Gathering Fuel for the Fire

Jasmine Neosh missed the occupation of Standing Rock in 2016, but it inspired her to go to college. Now graduating with a degree in public administration from the College of Menominee Nation, she’s already deep in the fight for environmental justice.

By Katie Scarlett Brandt

Jasmine Neosh. Photo courtesy of the American Indian College Fund.

One of the most important moments in Jasmine Neosh’s life came not from something she experienced but something she missed out on: the occupation of Standing Rock in 2016. Neosh spent months monitoring the uprising and knew friends and family who went. But she didn’t feel ready.

“I was working as a bartender, not making enough to get and maintain a car, to go all the way out to North Dakota for an indeterminate amount of time,” said Neosh, who is of Menominee descent and was living in Chicago at the time. Logistics weren’t the only obstacle. “I didn’t know what I would actually do to help. I’m not super good at cooking or chopping wood. I had to force myself to admit I had no tangible skills to bring to this fight.”

The then-28-year-old had felt passionate about climate change and sustainability for years, though. And she felt frustrated watching the fight for indigenous and environmental rights happen over screens, hundreds of miles away. “It really upset me and has never quite left,” Neosh said. Sitting at the bar between shifts one day in 2016, she pulled up the College of Menominee Nation website on her phone and applied to the school that very moment. “I knew I needed to go back to school, to get enough degrees to be in a position to help,” Neosh said.

She understood that Standing Rock wouldn’t be the last fight, and she wanted to be ready for the next one.

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From the moment Neosh arrived on the College of Menominee Nation campus in Wisconsin, she used her frustration as fuel. Four years later, she’s now graduating with a bachelor’s degree in public administration, following an associate degree in natural resources. She also works for the Sustainable Development Institute at the college and is in year one of a two-and-a-half-year research project that she developed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), exploring wild edible plants on the reservation.

Neosh views the work through a lens of sustainability and food sovereignty. “It relates back to climate change because a huge part of that is our food system. I spend most of my time talking about waste cycles, food cycles, that are really important but not big and showy.”

For decades, colonization turned the Menominee reservation into a food desert that relied on food shipped in, Neosh said–a situation that “was very strange to me.” Because the region features many edible plants and a growing season that lasts from April to October, “food here will make us more resilient and cut down on waste,” Neosh said. “I don’t think it’s possible for Menominees to go back 100 percent to foraging, but there are so many plants that are nutritional out there in the woods. We could supplement a reasonable percentage if people were more aware of them, if we get people to think about the land in ways that are even more holistic than we already do.”

As part of the project, Neosh is cataloguing the Native names of the plants she finds. Using that original language, she said, “teaches you how things work. It’s beautiful, sacred, and extremely functional.” She also is comparing the plants to past reports from non-Native anthropologists and ethnobotanists.

So far, she’s finding discrepancies. “With the insane weather patterns, things have been not growing in some places as well as they should or are coming in very fast and early because of how mild the winter was and dying off early because we’ve had nights with frost when we shouldn’t have,” Neosh said.

She plans to present her findings to the community, and provide the USDA and NIFA with an in-depth report that will be heavily guarded to protect sacred plants’ locations. The project, Neosh said, “has proven to be very interesting and revealing so far, and one that attracts a lot of intrigue.”

This isn’t Neosh’s first major undertaking. In 2019, she succeeded in getting the college to ban Styrofoam. The move made her the only student to lead a policy change at the college. “I didn’t know that going in, that what I was doing didn’t have precedent,” Neosh said.

When Neosh arrived on campus, she learned that the College of Menominee Nation had developed in 2016 a climate change action plan, which included a suggestion to ban Styrofoam. The reasoning was simple, Neosh said. “It’s a petroleum product and incredibly harmful to the environment when it’s thrown away but also harmful when making it.” In fact, the non-biodegradable product takes up an estimated 30 percent of landfill space. However, the execution stalled. “They had this general idea, but when large institutions come out with these ambitious plans, they don’t move as quickly as people would like.”

