Study abroad programs build connections between tribal college students and the international indigenous community
By Katie Scarlett Brandt
This past fourth of July, Aaniiih Nakoda College student Makayla Renfro found herself atop a giant sand dune in the Namibian desert, far from her home on the Fort Belknap Reservation of Montana. She climbed the dune to see the sunset. But once she reached to summit, she had what, at the time, seemed like a good idea. She wanted to roll back down the mountain of sand.
“I was told it was really spectacular,” Renfro said, recalling the eyeglasses she destroyed on her journey down.
Though a memorable experience, Renfro’s trip to Namibia had another, more important purpose. She, along with seven other students and four faculty members from Aaniiih Nakoda College, spent two and a half weeks in the west African nation conducting ecological research on the country’s land practices and environmental policies. At stops throughout the country, they met with political leaders, research scientists, and tribal communities. Their goal, in part, was to see if Namibia’s approach to land management could translate on their own land back in Fort Belknap.
Over the years, many tribal colleges have offered their own study abroad programs. Students have traveled to Myanmar, New Zealand, Namibia and Costa Rica, among others. In most cases, these programs work to build connections with other indigenous communities that, like Native peoples of North America, are trying to protect their way of life despite pressure from federal governments that either push them out or merge them into the population at large.
This sense of shared experience is empowering. When the Aaniiih Nakoda students met with indigenous people in Namibia, student Xavier Hawley felt right at home. “They showed us what they used to drink traditionally, plants they used for medicinal purposes. They lived off the land. Everything was treated with respect, like a lot of indigenous communities everywhere.”
Student Darrellyn Blackwolf said she had to mentally prepare herself for being so far from family, but that she felt excited to “be in an environment with people from different cultures but not totally different. People were just as interested in us as we were interested in them.”
Long-time Aaniiih Nakoda College faculty member Liz McClain (now serving as administrative assistant to the college’s president) led the group with funding from the National Science Foundation. Currently in its second year, the program has funding for five years. “One of the things that makes this program unique is that we go as a sovereign nation to a sovereign nation. We go as Fort Belknap Reservation. We presented them with the Fort Belknap flag,” McClain said.
Namibia’s independence empowered the country to make conservation a priority and gave the people a louder voice in deciding what to do with their natural resources. Many tribal people hold high seats in government, and, McClain added, “Their constitution is the only one in the world that has ‘Article 95’, saying they’re responsible for taking care of the resources for generations to come. They’ll be ready when climate change happens.”
Director of Sponsored Programs Scott Friskics agreed. “That’s one of things that’s so attractive about looking at Namibia. Forty-seven percent of the land base there is protected and managed by local communities. The entire conservancy movement is so pervasive across the country.”
Many indigenous groups call Namibia home. A country of only 2 million people, “Namibia is home to fourteen different ethnic groups who speak 26 different languages,” McClain wrote in the grant proposal narrative. “Rural communities in this harsh, arid environment have linked conservation to poverty alleviation through sustainable use of their natural resources and, in doing so, have become a model for the rest of the world.”
Student Tobias Jones described mornings in the desert as “super cold,” but said the days would grow hot—inescapable dry heat and dust—as the students gathered samples. They spent their nights sleeping in tents. “Going from Hayes, Montana to Namibia, Africa—it was a big change. Not seeing grass all over the place was a big change, too,” he said.
“One of the main reasons we looked there is because the people interact with large mammals—rhino, elephant,” said science instructor Randall Werk. That carried significance because the plains tribes also work with large mammals, including buffalo. The people, he added, “were cool, funny, and just like here; they were proud of whatever tribe they were, however small.”
Jones saw other cultural similarities. “They eat tripe. Our tribes eat tripe, too,” he said. However, “at another restaurant we ate zebra, more exotic animals—exotic to us.”
The insights gained by students gives Friskics hope for the future of the Fort Belknap Reservation. “They’re getting firsthand exposure to environmental and sustainability issues across the world. We’d like to see these student participants become the future caretakers of Fort Belknap and make decisions based on some of the things they saw on this trip.”
