Power of Place: Emerging science programs help tribal college students lead the way – at home

Volume 24, No. 3 - Spring 2013
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Trey Saddler had struggled to find his scholastic footing before landing at Salish Kootenai College (SKC, Pablo, MT) on the Flathead Indian Reservation near northwestern Montana’s Mission Mountains. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to study, and attention-deficit disorder contributed to his academic shortcomings. In April 2011, after starting pre-nursing classes, a teacher recommended he consider an internship in the lab of Doug Stevens, head of SKC’s Department of Life Sciences.

Stevens introduced Saddler to lab techniques and instruments, and taught him how to test hair samples for mercury levels as part of an ongoing investigation. Over the following summer, the research experience sparked a curiosity and interest in Saddler, who is an enrolled member of the Chippewa Cree from Rocky Boy, MT and a descendant of the Salish and Kootenai tribes. “I felt like this was a career track I might be interested in,” he says.

The effects of mercury are a looming concern for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation. Many women and families consume lake trout, or mackinaw, from Flathead Lake since this nonnative fish is targeted for removal and often given to local food banks. During Mack Days, a weeks-long, biannual fishing derby, anglers catch thousands to help stock the food banks. Knowing that fish accumulate mercury in their bodies, Stevens first studied lake trout several years ago to measure mercury concentrations and levels of omega- 3 oils and selenium to understand the tradeoffs between local pollution and beneficial nutrients. The results guided the development of the tribes’ consumption rules, and Stevens has since turned to investigating human health risks. Stevens and others collected and sampled women’s hair to measure mercury levels, and then enlisted Saddler and other students to help with the analysis.

From the lab, Saddler has moved to the field, although not in Montana. Last summer, Stevens dispatched Saddler to Maine to work with the Micmac Tribe on a community-based pilot project, sampling hair, toenails, and well water to measure mercury and arsenic associated with the consumption of fish, shellfish, and marine mammals. Stevens hopes to establish a nationwide network to initiate similar studies among tribes and tribal colleges since many American Indians could face comparable risks.

Saddler says conducting field studies and lab work regarding the benefits and risks of Native food diets has opened his eyes to the connections between environmental science, human health, and toxicology, and has him thinking about graduate education or a career in public health. A poster presentation of his research earned him accolades at the 2011 annual conference of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. “What I’m really interested in is how humans are affecting the environment, how that can be measured, and what can be done to mitigate the effects,” Saddler says. “I believe I’m really blessed by this opportunity.”

Saddler isn’t alone in finding his calling in place-based science research at a tribal college. Across the country, tribal colleges and universities have developed environmental science and health programs that are drawing in students by unleashing them in the fields and in the labs. Combining traditional and Western practices, cultural history, and modern technology, tribal college students are working on local projects with connections to their tribes and homelands. Beyond the technical findings, professors and others are discovering a new class of tribal scientists, teachers, and technicians.

“Plenty of studies say that actual hands-on experience in the laboratory is probably the most powerful indicator of success in science,” Stevens says, “so it’s important to provide to students because it adds to retention, comprehension, and success all the way through.”


Since the first tribal college was established in the late 1960s, tribal colleges and universities have offered technical-learning opportunities to students in isolated communities around the country. From the onset, many of these colleges focused on providing practical skills and vocational job training, and frequently targeted nontraditional, older students seeking twoyear degrees or professional certificates. More recently, instructors and administrators at local tribal colleges and national supporters have built on that technical knowledge base to encourage students of all ages to pursue careers in science and research.

Along these lines, tribal colleges have begun developing more programs and degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, a range of disciplines collectively known as STEM. SKC is currently among a few tribal colleges that offer a four-year degree in environmental science, and the only one to offer bachelor’s degrees in forestry and hydrology. In addition to providing foundational courses, tribal colleges have opened research facilities and labs and involved students in designing and conducting studies. Financial and personnel support from federal research agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA, have significantly boosted efforts and paid for student interns like Saddler.

Since 2000, the NSF Tribal Colleges and Universities Program, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have directed over $110 million to tribal colleges to fund science research and increase the number of Native American scientists, as an underrepresented population, according to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), based in Alexandria, VA.

According to AIHEC staff, federal funds and tribal initiatives have contributed to an 87% increase in enrollment in tribal college science programs and a 31% jump in overall graduation rates over the past decade.

The emerging science programs provide opportunities to integrate research methods, computer applications, and technology with cultural knowledge and traditional practices. The approach draws in students and then leads them to local research projects. Teachers at tribal colleges are increasingly enlisting students to participate in place-based science studies on reservations, enabling them to connect their tribes’ traditional histories with their personal futures. This educational and cultural cross-pollination also helps attract students who recognize that STEM degrees can lead to promising careers around the world and on the reservations, where tribes need their own skilled staff of engineers, environmental scientists, technicians, and teachers.

By connecting research principles and information technology with traditional knowledge areas, “the impacts on the community can be huge,” says Al Kuslikis, AIHEC senior program associate of strategic initiatives. “The fact that tribal colleges are so connected to their communities, it’s hard to imagine a thriving STEM program at a tribal college not finding locally relevant projects to work on. There’s so much right there in your backyard.”

“The first step is always to tie it in with individual places,” says Jeremy Guinn, an environmental science instructor at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC, Bismarck, ND). “No matter where they’re from, there are always stories and there are always environmental issues.”

Guinn has helped launch a field technician program at UTTC in the past year, after previously teaching at Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation, where he oversaw a number of local wildlife and environmental studies by students. Getting students outdoors keeps them engaged, Guinn adds, and motivates them to understand the basics of computer science and statistics.

