Putting Sustainability Teaching into Practice

Nov 3rd, 2011 | By | Category: 23-2: Climate Commitment
By Carrie Billy, J.D.

Carrie Billy (Diné), J.D.

In establishing the first tribal college (TCU) four decades ago, tribal governments were exercising their sovereign right of self-determination in a way that had never before been accomplished. They created an innovative form of higher education— TRIBAL higher education— whose core mission is to sustain tribal cultures, traditions, and language, while bringing education, social, and economic opportunities to American Indians.

Every initiative the TCUs pursue is in harmony with the core mission components of tradition, innovation, and self-determination—including the commitment to sustainability. Out of necessity, traditional cultures are based on practices that have sustained an intimate connection to the land and water for generations. Because of this, our people and Indigenous people worldwide will be impacted by climate change more than other groups.

Stresses such as drought, floods, and extreme weather events threaten that intimate connection. They also call for solutions that are both innovative and grounded in traditional understandings—two areas in which TCUs excel. By integrating traditional knowledge, especially traditional ecological knowledge, into the curriculum, TCUs help foster culturally appropriate responses to energy and climate challenges. But our institutions not only teach sustainability, many practice it. This edition of Tribal College Journal gives readers insight into some of the great work—and the enormous potential— of TRIBAL higher education.

To help TCUs achieve key sustainability goals, we are fortunate to have access to a wonderful resource through a partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Beau Mitchell, sustainability coordinator at the College of Menominee Nation’s Sustainable Development Institute, is the first NREL-AIHEC Energy Fellow, and he is currently working with a cohort of six TCUs to help make their commitment to sustainability a reality throughout their campuses. Beau is a dedicated leader in his field, and we hope that all of the TCUs will take advantage of the opportunity to learn from him.

Beau will be the first to tell you that achieving a sustainable campus is not easy: It takes a strong commitment at all levels, from students to governing board members. A handful of TCU presidents are leading the way on their campuses and nationally by signing the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. I hope that every TCU president will join the presidents of the College of Menominee Nation, the Institute of American Indian Arts, United Tribes Technical College, and Salish Kootenai College in making a public commitment to sustainability.

To learn more, and to sign the commitment, go to http://www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org. Sure, it will be difficult at times, and there are often up-front costs associated with change. But consider this: Who has more at stake than we, the Indigenous people of this land?


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