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New center links science and traditional knowledge

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – An upstate New York college has established a way to connect traditional ecological knowledge and Western scientific approaches to educate future leaders in environmental science.

The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) has established a Center for Native Peoples and the Environment that will focus on developing connections between the two diverse approaches for protecting and preserving the environment.

“The idea for the center comes from when we look at environmental problem-solving,” said Robin Kimmerer, an ESF botanist who is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. “I think there is a real missing piece. Science can only take us so far.”

Kimmer, the director of the center, said science is a powerful tool for environmental problem-solving but it’s not the only one.

“I’m really excited about the potential of traditional knowledge informing environmental problem-solving,” she said. “To me it would be wonderful if we could have the power of the tools of science guided by the wisdom of traditional knowledge. That would be a powerful combination.”

The college has also established two $5,000 scholarships for members of the Onondaga Nation, located just south of the city of Syracuse.

“The purpose of these scholarships is to stimulate the dialogue between traditional ecological knowledge and scientific ecological knowledge and to better integrate the mission and values of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry with those of the Onondaga Nation,” said ESF President Cornelius Murphy Jr. in a press release. “My wish is that through dialogue and common understanding, we develop a vision and common approach to restore the waters of the Onondaga Valley. I think it’s very rare that we have the opportunity to share Franciscan ecology and Native environmental knowledge as we seek to find both common ground and our common future.”

The announcement of the establishment of the center, the only one of its kind in the Northeast, was given during ESF’s daylong teach-in on indigenous and western approaches to environmental stewardship in October.

The center is guided by an advisory board consisting of ESF environmental scientists, environmental leaders from Haudenosaunee communities and indigenous educators from around the country. Members include Henry Lickers, director of the Environment Division, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne; Jeanne Shenandoah and Irving Powless, environmental leaders from the Onondaga Nation; Carol Thomas, an ESF student from the Onondaga Nation; Jack Manno, an associate professor of environmental science at ESF; and Emanuel Carter, an associate professor of landscape architecture at ESF.

Thomas, a junior, said it it’s important to get students involved and interested in something during their high school careers.

“I didn’t want to be involved with something that was very scientific and I didn’t want to leave my Native background behind,” she said.

The center and scholarships will help to increase the number of Native students at ESF. Currently there are approximately a dozen Native students.

“One of the things that I hope this program will do is really nurture Native students, so that tribal environment offices can be staffed with Native people,” Kimmerer said. “It’s just a part of self-determination.”

Kimmerer said the center will give Native students the opportunity to use their culture in their studies: a relationship that she was not able to make when she was a student.

“I grew up with traditional values and I knew that plants were something that I wanted to study,” she said. “I went to college and it wasn’t about the human relationship to plants. There was no room for traditional knowledge or Native ways of thinking. I would love for Native students to be able to go to college and study science and be able to bring their traditional knowledge with them.”

Kimmerer said it is also critical for non-Native students to learn about environmental issues from the indigenous approach.

“ESF turns out a lot influential environmental policy-makers,” said Kimmerer who has worked for the college for 13 years. “Another way we can have impact in Indian country is by training mainstream scientists. I hope that when we graduate natural resource managers and they hear ‘sustainable forestry,’ I hope they are thinking about treaty rights and environmental justice.”

Kimmerer said the center is educational as well as an outreach to the tribes.

“We can have community-driven research,” she said “It’s not the university saying ‘this is where our priority is,’ but hopefully we can have a forum where all the nations come together.”