Soil and Oil, Trees and Seas: Building Nations through Natural Resources

Volume 25, No. 4 - Summer 2014
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After many years as a carpenter, Fred Hale wanted to try something new: welding. He knew it would come in handy for a job in the Bakken oil boom, which is engulfing his community in North Dakota—or for building hot rods someday. A friend told him about Fort Berthold Community College’s (FBCC) welding program, but Hale thought, “I’m this old, I can’t learn anything.” Still, Hale, who is mixed Mandan, Hidatsa, and Waccamaw, gave it a try. He earned his welding certification, and although he’s still working as a carpenter, the 53-year-old is glad to have learned something else.


HEAVY METAL. Justice Johnson learns the art of welding at UTTC. Such skills prepare students for jobs in the Bakken oil boom. Photo by Dennis J. Neumann, UTTC

Hale is part of a stream of people who have come to several tribal colleges seeking the skills to take advantage of the oil boom. The schools are building programs aimed at helping students as well as the energy companies that are looking to hire thousands of people at attractive wages. At FBCC, students are learning welding, construction technology, and safety. They are getting commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) and becoming familiar with process-plant refinery operations. Hundreds of job openings are anticipated as the Three Affiliated Tribes build and open the Thunder Butte Petroleum Refinery near Minot, North Dakota.

The Bakken formation is billed as the largest single deposit of oil and natural gas discovered in the contiguous United States in the past 40 years. It lies under northwest North Dakota, northeast Montana, and Canada. Some of it is under tribal land. But oil and gas are only part of a wide array of abundant natural resources that are in or near reservations, and that tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are recognizing as vital to their respective local economies. Preparing young people to work with natural resources advances tribal nation building and the drive for self-determination.

With a history of tribal lands being appropriated with little regard for long-term preservation or environmental impact—or without adequate compensation to the tribes themselves—it makes sense to develop a knowledgeable homegrown workforce. The ideal is getting someone who not only has the “technical chops” to do these jobs, but who also understands a tribe’s philosophy towards its resources, says Miriam Jorgensen, research director for the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy at the University of Arizona. “How much more wonderful if you’re able to do the hiring internally?” Tribes are increasingly exerting authority over resources on their land, after being hampered by federal bureaucracy, byzantine laws, and a lack of money and expertise. Tribal lands include a total of 18 million acres of forest held in trust by the United States, and tribes are collectively among the country’s largest owners of commercial forestry resources. Further, American Indians are involved in farming and ranching on 58 million acres.


BIG OIL. The Bakken formation sits below tribal lands and many TCUs are offering programs to prepare students for work in natural resources. Map by Nakota Designs.

Tribal lands are also rich in resources that lie beneath the soil, much of which remains unexploited. According to a 2011 Revenue Watch Institute report, tribes hold nearly 30% of U.S. coal reserves west of the Mississippi River, as much as 50% of potential uranium reserves, roughly 20% of identified natural gas and oil reserves, and an array of rare-earth minerals sought for manufacturing. Some tribes are leasing land to or partnering with energy companies. Other tribes have their own operations, including the Southern Utes, Navajos, Osages, and the Three Affiliated Tribes. A company owned by the Navajo Nation recently bought a coal mine in northwestern New Mexico.

Renewable energy is also being explored and developed. Tribes are looking into or operating facilities for solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal energy. On the West Coast, tribes still rely on the sea for their food and are working to protect fish, shellfish, and other sea life from the effects of pollution and climate change. Many TCUs offer certificates and associate degrees in the natural and environmental sciences, and some have launched bachelor’s degree programs in those fields and related ones. Sitting Bull College (SBC) has been approved for a master’s degree in environmental science and hopes to offer it beginning in fall 2014. The degree is the first of its kind at a TCU. Many of SBC’s students who earned a bachelor’s degree in science wanted a master’s degree, but didn’t want to leave the area, according to Dr. Gary Halvorson, the college’s agriculture division manager.

Many TCUs seek to prepare students for jobs working with natural resources after graduation. But even the most fundamental courses, with potential for research opportunities and internships, can open students’ eyes to compelling issues in the natural world. The effects of climate change, for example, are increasingly emphasized in many courses. TCUs combine science with tribal knowledge and appreciation for plants, wildlife, and the elements, and how they interconnect. Many also hone the skills of farmers, ranchers, and others, and develop expertise for people exploring a second career, including those wanting to join the oil boom.


