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AISES Holds First Regional Conference at LCOOU

By Frank Zufall

Sawyer County Record

The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) held its first regional conference at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University (LCOOU) from Friday afternoon April 14 to Saturday April 15.

On Friday over 80 persons had preregistered and another 20-plus registered at the door.

Lisa Paz, senior director of engagement and advocacy for AISES, came from New Mexico to attend the conference.

Paz, a member of the Pawnee/Comanche nations of Oklahoma, said the mission of AISES is to “increase the representation of indigenous people into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math fields).”

“We work all over the United States and Canada, encouraging students to pursue STEM degrees, helping support them get those degrees, and then helping support them as professionals in that as well,” she said, “So we work through from Pre-K through 12 and college and university students and also professionals, trying to find provide them support resources and networking opportunities.”

At the tribal college level, she said, there is an emphasis on activities. One of those activities at LCOOU has been the rocket program with students working with representatives of NASA on building and shooting a large scale rocket.

Paz said there is a regional conference held every spring in every one of the seven regions, like the one held at LCOOU for Region 5, and in the fall there is a national conference.

“This year the national conference will be in Spokane, Washington, October 19, through 21st,” she said, “and that’s going to be about 3,000 indigenous STEM students and professionals.”

Concerning the goal of attracting more indigenous people into STEM fields, she said, it has been slow and in a lot of areas there are struggles.

“But we are definitely seeing a lot more engagement from students,” she said. “They’re learning more what it means, what are the STEM degrees and where are the STEM fields and careers, and we are starting to get brothers and sisters passing on this information within their families, so we are definitely seeing growth.”

One area with the most STEM growth, she said, has been civil engineering.

“Students who get this degree then want to work in their community and help build their community infrastructure,” said Paz.

Another area of growth is in environmental science.

“It’s kind of natural for indigenous students to want to study their environment,” she said.

Lately, she said, there is more interest in computer science and in the health professions.


The keynote speaker Friday night was Michael Waasegiizhig Price of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission on the subject of “Anishinaabe Language and Climate Change Terminology.”

The Saturday morning keynote speaker was Jared TenBrink from South Dakota University on “Decolonizing Biology.”

Following the morning breakout speaker, there were workshops held in four breakout sessions.

Two of the sessions included “Ethical Research on Tribal Lands” by Dr. Mark Bellcourt, a retired Ph.D. in Education from the University of Minnesota and member of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, and “LCO Comprehensive Energy Plan” presented by Dr. Kelly Cain, a Ph.D. from the St. Croix Institute.

Ethical research

“I think it is important to recognize that with colonization every tribe, every indigenous people have experienced research done to them rather than with them, “said Bellcourt. “For example, you know of anthropologist who have dug up how many graveyards and things like that.”

Bellcourt focused his talk to his experience at White Earth Reservation and explored

“essential questions” that needed to be asked and “working protocols” to be used when working with tribes.

He talked of the history of the White Earth Reservation and how legislative acts that reduce the size of the reservation to just a portion of its original size and noted that even the University of Minnesota had a role or was “complicit” in the loss of land.

He talked about the friction between tribes and the University in the 1990s over research on wild rice with the University claiming that its research was “proprietary information,” and the tribes suing and winning in court to share the information with them, and how the University played a spoiled sport and placed 100 pages of research amongst 1,000 of sheets of paper in boxes stuck between the pages making it difficult event to gather the research.

“They said, ‘Here’s the information. Whatever you can find,’ so you can see why maybe there was bad blood between the tribes and between the university.”

He recounted a controversy in Minnesota over a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports on a safe level of sulfate concentrations from mining that wouldn’t impact wild rice, and how tribes criticized the report for lacking insights into the larger interaction of species with habitat.

Out of this reaction to the DNR report, there was an effort to pursue a large grant, in the range of $250,000-$300,000, to study wild rice with tribes in a way that would be culturally appropriate.

