shape a more resilient, equitable future.

“We need to be mindful and pay attention and to plan and prepare,” Durglo said. “We’re the caretakers of the environment and prepare a place better than how we found it for those yet to come.”

How do you move the planet forward?
Submit Story
bio-cultural restoration, Ecosystems, education, environmental justice, Indigenous Knowledge, indigenous peoples, pollution

Get the Newsletter

Get inspiring stories to move the planet forward in your inbox!

Success! You have been added to the Planet FWD newsletter. Inspiring stories will be coming to your inbox soon.