McClain added, “I would hope they learn something about themselves. There is poverty outside reservations that’s quite stark, but [the Namibians] are incredibly resilient people.” Renfro remembers seeing that resilience on the streets in larger cities. “The people were unashamed to approach you with their wares. It was cool. They really utilize their resources and cultural ways of making their bracelets. They learned how to make these crafts and make their living on the streets like that.”
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Charles Jason Tinant, associate professor of engineering and earth science at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, also talked about the value of study abroad trips. “International experiences really give you the opportunity to start to think about the world differently and realize we’re all interconnected here. You get some new perspectives to deal with issues in your own community,” he said.
Tinant has twice traveled with tribal college students to Costa Rica, in 2015 and 2017, through the Costa Rica International Research Experience program. Steve Dupuis of Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, and Jessica Black of Heritage University in Toppenish, Washington, lead the program. Each two-week trip happens during fall semester break, before Christmas. The program receives funding from the National Science Foundation through the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation and the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP). Seven faculty research mentors and fourteen students from various tribal colleges attend the yearly trips, which partner each faculty member with two students.
“The overarching theme is ecology, water, plants, bugs,” said Dupuis. On the first trip, Tinant and his students studied the invasive shampoo ginger plant, butterfly diversity, and nutrients in the water that collects in bromeliad tanks. In 2017, they set out to identify the relationship between rainfall and runoff of a mid-order tropical stream, but with no rain, they shifted to measuring stream morphology. Students presented their findings in English to field station staff, and also went on to present their research at scientific conferences in the United States.
“For the students it was really valuable because it was the first time they’d done research like this — collecting data and putting it together to tell a story,” Tinant said.
The students also learned how to be respectful outsiders in someone else’s culture. Tinant said that traveling beyond their comfort zones forced them to check in with themselves: “How do we build consensus? Compromise? Learn from each other?”
It took time for the students to get to that point, though. Tinant said both study abroad trips began with a period of panic and uncertainty. Students went from focusing on completing their project checklists to noting deeper parallels between themselves and Costa Rica.
“They see some of the more basic commonalities. They see connections with nature. People went to bed earlier, spent less time on their phones, got up earlier and watched the birds. These international experiences give students the chance to step out of their own world for a while and come back into their world in a more reflective way,” Tinant said.
The Costa Rica program operates out of Las Cruces Biological Station, located just outside the small town of San Vito, Costa Rica, near the Panama border. On Tinant’s most recent trip, the group visited with the president and cabinet of the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca — one of Panama’s indigenous tribes — as well as the Boruca of Costa Rica.
“Traditional ecological knowledge experts from the Ngäbe and Bugle indigenous groups of this region shared their knowledge of the various plants, animals, birds, and insects within the environment, along with sharing their environmental concerns,” Dupuis said.
For many tribal college students, Dupuis noted, the program was a first-ever opportunity to interact with indigenous communities that have sustained their languages and cultural traditions.
Tinant also noticed that the trips motivated students to promote sustainability on their home reservations. He said two of the students he worked with are now completing graduate degrees: a PhD program in sustainability and a BS program in civil engineering.
The students weren’t the only ones to learn on those trips. Tinant himself grew up middle class in South Dakota. Before college, the farthest he’d traveled was to Disney World. But during his junior year of college, he took part in a month-long volunteer program in Haiti, where he looked at ways to get drinking water to a small village’s hospital as well as to the local people. After earning his master’s degree, he headed to Mongolia, where he studied sand filtration to soften water.
“In both cases, I was a complete ass,” he said. “I had these ideas about American ways, and when things weren’t working that way, I got mad.”
But continued travel humbled him. “Those experiences started me thinking about how I am in the world, how I choose to be.”
“Students and faculty get a lot more out of then just conducting research in an international setting,” Dupuis said.
The same was true of the tribal college students and faculty who traveled to Namibia, and spent hours every day quietly observing, reflecting, shifting their own set of beliefs about the world—and having some fun along the way.
Sometimes, the best way to study the land is to roll down a sand dune.
Katie Scarlett Brandt is a freelance writer based in Chicago and a regular contributor to Native Science Report.