Native Earth 2019: Celebrating a Decade of Environmental Leadership Training for Indigenous Young People

All of the participants and chaperones posed after a full day of canoeing, swimming, and learning about archaeological sites on Tupper Lake. 

In August, the Center celebrated the 10th anniversary of Native Earth, our flagship environmental summer program for native high school students. This year, 19 young people, 10 chaperones and family members, and Center staff gathered at the SUNY Newcomb campus in the Adirondacks for a week of hands-on learning, community building, leadership development, and traditional skills acquisition. The youth spanned ages 13-17 and represented Tonawanda Seneca, Tuscarora, Onondaga, Oneida, and Akwesasne Mohawk tribal affiliations. 

As in past years, Native Earth blended insights from traditional ecological knowledge and academic environmental science, with a strong emphasis on land-based and experiential learning as well as learning about traditional skills. As in past years, Native Earth blended insights from traditional ecological knowledge and academic environmental science, with a strong emphasis on land-based and experiential learning as well as learning about traditional skills. SUNY-ESF Professor of Forest and Natural Resources Colin Beier welcomed us to the Adirondacks with a presentation highlighting the region’s ecological history and contemporary environmental challenges. Dr. Beier emphasized the historical significance of the Adirondacks’ forests and waters for native peoples, and the ways that peoples of the region intentionally cared for and shaped these landscapes over time. 

Highlights of the week included a workshop by Sateiokwen Bucktooth (Akwesasne Mohawk) of Snipe Clan Botanicals on plant medicine, and a presentation by Dr. Tim Messner of SUNY Potsdam and his graduate research assistant Marla Thomas (Akwesasne Mohawk) about Haudenosaunee archaeological sites near Tupper Lake. The archaeologists also shared their knowledge about fire building and throwing the atlatl! Students also enjoyed a night of storytelling by Percy Ground (Onondaga), learned how to skin and prepare muskrat from Teio Skidders (Akwesasne Mohawk), and were introduced to picking and braiding sweetgrass by chaperone Dean George (Akwesasne Mohawk). 

What is Traditional Ecological Knowledge? In the words of Center for Native Peoples and the Environment Director Robin Wall Kimmerer, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK, “is born of long intimacy and attentiveness to a homeland and can arise wherever people are materially and spiritually integrated with their landscape.” Assistant Director Neil Patterson adds that, “TEK is a complex of knowledge, practice and belief that is grounded in place.”

Students learn how to harvest sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata).

In addition to these more formal workshops, students also explored the Adirondack region by hiking Mt. Goodnow, canoeing at Rich Lake (including a popular moonlight paddle!), swimming in multiple lakes, and camping at the brand-new John Dillon Park in Long Lake. The program benefited immensely from support provided by the staff at SUNY-Newcomb, as well as the use of their facilities, notably the Adirondack Ecological Center

The Center’s partnership with The Wild Center in Tupper Lake also inspired multiple activities. Students were able to explore the museum’s extensive exhibits, including those highlighting Traditional Ecological Knowledge of the Adirondack region. Staff at The Wild Center also joined our group on a very special trip to The Nature Conservancy’s nearby Follensby Pond property, where we learned about the unique history and ecology of that site, and engaged in a cross-cultural conversation about land reconciliation. 

In response to a directive from the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, this year’s programming strongly emphasized the theme of climate change. Participants were introduced to perspectives on climate change from both ecology and traditional Haudenosaunee teachings. With support from staff at The Wild Center, participants also practiced creating a climate action plan, and adapted this format to draft statements reflecting their experience as native young people. Several participants went on to share their perspectives about climate change as part of the Climate Action Summit week of activities in New York City in September 2019. 

At the conclusion of the week, students expressed that their participation in Native Earth had encouraged them to reconnect with traditional teachings about humans’ relationship with their more-than-human kin. One participant summed up her cultural teachings: “Everything has a purpose. You should give thanks for all of these. Don’t take what you don’t need. Take care of everything.” 

Partner Spotlight:

Akwesasne Cultural Restoration Program consists of two parts: a Master/Apprenticeship program of the St. Regis Mohawk that teaches Mohawk language and traditional teachings, and Institutional Funding Grants that support other Akwesasne-based organizations that teach language and cultural activities.

The impact of participation in Native Earth will extend far beyond the week of the program. According to parent Gretchen Potter, “The Native Earth experience was incredibly valuable—it confirmed for my daughter a strong basis of knowledge around how we Haudenosaunee relate to the Earth and all living things, some wilderness skills-building, connections with a like-minded Iroquois youth community, as well as an opening up of greater possibilities for her own academic future.” Gretchen added that her daughter plans to pursue academic study of wildlife biology, and has added SUNY-ESF to the list of colleges where she intends to apply. 

As in past years, this year’s program was free for all participants, thanks to generous funding from the NY DEC. In a departure from previous years, all participants were also offered the opportunity to enroll in the program for college credit, granted by SUNY-ESF. 

In addition to financial support from the NY DEC and administrative support from SUNY-ESF, Native Earth also benefited from the contributions of our other partners, including: Akwesasne Cultural Restoration Program, The Nature Conservancy, The Wild Center, Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, and SUNY-Newcomb. 

Native Earth began in 2010 to bring together Native American high school students to explore the intersection between traditional ecological knowledge and environmental science. The program brings together indigenous environmental stewardship philosophy and the tools of western science, taught by Native elders, teachers and environmental professionals through wilderness field experience, traditional instruction, cultural and scientific activities.

Student spotlight:

Program participant Peter Thais was inspired by his Native Earth experience to enter the Indigenous Agricultural Conference’s Youth Essay Contest – and won third place!  Peter was awarded a Travel Scholarship to attend the IAC Annual Conference in Las Vegas this December. According to Peter, “I learned a lot at the camp this summer. It really helped me to think about knowledge as more than school. It also gave me the opportunity to go to the UN and now I will meet with Indigenous farmers at the conference in Las Vegas. I hope to learn more about sustainable farming practices and promoting food sovereignty.”

Program participants canoeing on Rich Lake. Shortly after this picture was taken, students measured the lake’s clarity using a Secchi disk. 

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