David Gipp (Lakota), chancellor at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) in Bismarck, North Dakota, and not far from the Bakken formation, says tribal colleges as a group need to formulate a more coherent response to the oil boom. “The whole Bakken situation is not something coming and going in five to 10 years—it’s more like 20 to 40 years out,” he says. “It’s a test of one’s ability to evaluate existing or coming occupations that are needed.” There are an estimated 17,000 unfilled jobs in the Bakken, he notes—many more than the number of graduates coming out of North Dakota’s TCUs and state schools combined. To address the labor shortage, five of the state’s institutions of higher education formed a consortium. These five colleges—FBCC, SBC, and Turtle Mountain Community College (TMCC), plus Bismarck and Williston State Colleges—are expanding their energy programs and career services using a $14.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.


THE PROFESSOR AND THE SEA. At NWIC, Dr. Marco Hatch studies phytoplankton
toxins in butter clams. Photo by Jessica Urbanec

TCUs are seeking to build a workforce not only in construction, but also in firefighting, medical technology, and dozens of other fields needing qualified people in the Bakken area. The oil boom can be viewed as both a boon and a risk to the residents in and near the region, and local tribes know they must tread carefully. Their culture, language, and well-being are “very much challenged” by the boom, Gipp observes.

Apart from the potential to create tremendous wealth, the oil boom has been blamed for contamination, accidents, inflation, and all of the social ills that come with hordes of people moving to a sparsely populated area. A growing concern is that workers know how to prevent and negotiate the dangers that stem from the handling of hazardous materials and other aspects of the industry. At SBC in Fort Yates, 10- day courses leading to certificates in oil drilling seek to familiarize students with oil rig equipment, special firefighting techniques, and safety requirements. Other courses teach welding and electrical work. Early graduates of the program have had job offers, but couldn’t get housing or transportation to the worksites, according to Dr. Koreen Ressler, vice-president of academics at SBC. So the school purchased a van to take students to the Bakken area for job interviews, and for the jobs themselves, which entail 10-day shifts.

At UTTC, students are learning welding and electrical work and a program was launched to teach medical coding, a skill needed for processing claims that is in high demand at local hospitals and elsewhere. The school also sought to tailor its nursing program to the oil business. TMCC has expanded its building construction program to include working with concrete and has added sections in welding. An associate’s degree in process plant technology is now offered through a partnership with Bismarck State College, while a new CDL program has also proven very popular.


Forestry programs at TCUs are built upon many tribes’ long history with that resource. Delegations from around the world have visited the College of Menominee Nation’s (CMN) acclaimed program of sustainable forestry management, which reflects the Menominee Nation’s practice of judiciously cutting down trees with the aim of encouraging long-term growth. Instructors have used land near campus to teach students about scientific protocols, climate change, and the types of plants and trees that grow in the area.

Sustainability—working in harmony with nature and using a minimum of resources—is a key focus at the college. The school’s Sustainability Development Institute (SDI) was created in 1993, at the same time that the Menominee Nation chartered CMN. The Institute has developed a theoretical model based on land and sovereignty; natural resources; institutions; technology; economics; and human activity, perception, and behavior. “If an issue is raised by the college or tribe, you see how they [these factors] interact,” says SDI director Chris Caldwell (Menominee), an alumnus of the college.

The Institute has offered internships in subjects including forestry, climate change, water resources, and food sovereignty. One advertising student, a member of the Stockbridge- Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, worked on brochures for wooden caskets and cabinetry sold by Menominee Tribal Enterprises, while other interns examined forestry practices in the Adirondack Mountains for a month as part of an exchange program with the State University of New York.

Taking an introductory course in sustainable development— one that looks at the topic globally—has been required of students since the school’s inception. “For most students it’s their ‘aha’ moment,” says Dr. Diana Morris, chief academic officer at CMN. A project for a sustainability course led to the creation of a fair-trade campus coffee shop. Students learn about growing crops, fair use, fair trade, and the global dynamics of coffee by operating that shop, Morris says.

To the west, Salish Kootenai College (SKC) takes advantage of nearby forests in Montana for its instruction, and likewise integrates science with traditional knowledge and culture. American Indians must be involved in the tribes’ management of their forests, says Adrian Leighton, chairman of the college’s natural resources department. “Having people familiar with their values and needs makes a big difference.” TCUs are playing an increasingly important role in forestry management, he notes.

