FORT YATES, N.D. - What began for Marie Cloud as a research project for a college science course became a career opportunity and a chance to greatly improve her community's drinking water.
Cloud, 40, an enrolled member of the Lakota Sioux Tribe and mother of five, lives in Bullhead, S.D., and attends Sitting Bull College in Ft. Yates. Both towns are on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, in North Dakota and South Dakota.
Until recently, Cloud thought of herself as an artist, a musician and a businessperson, but not a scientist. Encouraged by Sitting Bull College science teachers Gary Halvorson and Dan Buresh to pursue an associate degree in environmental science, she became interested in water quality, which led to collecting and analyzing water samples from the Cannonball River in North Dakota.
Today, Cloud is pursuing a bachelor's degree in environmental science and has been hired to do water sampling by the reservation's Rock Creek District where Bullhead is located. Her concern about health issues and water quality took her in an unexpected direction.
"I wasn't good in math and I was never very good in science," Cloud admits.
"But my teachers made me believe in myself and that pulled me toward where I've always wanted to be. That's being outside, working and learning at the same time."
For her required research project, Cloud last year studied the water quality of the Grand River that flows past Bullhead and nearby Little Eagle, S.D. Her plans changed, however, because of concerns about the drinking water in Bullhead.
"The water is bad smelling and bad tasting," she said. "Sometimes, it will run brown."
And there were more serious problems.
"I was worried because a lot of children were getting sick and have been getting sick and are continuing to get sick," Cloud said. "Then there's the question of women who were pregnant and lost babies. There were three babies lost in the past year. The babies were stillborn."
Cloud and a group of district tribal members from Bullhead asked the agency responsible for the tribe's municipal, rural and industrial water systems to open and clean an underground tank that supplies the community from a well. Interested in what was causing their water problems, many of the town's residents were present when the tank was opened last fall. They were in for a shock.
"They found snakes in our water tank. There were at least four in there and a fifth one got away." Cloud said. "When we took out all the snakes, one was over six feet long. There were also fragments of dead snakes. It raised a lot of issues in the community."
As a result, Cloud decided to expand her research project to sample and analyze water not only from the Grand River, but also from homes in the communities of Bullhead and Little Eagle.
During last fall and winter, Cloud collected samples and analyzed them. The samples were sent on to the University of Minnesota for more sophisticated tests. She also gathered data from tribal agencies that monitor water quality and compared her test results to theirs. Her research showed that the water at Bullhead and Little Eagle are very high in sodium, sulfates, calcium, magnesium and iron.
Cloud's findings raised more questions than they answered, but her research served to highlight the seriousness of the water quality problem. For example, Cloud wonders if the high sodium of the Grand River affects the aquifer from which Bullhead and Little Eagle draw their water. If so, what are the effects on tribal members with diabetes and high blood pressure who are sensitive to sodium?
For the residents of Bullhead, the problems continue. After the snakes were discovered in the town's water supply, the citizens took it upon themselves to clean the water tank and flush it out. Unfortunately, this did little to improve the situation. Cloud suggested that reverse osmosis filters be installed on the faucets in homes to clean the water, which has helped somewhat.
"After three months of use, those filters that are supposed to last a year were just clogged with brown, slimy sludge," Cloud said.
Unable to solve the problem, the tribe agreed to ship in bottled water for Bullhead residents. "Either you're drinking bottled water or you're drinking snake juice," Cloud said with a laugh. Cloud wrote a paper on her research and presented it to a panel at Sitting Bull College.
"A lot of students have trouble with this," Halvorson said. "It's a new concept for them, doing research, knowing how to start out, doing a literature review and then planning the experiment and following through with it. Many students don't make it through the first time because it's just a little bit overwhelming for them.
"But Marie really buckled down and did a good job on her project," he said.
"In the end, she came through with a good project and I was really happy with the way she did it. It's to her credit."
As a result, Cloud was selected to receive an Office of Naval Research scholarship for the best research project at Sitting Bull College. This program, supported by the U.S. Navy, is aimed at increasing American Indian participation in mathematics, science and engineering. The project is a collaborative effort between the tribal colleges and North Dakota State University. Last June, she presented her paper during the ONR Summer Camp in Fargo at NDSU.
Cloud is now pursuing a bachelor's degree in environmental science through a cooperative agreement with the Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, S.D. With distance learning technology, students can attend Sitting Bull College and receive a degree from Oglala Lakota College.
Halvorson said Cloud provides a good example to other students at the college.
"We'd like to see more students get involved in the science programs. I hope that Marie could be somebody that they could look up to for the way to get it done, to do things and to see the end result. It does pay some benefits right away for them," he said.
Cloud plans to use her scientific knowledge not only to improve her community's drinking water, but also to pursue an interesting career. "I want to see if I can actually find out what's causing all these water problems," she said. "I like water and I like soil. I like being out in the elements. To me, it's fun. I never thought I could be where I'm at today, but I am because my teachers believed in me."