A plan was developed over four months to visit tribes and listen. At the first visit, there was complete silence because tribal members didn’t want to talk and then one man stood up and asked, “But you’re the university. What do you really want?”

Once it was obvious the researchers just wanted to listen, many members began speaking.

It was determined before any in-depth field research was to be conducted that relationships of trust had to be built.

The next step was for research assistants to do an literature review on wild rice and develop of list of questions. One internal question was “who would benefit by the research?”

“We asked the question of who defined and framed the scope of the research, because recently as researchers we are the ones that frame the research question,” he said, “and then also, we had to reverse that and say, let the people who are there, let them, you know, frame the scope of that research project, and who will carry it out? You know, in the past, we had to hire assistant researchers or graduate or undergraduate research assistants and go out and do the research ourselves. That, we said, that’s not good enough. We need to get the people there working on the project with us.”

Other questions addressed who would write up the research, publication and disseminating the research.

“So those questions then led us to thea protocol that we sort of developed.”

Guiding protocols for research, he noted, include “having a relationship with the people that includes respect and transparency and equal participation by the tribe.”

“They had to be part of the decision making process,” he said. “They had the right to withdraw from the project. We had to be able to have open communications.”

Another issues was ownership of data. Tribes have been damaged when data taken from them has been distributed, but federal grants for research require public dissemination of data, so that had to be discussed with tribes. If the tribes didn’t want information released via the study, the option was for the researches to teach tribal members how to do the research themselves for internal use of data only.

Sadly, Bellcourt noted. that original protocols developed by the University members, including himself and other Native American faculty, to work with tribes had been “watered down,” and he said that was frustrating but hoped a future symposium between the University and tribal members could further enhance protocols.

Today, he said, several tribes have established Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) a board of tribal members who review request of the tribes from outside agencies.

LCO energy study

Dr. Kain, a former faculty member at University of Wisconsin-River Falls, talked of an effort by the St. Croix Institute for developing a comprehensive energy plan for LCO, which the Tribal Governing Board has received but has yet to be published.

“So we were contracted in helping LCO to write a grant to the Wisconsin Office of Energy Innovation about a year and a half ago to do a comprehensive energy plan for the tribe,” he said.

Having an approved comprehensive energy plan, said Kain, would allow the tribe to pursue larger grants toward becoming energy independent or even self sufficient, such as building solar fields or creating electrical charging stations or weatherize homes.”

He said from a STEM perspective the area of energy independence offered a “…myriad of opportunities” for students and faculty.

“So, as I as I thought about putting this together, thinking about the critical questions and exceptional opportunities for STEM around climate change, green energy planning and action, de-carbonization, cyber resiliency and sovereignty, because the idea of thinking about everything from an energy audit of the entire reservation, which is pretty much what this plan represents, to all of the economic diversification and employment opportunities that comes from that for tribal members, depending on how far the tribe wants to take that,” he said.

He discussed predictions of global warming and how just a few degrees increase could negatively impact corn and soybean production.

He noted the Menomonie Tribe is actively transplanting species that do better in warmer climates as one way of preparing for the future.

“So ultimately, it’s the notion of the tribe deciding what level of leadership that they want to take in pursuing energy, self-sufficiency, independence, security, resilience, sovereignty, which cuts across any and everything that the tribe holds dear, and kind of a holistic systems approach to the intergenerational ecologic integrity, social, cultural fulfillment, economic security of the tribe, the community, and its members.”

He talked of one idea he had been working with tribes on creating carbon credits for tribal forest and noted that carbon credits have recently risen from $5 to over $15, offering a positive cash flow, but it was also discussed how most tribes also want to ensure those who are buying the carbon credits, mostly large corporations, are also pursuing initiatives to lower their carbon footprint.

Without talking about the specifics of the plan presented to the TGB, he said, the plan could be used to help the tribe monitor its energy goals in the ensuring years.


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