Learning Across the Land

One of my favorite things about Indian Country is how small it sometimes feels. Even though we are spread out across the width of the continent, in many individual nations—each with its own culture, places, dialect, and stories—it often feels as though we’re part of our own vast city. A lot of us have friends and family all over the country: people we only get to see a couple times a year or maybe we only met them once or twice but it feels like we’ve known them for a lifetime. Thanks to the passionate nature of Indigenous gatherings, it’s not uncommon to leave even an academic conference with new brothers and sisters from different mothers and misters.

This past October, I got to travel with my friends at College of Menominee Nation’s Sustainable Development Institute out to beautiful Denver, Colorado, for the 2019 First Americans Land Consortium (or FALCON). I was presenting my work on the Tribal Climate Change Database. I have gotten to really enjoy sharing my work with others, but what I really enjoy about conferences is hearing the great work being done at other tribal colleges and elsewhere in Indian Country. You meet some folks and they are so humble, approachable, and relatable that it’s difficult to imagine them in any other context but swapping stories over coffee. Then, out of nowhere, you end up on a panel with them and that same friend who you were cracking jokes with is also a brilliant young scientist doing tremendous work in their community to improve water quality, protect the home of our non-human relatives, and revitalize ancestral agriculture techniques for food sovereignty.

To be honest, as a young student I often found science dreary. It seemed so stringent, with little room for creativity. I imagined rooms full of stiff, bespectacled scientists who looked nothing like me, belaboring math problems in impersonal lecture halls. I always thought I’d feel out of place with my nose ring and punk rock. And while I’m sure that’s maybe the case somewhere, Indigenous science is anything but that.

The thing that separates FALCON from the symposiums of my adolescent nightmares can be summarized in one word: passion. Too often, science is thought of as this cold, calculating world of pure intellect, divorced from the plebeian realm of feeling and connection. These things are noise that will only cloud your ability to find the signal, which is often a very obscure piece of data that would never mean a thing to a person outside the field. And that’s valid, for some scientists, in some fields.

But it can also be something else. It can be the fields in which we walk with our planting sticks, our giggling children scurrying behind with palmfuls of seeds. It can be graphs of population data that tell the story of some of our oldest relatives as they work to find food and raise their young, just like us. It can be nose rings and ribbon skirts and a booth at the powwow with surveys to fill out. All across this country, there is an emerging class of scientists who look more and more like this. They’re walking into these conferences with flash drives full of science and Indigenous wisdom, presentations written in their Indigenous languages and fully cited, ready to honor both the stakeholders and the ancestors. It makes Indian Country closer in all of the best ways, and bigger in the best ways too. And even though we are all different, with unique challenges and approaches, we’re always ready to come back and hear from our new friends again.

Jasmine Neosh is a student at College of Menominee Nation.

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