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Project explores relationship between climate, cultural changes

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RAPID CITY, S.D. - Climate change has some elders worried about its impact on traditional and cultural practices and ceremonies.

The practice of collecting medicinal herbs, vegetables and berries on the Great Plains may become harder to find if the current process continues.

While the future ecosystem on the Pine Ridge Reservation is still a mystery, students at Oglala Lakota College have taken up the challenge of investigating the impact this change has had and will have on the reservation environment.

A two-fold project at OLC will not only prepare the students for a career in environmental sciences, but also collect data that could explain the changes to provide solutions for the future use of the land.

The project, the Great Plains Riparian Protection Project, is designed to focus on one element of the ecosystem: the cottonwood tree.

Cottonwood trees are central and sacred to the Lakotas' Sundance ceremony, for which a cottonwood tree is cut. In the past, there would be hundreds of seedlings growing in clusters to replace the chosen tree, but now elders have seen few new seedlings and have asked why.

The project's goal is to not only find out why the cottonwood seedlings have become scarce, but also to offer information that could lead to a plan to ensure a healthy future growth. The study will take advantage of three-dimensional satellite imagery or Geographic Information System technology and compare that information with information collected on-site.

Computer imaging with the use of elevation, topographical, infrared and laser images will be laid over existing maps to provide detailed information about river fluctuations, density of riparian growth and soil composition.

Devon Wilford and Don Belile, both Oglala Sioux Tribe members and juniors at OLC, are involved in the project. They conducted the on-site surveys and are now manipulating computer programming to create pictures that give them detailed information about the cottonwood's future.

Wilford and Belile said that some information they have gathered about the cottonwoods points to the obvious: the extreme drought the region has suffered over the past several years. But more, they have found that soils have changed, rivers have been altered and new growth threatens some indigenous species.

The students said that satellite imagery placed over existing topographical maps shows that rivers have been largely affected by flooding. Also, some potential growth areas for cottonwoods have emerged, while other areas have eroded or disappeared.

What has also been discovered is that the trees grow in two particular types of soil. Where the cottonwood seedlings are now found, they discovered, is near larger river flows, not along slow or smaller streams or slower flows. After flooding, bars of sediment are formed on the rivers and those areas are most likely to show signs of future cottonwood seedlings.

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The first phase of the project is to study the rivers so the students can learn how the river impacts and reflects the environment, said OLC professor Jason Tinant, who is in charge of the project.

''What we are learning about rivers, we will start to build a picture to see where we will see the cottonwood in the future. We can take a look to see if the young trees are there; if not, we can look at why,'' Tinant said.

''How things were as young plants 40 years ago allows us to ask questions in the future. We know the land is changing. We are at the cusp of a change. We don't think anyone knows what is going to happen.''

To observers of Great Plains terrain, the grasslands are becoming shrub lands because of dry conditions that have taken place over a few decades. It may or may not be climate change, but the change means that less moisture has fallen and little moisture can be expected.

''We haven't had a good grass year in the last two or three years. We have dry winters and dry soils, we have erosion and people are trying to feed cattle on last year's hay. We have seen the land change over the years; we see erosion that hadn't occurred; we see changes in the plant community to plants that are less palatable shrubs,'' Tinant said.

The riparian project uses Western science methods to achieve knowledge. The Lakota ancestors and present-day traditional elders have studied the same environment, only in a different way.

The two methods may eventually come to the same conclusion and merge their knowledge so that the ecosystem can survive.

''How the elders listen and observe things and think things through deeply, that is science. They start by asking a question and processing information and coming to a conclusion. That is what Native Americans have done throughout history,'' Tinant said.

What information the students collect and what analysis they finally conclude will provide valuable information to the elders.

This is a three-year project with 70 sites identified as target sites. Wilford and Belile have visited 23 of those sites in person and have been able to compare the on-site information with satellite imagery of each site.

Wilford and Belile said that the information they collect will be valuable for the tribal land use programs in the future. GIS mapping will be used to identify sacred sites.

The project is funded by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. It is the agency's first grant to be awarded to a tribal college.