This month, six tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) received competitive grants totaling $160,000 through the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s (AIHEC’s) longstanding Tribal ecoAmbassador partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Tribal ecoAmbassador program empowers tribal communities to identify and address their own unique environmental needs while building the capacity of tribal colleges and Native students by encouraging relationships with federal scientists and offering hands-on field and laboratory experience. The program recognizes and honors an important factor that makes TCUs unique among institutions of higher education: the incorporation of traditional cultural knowledge with the Western scientific method.
“We are proud to be partnering with the EPA on this exciting and empowering initiative,” says Carrie L. Billy, president & CEO of AIHEC. “Each ecoAmabassador project is rooted in tribal culture and community need or aspiration, and in addressing that need or working toward that goal, TCU students are empowered to create positive change. They learn new research skills and through use of those skills, they rediscover important lessons from their tribe’s history, lands, and ways of knowing. Their own identity is strengthened.”
In 2011, the EPA first partnered with AIHEC to support the initial Tribal ecoAmbassadors project. In the years since, EPA has recognized the tremendous value of these modestly funded programs, and this year’s round of grants marks the fifth year of the project. When a college receives an award, TCU professors and students are matched with EPA staff with federal scientists who are working in the same field on similar projects and can offer expertise, connections, or training.
Under the initiative, each TCU develops its own project idea, based on its community’s needs and the institution’s capacity. Past projects have included recycling, traditional gardens, water and air quality research, traditional plant restoration, mercury accumulation in plant and animal tissue, and more. To date, the Tribal ecoAmbassador project has supported 26 projects at 15 TCUs.
Six TCUs received grants this year. Haskell Indian Nations University’s Tribal ecoAmbassador project will focus on food waste reduction in the campus cafeteria, as well as, an effort to landscape the campus with a focus on planting traditional polyculture vegetable gardens, native Kansas prairie grasses, wild flowers, shrubs, and fruit bearing trees. Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College’s project will continue and expand water temperature profiling efforts in habitats of local fish management species as part of the implementation of best-management practices for fisheries of the Lake Superior region. Salish Kootenai College’s project will locate and quantify arsenic concentrations in well water and inform community members if wells are found with elevated arsenic levels and how to access safe drinking water. Turtle Mountain Community College’s project will research recreational activities in tribal lakes to determine if such activities lead to water contamination resulting in a hazardous environment for invertebrate organisms, specifically leeches. The Institute of American Indian Arts will use art and permaculture to enhance public spaces and to create restoration and passive water harvesting systems and bio-retention rain gardens. And Northwest Indian College’s project, Rooted Relationships, builds upon previous efforts to expand and enhance facilities, materials, and instruction concerning the interrelation of people, plants, and wellness.