Curiosity Prevails Over Despair

Volume 23, No. 2 - Winter 2011
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RISING UP. Turtle sculpture in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis by Joe Allen (Lakota/Ojibwe). Image courtesy of the artist.

The signs of climate change hung heavy in the skies of New Mexico this summer. As flood waters overtook communities in North Dakota and Montana and tornadoes cut a swath across the South and Midwest, fires raged across the southwestern United States.

Allegedly ignited by two careless campers in the Apache- Sitgreaves National Forest, Arizona’s Wallow Fire blew walls of smoke east into New Mexico throughout much of June. Then one Sunday at the end of the month, the Las Conchas fire overtook the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos National Laboratory. Within the first 24 hours, the fire burned 44,000 acres of forest. As it continued to grow into the state’s largest wildfire in recorded history, Las Conchas also burned about 80% of the forested land of Santa Clara Pueblo, including its watershed.

After the drama of Las Conchas had died down, many went back to ignoring the issues the fires, flooding, and tornadoes had brought to attention: Climate change won’t just mean sea level rises, drought, and changes in precipitation patterns, but may also spawn extreme weather events and, in the Southwest, encourage more intense wildfires.

It was easy for many people to stop thinking about climate change—except for those living in Santa Clara Pueblo. After the fire, the rains of summer thunderstorms sloughed off the soil no longer tethered to the ground by vegetation. Floods tore down Santa Clara Creek, and into early September, the tribe was still bracing for flash flooding.

The impacts of those floods even became apparent in the waters near my own home about 70 miles downriver from where Santa Clara Creek drains into the Rio Grande. By the end of August, the silty reddish flows of the Rio Grande had become gray. In places where the river was low, sandbars were streaked with lines of ash.

If it’s hard sometimes to look upon the places that nurture and sustain us—that are changing before our very eyes—it’s reassuring to see what is happening at tribal colleges.

The College of Menominee Nation (CMN, Keshena, WI) has long been leading the way on sustainability and climate change. When the Menominee Nation chartered the college in 1993, tribal lawmakers also created a Sustainable Development Institute, which later became a part of the tribal college.

Fourteen years later, in 2007, CMN President S. Verna Fowler, Ph.D. (Menominee/Stockbridge-Munsee), was one of the first to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Commitment to Climate Change. The following year, the tribal college hired a coordinator, Beau Mitchell (Chippewa Cree of Rocky Boy), to create a template other tribal colleges could follow to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Today, Mitchell also serves as the energy fellow for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Indeed, tribal college students are increasingly interested in climate change—and in making a difference. Within this issue of TCJ, writers share stories of how various tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are addressing climate change with research, sustainability efforts, environmental health and science classes, and renewable energy. While most TCUs are involved in some way, this issue covers work by Haskell Indian Nations University, the Institute of American Indian Arts, Sitting Bull College, Salish Kootenai College, Aaniiih Nakoda College, the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, Tohono O’odham Community College, White Earth Tribal and Community College, and Nebraska Indian Community College.

And just days before this issue went out the door, Stacie Blue, an environmental science instructor at Turtle Mountain Community College, emailed a draft report she, Dr. Scott Hanson, and Leslie Peltier had worked on with two students, Ferin Davis and Alexandra Cammack.

In their study, titled “Measuring Bloom Data for the Wild Rose and Yellow Lady’s Slipper for Evidence of Climate Change,” the researchers monitored the first bloom dates of the two flowers in the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota for evidence of climate change.

“The more research we did, the more we found out about North Dakota,” says student Ferin Davis, who has transferred to North Dakota State University-Fargo. “Since the 1980s, the growing season has lengthened by two weeks.” Plant and animal species are moving north, she says, and plant diseases are migrating north with the warmer weather, as well. “We have to address climate change,” she says. “It’s kind of important if we want to keep living here.”

While Davis has always been interested in climate change, Cammack says she had never given it a second thought until taking Blue’s environmental science class. Hooked on the interconnectedness of natural systems, she took Blue’s biology class and then worked on the summer research project involving the wild rose and yellow lady’s slipper.

Now, Cammack thinks constantly about climate change. “You don’t really know how important it is until you sit down and think about it and you’re doing something like this (research project),” she says. “I still have a lot to learn about it, but now I actually want to learn about it—it’s different when you want to learn instead of when someone’s making you learn.”

The words of both these women inspired me—and reminded me how important it is that curiosity and research prevail over despair and inaction.

Not long ago, I brought my daughter to the hardwood forest I played in as a child. In particular, I wanted to see if showy lady’s slippers still grew within a shallow, spongy creek there. My father had told me never to pick one, that they were “endangered.” As a child, I had no idea what that meant. All I knew was that the delicate pink flowers were all the more magical for being rare.

But the creek where the flowers had bloomed had been destroyed. A developer had carved into the forest from a nearby road, blasting through bedrock and excavating foundations. He ran out of money, however. When the housing market busted, he disappeared, abandoning equipment soon overtaken by the forest.

The view of “my back woods” was devastating. The creek itself was gone, though water filled the abandoned house foundations. There was no sign of any of my makeshift forts nor of the stands of blueberries and raspberries that had grown wild after farms were abandoned in the area more than a century ago. While I sulked and mourned, my daughter explored. A child of the desert, she found the forest and its flora fascinating. And while my head was down, her keen eyes spotted a fox—an animal I had never seen as a child, ever in those woods.

It’s clear that change has come. The world our children will inherit is different from the one that nurtured us as children. But that doesn’t mean all is lost.

As happens with each issue of TCJ, I’ve learned a great deal, worked with talented writers and generous sources, and made new friends. All of us at TCJ hope you enjoy this issue. Please share your story and your reactions to the issue by sending an email to

Laura Paskus is the interim editor of Tribal College Journal.

2017 AIHEC Student Poetry Slam


On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. View the video

Life of a Tribal College Mom