Immersive course lets Western students explore Indigenous approaches to environmental justice

Contact: Erin Flynn
People in kayaks and canoes in a river.

Students and employees from Western kayak and canoe down the Pine Creek. (Courtesy: Johnathon Moulds)

FULTON, Mich.—Carefully navigating the waters of the Pine Creek on kayaks and canoes, visitors from Western Michigan University observed beds of wild rice nearing maturity. The sacred plants are part of a restoration effort by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi (NHBP), and students and faculty members were able to get a rare firsthand look at them during a series of trips to the Pine Creek Indian Reservation.

People hold a necklace while sitting around a table.

Members of the tribe meet with Western students and staff to talk about their culture and lifeways. (Courtesy: Johnathon Moulds)

The tribe offered Broncos the opportunity to experience its lifeways as part of the first "Indigenous Perspectives on Environmental Justice and Climate Activism" course, led by Dr. Dee Sherwood, associate professor of social work and director of WMU's Native American Affairs Council. Awarded a Climate Change Teaching Fellowship through Western's University Center for the Humanities, Sherwood collaborated with Doug Taylor, NHBP elder and tribal historic preservation officer, to give students a unique perspective on sustainability practices.

"Indigenous communities have been leading environmental protection and climate change awareness and activism here locally in Michigan and also around the world. This effort is part of the cultural lifeways and values, and I think it's something students really want to learn about but don't necessarily know how to connect with tribal communities," Sherwood says. 

The class spent a few weeks reading about Indigenous communities and watching documentaries, gaining foundational knowledge on Native American teachings and conservation efforts as well as activism related to environmental protection. Then, the Pine Creek Indian Reservation became their classroom as they visited the NHBP tribal land.

"Being on the reservation, (students) get to see, they get to listen, they get to participate. And I think that's just a much more powerful learning experience that, hopefully, will inspire them to take action in their lives," Sherwood says

A group of five women holds baby birds.

Jena Kidney, Marysol Millar, Dr. Dee Sherwood, Jill Granger, M.S.W.'18, and Mariam Kabbini hold baby birds on the reservation.

"As an emerging psychologist, having this experience allowed me to step out of my content area and see that the world is much bigger than our chosen niches and there is always more work to be done," adds Tynetta Smith, a doctoral student in Western's counselor education and counseling psychology program.  She had an opportunity to talk with a member of the tribe about mental health challenges among the Indigenous community and how she could make an impact. 

"We specifically spoke about the similarities among the Indigenous and Black communities, maternal health and mental health outcomes, and the ways leaders from our communities could come together and try to (approach) this issue instead of fighting those battles alone."

Western's contingent heard from Jamie Stuck, tribal chairperson, on its first visit. He explained the NHBP climate adaptation plan and other projects the tribe is working on: from cultivating wild rice beds and hydroponic gardens to restoring a large portion of land to its natural state. Students were also able to tour the reservation, take part in a traditional smudge ceremony and learn about tribal culture and the sacred medicines.

"The prairie restoration is amazing. I've never seen anything like that," says Marysol Millar, a vocal performance and Spanish student. "My biggest takeaway would be that we need to have a perspective shift in the way that Western society and science is looking at solutions to climate change. Because, oftentimes, it's about taking control of something, and the Native perspective, from my understanding, is being in partnership. And those are two very different things."

A group photo around a sign.

"Being on the reservation, (students) get to see, they get to listen, they get to participate. And I think that's just a much more powerful learning experience that, hopefully, will inspire them to take action in their lives," Dr. Dee Sherwood says.

The second session on the reservation included a canoe and kayak tour of the Pine Creek, exploring the ecosystems and learning more about the connection between humans and nature. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, provost and vice president for academic affairs, joined the class.

"Indigenous perspectives on climate justice and environmental activism reflect the power of storytelling in shaping our understanding of the world," he says. "Witnessing these class sessions, I was reminded of the profound connection between nature and heritage, exemplified by the presence of wild rice and echoes of ancestral tales. Such offerings hold the potential to broaden our horizons and inspire meaningful change and action."

During the third session on the reservation, students had the opportunity to witness traditional storytelling and participate in Indigenous-led discussions about the Seven Grandfather Teachings and the medicine wheel. They also learned about the tribe's efforts to build a sustainable future through its food sovereignty program. 

"We thoroughly enjoyed the class and look forward to having them back again. We're here to tell our stories, and we hope that these students will get a new outlook on the environment and help save the world so that everybody can enjoy it," says Taylor. 

Jason Monck, a licensed plumber in Maintenance Services at Western, joined the course as an observer. A member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, known as the water protectors in Indigenous culture, Monck's job at Western is a direct reflection on his own cultural roots. He's excited for the University to offer students even more opportunities to learn more about Native American peoples.

Two people stand next to kayaks.

Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, provost and vice president for academic affairs, talks with Fred Jacko, NHBP director of culture and language programs.

"I feel like these students are going to be the trailblazers for getting the word out about our cultural beliefs. These courses set the stage for things to be better down the road," says Monck. "It gives the students an opportunity to come in and understand things from a Native perspective, and they're going to take that and go out into the world with that."

Monck is also joining Western's Native American Affairs Council, which was created in 2021 to elevate, support and advocate for Native American perspectives on the campus and honor its Indigenous roots on land historically occupied by the tribes of the Three Fires Confederacy. The council has been instrumental in establishing a tribal governance graduate certificate program at Western and is working to incorporate a broader curriculum across campus that includes Indigenous perspectives.

"Experiential learning is one of the most profound parts of the college experience. And having this opportunity to be on the reservation and be in that community and share with other students from other areas that I would never have met otherwise was incredibly impactful for me. I'm just really grateful to have had the opportunity to study that way," says Millar.

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