Curiosity Prevails Over Despair

Nov 3rd, 2011 | By | Category: 23-2: Climate Commitment, Editor's Essay
By Laura Paskus

RISING UP. Turtle sculpture in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis by Joe Allen (Lakota/Ojibwe). Image courtesy of the artist.

The signs of climate change hung heavy in the skies of New Mexico this summer. As flood waters overtook communities in North Dakota and Montana and tornadoes cut a swath across the South and Midwest, fires raged across the southwestern United States.

Allegedly ignited by two careless campers in the Apache- Sitgreaves National Forest, Arizona’s Wallow Fire blew walls of smoke east into New Mexico throughout much of June. Then one Sunday at the end of the month, the Las Conchas fire overtook the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos National Laboratory. Within the first 24 hours, the fire burned 44,000 acres of forest. As it continued to grow into the state’s largest wildfire in recorded history, Las Conchas also burned about 80% of the forested land of Santa Clara Pueblo, including its watershed.

After the drama of Las Conchas had died down, many went back to ignoring the issues the fires, flooding, and tornadoes had brought to attention: Climate change won’t just mean sea level rises, drought, and changes in precipitation patterns, but may also spawn extreme weather events and, in the Southwest, encourage more intense wildfires.

It was easy for many people to stop thinking about climate change—except for those living in Santa Clara Pueblo. After the fire, the rains of summer thunderstorms sloughed off the soil no longer tethered to the ground by vegetation. Floods tore down Santa Clara Creek, and into early September, the tribe was still bracing for flash flooding.

The impacts of those floods even became apparent in the waters near my own home about 70 miles downriver from where Santa Clara Creek drains into the Rio Grande. By the end of August, the silty reddish flows of the Rio Grande had become gray. In places where the river was low, sandbars were streaked with lines of ash.

If it’s hard sometimes to look upon the places that nurture and sustain us—that are changing before our very eyes—it’s reassuring to see what is happening at tribal colleges.

The College of Menominee Nation (CMN, Keshena, WI) has long been leading the way on sustainability and climate change. When the Menominee Nation chartered the college in 1993, tribal lawmakers also created a Sustainable Development Institute, which later became a part of the tribal college.

Fourteen years later, in 2007, CMN President S. Verna Fowler, Ph.D. (Menominee/Stockbridge-Munsee), was one of the first to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Commitment to Climate Change. The following year, the tribal college hired a coordinator, Beau Mitchell (Chippewa Cree of Rocky Boy), to create a template other tribal colleges could follow to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Today, Mitchell also serves as the energy fellow for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Indeed, tribal college students are increasingly interested in climate change—and in making a difference. Within this issue of TCJ, writers share stories of how various tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are addressing climate change with research, sustainability efforts, environmental health and science classes, and renewable energy. While most TCUs are involved in some way, this issue covers work by Haskell Indian Nations University, the Institute of American Indian Arts, Sitting Bull College, Salish Kootenai College, Aaniiih Nakoda College, the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, Tohono O’odham Community College, White Earth Tribal and Community College, and Nebraska Indian Community College.

And just days before this issue went out the door, Stacie Blue, an environmental science instructor at Turtle Mountain Community College, emailed a draft report she, Dr. Scott Hanson, and Leslie Peltier had worked on with two students, Ferin Davis and Alexandra Cammack.

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