Neosh didn’t see a point in waiting. “I was like, enough is enough. I’m going to use my voice and power as a student to just harangue people, as lovingly and politely as I could, until we get some answers to this.”

She sought support from the bottom up, starting with the student government. “I gave them a little speech about why we should be doing this, what it would actually mean to the college, and brought attention to the idea that we’re a very sustainable college, but there are ways we’re not living up to that standard.”

The student government unanimously passed Neosh’s proposal. Next up: the faculty senate.

“They had more pushback. They were concerned about cost, the logistics of what happens if we order our textbooks from a vendor who uses Styrofoam,” Neosh said. She reminded them that they could figure out solutions, that other schools had already banned Styrofoam, including Colgate University in 2015 and the entire state of Maryland in 2019.

The faculty committee ended up signing on unanimously, and Neosh–who before this point had never been a public speaker–next went to the board of directors.

“It was really, really intimidating. Luckily, the director of my department was there, and I saw some folks I knew would be friendly to the idea. They passed it right away. They said don’t stop at Styrofoam; expand it to all plastics. I was expecting a fight, and it didn’t come to that.”

“I’m not comfortable seeing a problem that has a tangible solution, and no one is working on it. We have this problem and we want it fixed? Let’s just get it over with and fix it.”

Neosh credits her drive to her family–a dad who stopped eating meat at 50, a mom who always made sure Neosh knew the reservation’s battles for sovereignty. “I come from a family of people who are action-minded. I’m not comfortable seeing a problem that has a tangible solution, and no one is working on it. We have this problem and we want it fixed? Let’s just get it over with and fix it.”

As a child, Neosh wanted to be a lawyer. “My general impression was that lawyers were people who were really smart and could use that to help people,” she said. She abandoned that idea as a teenager, though, and spent two “very expensive years at art school” thinking she wanted to write fiction instead. A decade later, Standing Rock happened, and Neosh returned to her first goal.

She still plans to go to law school. “Once I’m done with that, I’ll come back, and this will be my home. I want to be in the court room, do policy work, and probably run for office. I can be in positions to change things and tip the scales back toward environmental justice for everyone affected by white supremacy,” she said.

Eventually, Neosh also hopes to teach–once she feels she has learned enough to share. “[College of Menominee Nation] was so critical, so important to helping me figure out that path. That’s what I want to do–to give back and hopefully be that same person for the next generation of Menominee leaders.”

In the meantime, she’ll be working toward a more sustainable world in which the Menominee people have the chance to maximize their own decision making. “Menominees are not afraid of new technology. We take the things that work for us, enhance our Menominee way of life, and leave the rest.” She envisions communities that are planned around indigenous values, using technology to provide clean water, as well as solar and geothermal energy. “Communities that are modern in a positive way but traditional at the core. Indigeneity is sustainability.”

Neosh said she also thinks a lot about what her life would be like “if aliens came down and said, ‘Climate change, white supremacy–you don’t have to worry about that anymore. That was a joke. It’s fixed.’ Part of me that’s so used to all this trauma would be like, what do I do now?”

In that scenario, there’d be a lot of playing around in the woods, Neosh said, harvesting berries, traveling, a lot of writing.

And even if the aliens don’t come, that’s still the goal.

For now, though, there’s work ahead. Neosh spent a weekend in June, for example, at the Treaty People Gathering near the proposed Line 3 pipeline near White Earth Nation in Minnesota. The gathering served as a celebration to honor White Earth Nation’s treaty rights, which business and government regulators are currently overlooking to enable the pipeline development.

“When I heard about Treaty People Gathering, I said I’m going. My job is with indigenous environmental work. I have a car and some money. I can speak well now and rally people better.” Neosh has come a long way from that foundational moment in 2016 when she applied to college between her work shifts. “This is what I was working towards. I’m much more capable of helping now.”

Katie Scarlett Brandt is a regular contributor to Native Science Report.

Published July 26, 2021

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