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Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

Every challenge has a solution.

For three years and counting, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Solve initiative has sought out Native innovators finding creative ways to find solutions to challenges facing their communities.

“How can Native innovators in the US use traditional knowledge and technology to meet the social, environmental, and economic goals of their communities?”

That is the question posed by MIT Solve for those seeking to be selected for its Indigenous communities fellowship.

It all began with a call to action from Phyllis Young, Standing Rock Sioux, in 2017 when the Standing Rock water protectors were selected as finalists for the MIT Media Lab Disobedience Awards.

The award recognizes “individuals and groups who engage in ethical, nonviolent acts of disobedience in service of society.”

Young called for MIT to do more, in a speech.

“I know MIT is the brass ring of technology, and I’m seeking a partnership. I’m not content to go home with this [award] … The rhetoric is over in America; it’s time for action,” she said according to the website.


From there, the first year of the fellowship began in 2018 focused on the Oceti Sakowin community with six inaugural fellows. In 2019, the fellowship expanded to the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe.

The latest group of fellows stretch across the country and are working on a range of projects from dealing with traditional foods and plants to Native languages to Native-based mobile applications.

Before becoming an MIT Indigenous Innovator, Indian Country Today spoke with Elizabeth Rule, Chickasaw, after the launch of her mobile app, Indigenous DC.

It is a virtual guide around the nation’s capital that shows the Native history of the city that’s not often talked about.

“It came out of conversations from many people across the city about what folks do and do not know about Indigenous history here and ongoing Indigenous advocacy organizing,” Rule said in July 2019. “This is not a place where Indian people should feel out of place or isolated or alone but that there’s a long and rich history of ancestors coming before us.”

(Archive: Indigenous DC (there’s an app for that))

Halfway across the world in Hawaii, Kū Kahakalau, more affectionately known as “Aunty Ku,” has established the EA Ecoversity. Kahakalau is Native Hawaiian.

With about 40 Ecoversities worldwide, Kahakalau says they are a collective movement on post-secondary education with an emphasis on ecology and reclaiming cultural knowledge systems.

EA Ecoversity specifically seeks to “empower Native Hawaiian youth and young adults to reach their highest potential as they reconnect to their native language and culture.”

“EA” stands for education with Aloha while also translating to the word sovereignty in Hawaiian. In describing the spirit or atmosphere of Aloha, Kahakalau says that since Native Hawaiians were separated from anyone else for a couple hundred years, they never had the concept of “other.”

“Everybody in the world has some ‘other’ across the mountain, down the river, on the other side of the couch, whatever it is there's this ‘other,’” Kahakalau said. “By default, the ‘other’ always is slightly less or a lot less, depending on the relation.”

She continued to say that because this concept never took root, Native Hawaiians developed a form of reciprocal living and a greater concept of compassion, kindness and caring.

The reciprocity is present in the language as well. She used the word for teaching and learning as an example.

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“If it has the direction to go away, it means to teach. If it has a directional come to me, then it means learning. It's one action, but it depends on which direction it takes. So it's always reciprocal,” Kahakalau said. “You cannot teach without learning and you cannot learn without teaching. It all goes together.”

At the beginning, Kahakalau said they expected to have 10 or so learners but very quickly grew to 35; with more becoming interested every few weekends. EA Ecoversity is looking for Native programmers to establish an Indigenous learning management system so they can better manage and offer more courses.

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Back on the mainland in Arizona, Richelle Thomas, Diné, is working to protect and preserve Indigenous medicinal plants utilized by the Diné. Eventually Thomas, who is working to obtain her PhD from the University of Arizona, believes her research could be used as blueprints for other tribes.

Her project is establishing research on heavy metal uptake in medicinal plants where minimal data is currently available.

Thomas is passionate and curious about the subject largely in part to her upbringing and relationship with her late grandfather who was a medicine man for the Navajo Nation. She recalls going with her sister and grandpa to collect medicine on the Navajo Nation.

“That's one thing that really keeps me connected to the project in a really positive way where I'm able to identify myself with it because it's really personal and it's something that I've done and continue to do,” Thomas said.

When she was getting her master’s degree, Thomas worked with sage, which is widely used for ceremonies throughout Indian Country. She looked at how it affects the lungs, kidneys and other areas of risk assessment.

One of the challenges Thomas continues to face is that her work can be seen as challenging cultural belief systems in the way that if she finds a medicinal plant that can be harmful by being used, how is that addressed?

It’s work that is worth being done in her eyes and she sees it as a mechanism to protect Indigneous cultural ways.

Ultimately, Thomas hopes to affect policy change and develop “safety usage guidelines for Diné people but that can also be extended to other Indigenous communities.”

Further north on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, Mariah Gladstone, Blackfeet and Cherokee, is a part of the ever growing Indigenous food community.

Gladstone is using digital media to re-indigenize diets and restore traditional knowledge with traditional Indigenous foods through Indigikitchen. She’s been able to collaborate with the Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman, on multiple projects and shares cooking videos on her website and across social media.

She originally got involved in the field to push back on diet related illnesses that affect Native people. From her very first video she says she’s received positive and welcoming feedback across Indian Country.

“They immediately were excited to see videos being made using traditional foods and in a format that makes them accessible,” Gladstone said. “Makes them available to anyone anywhere with any type of a recipe or cookbook reading training.”

Gladstone notes that not all the recipes are her own. She offers a small honorarium to those who submit recipes to her and makes sure they also receive the credit they deserve.

Similar to language preservation, Gladstone believes it is important for Native communities to reclaim traditional foods. The benefits abound, from reconnecting to the land to engaging in ancestral knowledge.

“So I've heard it said that traditional foods are not new, they are ‘knew,’ k-n-e-w,” Gladstone said. “Connecting with that reminds us of the brilliance of our ancestors and really helps create not just physical health but this emotional and spiritual health as well.”

Every community faces unique challenges but if there is anything the MIT Indigenous Innovators have shown, there is no problem that doesn’t have a solution.

The 2021 Indigenous Communities Fellowship is currently open and the deadline for solution submissions is June 7.

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email -

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