Strategizing for COVID and Beyond: Virtual Conversations, Ecological Restoration, and Community Empowerment

Planting a tree seedling on Jemez Tribal lands (August 2020)

By Julie Liebenguth, National Program Intern

At TWP, we are committed to supporting tribal communities through the pandemic and are working hard to foster collective engagement across virtual platforms so that knowledge sharing can remain a crucial part of community-led empowerment.

In partnership with the Western Forestry and Conservation Association, Intertribal Nursery Council, and the U.S. Forest Service, TWP hosted a five-part webinar series earlier this fall to engage a range of indigenous voices in conversations about native food systems, ecologies, and cultural practices. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, TWP also co-sponsored a virtual event with the Intertribal Agriculture Council about the role of community-based, regenerative practices in strengthening sustainable foodscapes. You can view all the episodes for free here. 

In the coming months, TWP will continue developing new strategies – both on-the-ground and online – to support ecological restoration and community-based resilience amid shifting local and global contexts. 

Cultivating Engagement through Virtual Platforms 

Tribal partners in South Dakota delivering emergency food/water supplies to families in Pine Ridge struggling from shortages due to COVID-19 (April, 2020)

In the time of COVID, food sovereignty has become a key focal point for tribal communities. Through our five-part webinar series, experts in indigenous food systems shared their knowledge and skills with participants tuning in from various locations across the country. The virtual content was particularly designed to support indigenous communities to combat food insecurity by building or strengthening access to traditionally harvested foods, medicines, and plants. 

Topics addressed during the five interactive conversations ranged from the diversity of indigenous recipes, native seed collection, tribal nurseries, traditional agroforestry practices, and indigenous plant restoration.  

As tribal food systems are impacted by monoculture and climate change, each speaker emphasized the need to preserve biodiversity to recover ancestral practices and strengthen community and ecological health. Nurseries can jumpstart the process of healing and succession in damaged ecosystems while bringing communities together under “traditional learning environments,” said Jeremy Pinto, Research Plant Physiologist and Tribal Nursery Specialist for the USDA Forest Service, who also covered the ins and outs of nursery planning, implementation, and management.

Since building food sovereignty involves the recovery of both ecological and cultural knowledge, sharing histories and traditions tied to food is integral for re-establishing strong, indigenous food systems. As Chef Sean Sherman, founder of The Sioux Chef company, said, understanding the cultural diversity of ecoregions is important for indigenous communities because “these plants are part of our families. . . making us happy, making us healthy, giving us nourishment, and giving us stories.” Chef Sherman supports new generations of indigenous culinary programs under his non-profit, NĀTIFS.

Control over local production is also at the core of food sovereignty, and community-led governance keeps families and youth involved in creating sustainable food systems. In a separate event highlighting sustainable foodscapes, Kelsey Ducheneaux, a fourth-generation tribal rancher, shared her business model with viewers for re-localizing food systems. To help more communities strengthen local foodways, Ducheneaux detailed her experience combining regenerative knowledge and community-based collaboration to provide quality, grass-fed beef directly to local consumers. 

Looking Ahead 

As we approach 2021, TWP strives to provide more virtual learning opportunities for tribal communities adapting to COVID. We are currently transitioning our solar suitcase workshop to an online format so tribal youth can still access hands-on, uplifting, and empowering lessons that support youth-led agency over energy futures. 

TWP is also coordinating with The Nature Conservancy New Mexico Chapter, East Jemez Landscapes Futures and local organizations to implement new restoration project(s) on the headwaters and canyon bottoms of the Rio Grande River in the East Jemez Mountains, where water quality and ecological health is critical for many culturally diverse communities. 

Finally, in upholding TWP’s long-standing commitment to restorative conservation, we are excited to develop new opportunities that incorporate seed collection as a pivotal component for future restoration projects!

View all the episodes for free here. 

Tribal Lands GIS Project

by Patricia Flores White, Development Director

The goal of the Tribal Lands GIS project is to create an engaging data-driven tool that cultivates buy-in supporting the work of Trees, Water & People’s Tribal program. The map series illustrates the inequity issues related to health, poverty and social vulnerability on Tribal lands. In particular, the data illustrates the disparity between urban hubs and rural communities.  We feel that these issues lie at the root causes of migration pressures, across the Americas, which are only growing in the face of climate change.