Job opportunities with the tribes in forestry can be scarce, but non-tribal staff tend to move on after several years. Even if Indian youth aren’t from the local tribes, they still share many of the same values, Leighton says. SKC’s forestry program attracts students from not only Montana, but also eastern Washington, Idaho, Alaska, and the Southwest. Giving students a broad sense of tribes’ different approaches to forest management is crucial, Leighton maintains. Climate change—linked to an increase in harmful insects and disease, and more frequent wildfires that come earlier in the season— is addressed in the courses. Managers have to determine how to make forests more resistant to drought, windstorms, and other factors.


Marine ecologist Dr. Marco Hatch (Samish), the associate director of the National Indian Center for Marine and Environmental Research and Education, based at Northwest Indian College (NWIC), noticed a pattern while chatting with tribes from western Washington. Tribal members told him that when preparing butter clams to eat, they throw away the neck or just the tip of the neck. Their elders taught them to do that. It turns out that toxins from phytoplankton can concentrate in the neck and cause potentially fatal paralytic shellfish poisoning, and cooking doesn’t eliminate them. “If you have no ability to test a clam, if you remove the neck and don’t eat it, that’s a pretty good way to try to be safe,” Hatch observes. When he tells this story, he shows how science and tribal knowledge can be combined to analyze practical problems, “It’s a very powerful example for the students,” he says.

Several Nez Perce graduates recently went to work for tribes after completing their studies at NWIC, which awarded its first bachelor’s degree in Native environmental science in 2010. Other graduates are pursuing master’s degrees.


LITTLE DOG. Celina Brown Otter paints a prairie dog to identify it for study at SBC. Photo courtesy of Sitting Bull College

The Salish Sea Research Center opened on NWIC’s Lummi reservation campus last July, housing research focused on the sea and sea life, the history of human interaction with the sea, and the study of native plants. The building’s very location is helping the tribes, Hatch notes. A robot deployed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to detect red tide, an algal bloom in the sea that can taint fish and shellfish, is near the research center and easy to access. Tribes were historically wary of red tide, too. They said if the water looks a certain way, don’t eat the clams. “You get ‘glassy water,’” says Hatch. “That’s due to the fat content of the algae. It’s one way of observing the surface. If you recognize that, it’s a pretty good indicator.” This year, Hatch is studying the ecological effects of clam gardens, rocky terraces built along the beach in ancient times to increase clam production. Climate change is a big topic in the Northwest. The ocean’s carbon dioxide content has increased, making it harder for the larvae of clams to form the shells needed for survival. And rising sea levels threaten to inundate the Swinomish and other tribes on Puget Sound.


Many TCUs are taking an even more direct approach to helping their communities, focusing on food sovereignty and eating healthy. They have created gardens where families learn to raise vegetables and where the bounty is shared with other members of the community.

Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College (LCOOCC) operates a research station on 220 acres leased from the local tribe that serves as a teaching tool and working farm. Families are invited to raise vegetables, fruits, and herbs on plots, using the equipment and heeding the advice from LCOOCC researchers. They learn about tilling soil, saving seeds, and canning and drying food. Eventually, they may be able to grow food in their backyards. Research is being conducted on growing potatoes and potato seed while attracting native bees. They are also studying how to raise traditional types of blackberries, a key part of the Ojibwe diet. Other studies are under way that concentrate on the cultivation of tomatoes and wild mustard.

Back at FBCC, the college’s “Land Lab” has test plots to grow corn and potatoes. While some of the harvest goes to students and faculty, elders take precedence when it comes time to share the produce. Meanwhile, researchers at SBC are exploring the possibilities of sustainable livestock production, monitoring the weight and health of cattle fed on natural grasses across the Standing Rock reservation. Researchers are looking specifically at the effects that prairie dogs have on the grasses which cattle feed upon. The rodents eat the roots and are blamed for killing off the vegetation. Historically, prairie dogs have been poisoned, but the animals have been found to do some good. Their bodily wastes help fertilize the soil, according to Halvorson. “There’s more of that than we thought,” he observes.

Growing healthy food, and having a reliable supply of it, is a crucial part of nation building, researchers at several TCUs argue. “Healthy food is the cure for so many things, including diabetes, obesity, and other health issues,” says Todd Brier, LCOOCC’s sustainable agriculture research and farm manager. “It’s the basis for a lot of issues that we have.”

TCUs may be rooted in widely different cultures and terrains, but they share a common goal: preparing generations to interact wisely with the natural world. And that should remain the foremost tenet of nation building.

Helen Hu is a freelance writer and reporter based in Denver, Colorado.

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