The Fine Line: Negotiating Natural Resource Development and Environmental Protection at TCUs

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How should tribal colleges approach natural resource development and potential degradation of the environment? This is a thorny, complicated question. In the best of all possible worlds we should look for natural harmonious relationships with the Earth. However, in a modern world driven by materialism and population explosion, that is far from realistic.

American Indian tribes own large areas containing many resources that modern society desires. These resources include land, water, wind, oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, timber, and many other things. Tribal governments are under great pressure—from both inside and outside their own tribal membership—to develop these resources. And although there are some mechanisms in place to prevent environmental degradation, they tend to be bureaucratic and inadequate. Tribal environmental protection efforts are improving, but often lack the financial resources and manpower to really have an impact.

Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), on the other hand, are mandated to provide education and training to Native people in an effort to increase the ability of tribes to successfully deal with agriculture and natural resource development. TCUs need to provide vocational and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses which are directly aimed at protecting the Earth and making sure that development is well thought-out and balanced. TCUs must maintain a strong vision of clean and healthy communities, air, water, and wildlife, and they need to reaffirm this vision on a constant basis. Moreover, tribal colleges should prepare people to respond to environmental disasters. Coming from the Fort Peck Reservation, where agriculture and oil development has largely contaminated the ground water, I have seen first-hand the damage that will occur if tribal people are not vigilant.

The major problem is that tribes and TCUs are not being given adequate tools to accomplish the tasks that lay before them. There needs to be a sustained, long-term effort to work with Congress to address these problems through legislation and appropriation. And even better, if the tools are developed, they will not be tied to the typical funding formulas, but rather to actually building capacity and solving problems.

The discussion about natural resources and their exploitation is multifaceted and needs to be a regular part of college curricula. I hope these talks are already taking place.

James Shanley, Ed.D. (Assiniboine Sioux), has been a leader in the tribal college movement for over 40 years. He served as president of Standing Rock College (now Sitting Bull College, Fort Yates, ND) from 1975 to 1980, and as president of Fort Peck Community College  from 1984 to 2011. Dr. Shanley is also a past president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and helped to secure passage of the Tribally Controlled Community Colleges Assistance Act of 1978.

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