UTTC isn’t affiliated with a single tribe or situated on a reservation, so its student body comes from around the country and dozens of tribes. Its location in Bismarck provides students chances to learn from and partner with state- and federal-agency scientists and to interact in government laboratories. One initiative with the USDA and North Dakota Game and Fish Department has allowed UTTC students to learn about the behavior of urban coyotes that sometimes run through campus and can even be heard singing at evening. Students are helping to radio collar coyotes to track and understand the coyotes’ movement and ultimately offer recommendations to limit interactions with humans.

In the fledgling field-technician program, Guinn and other professors require students to carry out their own research projects before graduation. “We try to leave the research question up to students,” Guinn says, even if they’re still developing their science background and skills. As a result, many students turn to elders and relatives to inform their decisions and end up studying topics of cultural or historical relevance. “It’s key to have that hook because the issues are happening either on the reservation or back on their district wherever they’re from,” Guinn says, “and it gets them more interested in learning about standard examples you find in the textbooks.”

Three UTTC students completed research projects in 2012, backed by funding from NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates Program, which supports local field studies at tribal colleges and often benefits first- and second-year students. The student scientists worked around Bismarck and examined bat diets, soil and vegetation patterns around rattlesnake dens, and spider-insect interactions.

“It’s the initial spark that gets the student going in a direction,” Guinn says, “and that’s the way I’ve always encouraged students to use their culture and their heritage–to think about those things and what they want to investigate more.”


At White Earth Tribal and Community College (WETCC, Mahnomen, MN), students literally dig into cultural environmental knowledge through science courses and programs.

Steve Dahlberg, a professor and director of the college’s extension service, says the college’s associate degree in environmental science introduces students to an overview of natural history and earth science processes and then connects the lessons to traditional, regional knowledge and practices. Courses in field biology, ornithology, and ecology are core requirements for WETCC environmental science majors, and nearly every class includes a field trip. By the time they graduate, students learn to track and recognize animal pathways and to identify and collect wild plants and foods; this is what academics might otherwise recognize as wildlife biology and ethnobotany.

“The idea is to really build a strong knowledge of place,” Dahlberg says. “In science education, kids study tropical rainforests, for example, and can spout facts about places they’ll probably never see in their life, but they couldn’t walk out in their backyard and name one of the living things here.”

WETCC now hosts an annual three-day Wild Food Summit, teaching community members how to find, use, and prepare traditional foods and herbal treatments. With support from the USDA, a student intern also works on the college’s Indigenous Crops Research Program, which has begun to replant hazelnuts and could help reestablish other native perennial fruits and nuts. A prairie restoration project at WETCC involves students in creating seed mixes to regenerate grasslands; the mixes include native medicinal or edible plants and other species that provide butterfly habitat.

Students interested in tracking have taken to the fields to monitor wolves and other carnivores moving in and around the reservation, including on the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. The collected data is shared with state and federal resource managers. While jobs as game wardens and conservation officers—on and off the reservation—are in high demand, Dahlberg says graduates are continuing their education through other trainings, while also leaving school with a renewed appreciation for and traditional awareness of the local environment.

“The tribal college is a perfect environment for building this kind of curriculum,” he says.


As a student at Little Big Horn College (LBHC, Crow Agency, MT), Brandon Good Luck, an enrolled tribal member, began learning about environmental science through a research internship. Situated on over 3 million acres amid the mountains, plains, and badlands of eastern Montana, the reservation covers a lot of ground. When community members began noticing deteriorating water quality, they wanted to find out why.

In 2003, community members Myra Lefthand and Larry Kindness recruited LBHC science professor Mari Eggers, who, along with other local citizens, began conducting a reservation-wide environmental health assessment, and formed a tribal steering committee to work closely with government and academic scientists. Over the next few years, the project partners surveyed water and subsistence foods from households across the reservation and traced potential pollution pathways from the environment to people. Through the “community-based participatory research” program, the team began collecting data to track down the locations and concentrations of contaminants, recruiting student interns to help with the fieldwork.

During several summers, Good Luck and other LBHC students worked with state extension officers and other technicians and learned how to monitor surface water quality and flows, measure macroinvertebrate populations in rivers, and electroshock fish for environmental assessments. The collected data pointed investigators to several contaminants and helped them identify parts of the reservation with the greatest risks.

“The community-based participation really improves the student experience,” says Eggers, the project leader. “Students get to see they can do research in their home communities and they connect with elders,” who are members of the project steering committee.

The cooperative initiative discovered several water concerns. The scientists found E. coli and fecal coliform in surface water supplies in some places, a result of nonpoint source pollution from agriculture and home septic systems. They also detected manganese and uranium, which can occur naturally or be the legacy of past mining, in water wells in certain areas. The results have provided valuable information for the tribal water authority and also informed outreach to communities that may be better off using cisterns instead of wells. Beyond serving the Crow Reservation, the program is a model for other tribes, many of which face similar waterquality issues.

As for Good Luck, his experience motivated him to apply for a job with the tribe’s environmental program after he completed his associate degree. Now he is the program director and serves as a steering committee member; he also teaches the next generation of student scientists, making presentations at elementary schools.

Success stories like Good Luck’s—from science student afield to tribal environmental leader—are proof that placebased education programs are having their intended impact. With the backing of federal research agencies and a legion of dedicated professors, students at tribal colleges are learning where they live and gaining instruction and knowledge from modern and traditional sources. By most accounts, the lessons are sticking.

Local field and lab research at tribal colleges has “made a huge difference,” says Jeremy Guinn, UTTC instructor, “in getting students out into the community and becoming a source of scientific knowledge for the community.”

Joshua Zaffos writes from Fort Collins, CO where he covers the environment, science, and culture.

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