This map series has the capacity to serve and inform stakeholders as well as empower Native American peoples in their decision making and planning.  

TWP_GIS_Day_poster_v3.jpgThanks to the collaboration with the CSU GeoCentroid Department we were able to develop these data visualization tools that illustrate the current day status of inequity in rural Tribal communities to potential change-makers. The series illustrated below was part of a map gallery display at the CSU Morgan Library for GIS Day, which brought together a consortium of experts in their fields spanning across a diversity of sectors. This project is an awesome example of how Geographic Information Systems help to cultivate a tangible understanding of large scale, complex issues.

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Ponderosa Pine seedlings carried by local Lakota tree planter in Pine Ridge

“I wanted to work on this project because the problems that are happening on Native American reservations, such as environmental and social injustices, are becoming more and more relevant today.” – Riley Ross (GeoCentroid Intern)

Trees, Water & People has been working with climate-vulnerable populations in Central America and on U.S. Tribal Lands for over 20 years. Founded in Ft. Collins in 1998, TWP works in: Pine Ridge – South Dakota, White Earth – Minnesota, Santo Domingo Pueblo & Santa Fe Indian School – New Mexico.

 

4 Generations of Tree Planting

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4 Generations of Tree Planters!

10,000 SW Douglas Fir tree seedlings from the San Juan Mountains have gone into the ground near the Tent Rocks National Monument on Santo Domingo (Kewa) Pueblo’s Tribal Lands; the 3,000 remaining seedlings were taken to the Santa Fe Indian School by Cochiti tribal members where they will be planted by students and community leaders on nearby public lands.

With the help of the Santo Domingo Pueblo War Chief and his lieutenant, we were able to recruit over 15 volunteers from the local tribe to gather last week to inaugurate and launch our first joint reforestation project! As we’ve reported previously, the “Las Conchas” forest fire of 2011 devastated the highlands of the Pueblo community where Douglas Fir trees used for traditional ceremonial and conservation purposes were burned en masse. Trees, Water & People’s collaboration with the Kewa Pueblo is a one of a kind reforestation program that marries indigenous traditions and customs with climate resilience strategies of the West.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

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Training the volunteers on the basics

After delivering the seedlings to the Pueblo’s greenhouse last Tuesday, we settled into a meeting at the Governor’s office where strategy, timeline, and scope of the project were revisited one final time. We originally planned to start planting on Wednesday, but due to heavy rains, the War Chief and his staff decided to hold off one more day for the climate to dry. Nevertheless, rain is a significant blessing and element for many Pueblo communities – the timing of our delivery of the seedlings felt more than apt. Thursday morning, we embarked to the planting site on top of the mountain in a line of 4WD trucks carrying just under 900 seedlings.

Rocky road conditions aside, we arrived at the site just shy of the morning breeze and kicked off the day with a prayer from the War Chief himself and a short, hands-on training on our methods and strategy. Unlike ponderosa pines, we learned from the New Mexico State Forestry Division that Douglas Fir seedlings like to be planted in cluster patterns of about 25 seedlings spread 2-3 feet from each other; this is a term called “nucleation”. The volunteer crew was quick to learn, and everyone was happy to teach one another, even in their native language.

Most impressive of all – beyond any technical achievements or success – is the multi-generational impact and participation that a project like this generates. We remember the recurring sentiment expressed by the War Chief and other elders in the community throughout the day:

“We may not be around here long enough to see these trees mature, but it’s important we have our youth here to experience it and participate in the work themselves as they are the future stewards of these lands”. 

At every stage of sustainable development, TWP’s core mission has always been to empower local people to manage the natural resources they depend on, and we believe this happens best at the participatory level. The local tribe thanks you for your donations and commitment to the well-being of their community and their land – your dedication is what helps climate vulnerable communities continue to be resilient and powerful amidst our changing environment.

To learn more about how you can support our reforestation program on Tribal Lands, visit – https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/indigenous-west-reforestation/

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Swinging into the ground to make room for a seedling