American Indian Science and Engineering Society

Report date
August 2016

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

Community Outreach: During the duration of the grant, we traveled to targeted geographic areas (Mille Lacs, Leech Lake, White Earth, Three Affiliated Tribes, and Turtle Mountain reservations) rather than asking participants to come to us. At each location, we empowered the local participants to help with logistics, plan programming, and provide necessary ceremonies. For example, although we all knew the negative impacts the oil industry was having with the reservations on and near the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota, we organized a trip to the area to witness the devastation for ourselves. However, if we have not made the time to actually visit with the Three Affiliated Tribes and Turtle Mountain reservations, we would not have seen the strength, vigilance, and commitment of the people who live on the reservations. Their ceremonies were powerful and moving for the participants who traveled with us.
Ceremonies: As just noted, ceremonies became an integral part of our project. Since the goal of the project was to enable women elders to influence tribal decisions concerning water issues on their reservations, that we must respect their traditional knowledge and ceremonies – practice what we preach! Interestingly, it seemed that each reservation and each elder had their own individual nuances for conducting ceremonies. It was invaluable, especially for the younger generation, to witness these ceremonies and to learn about the diverse ways in which we honor mother earth. However, ceremonies sometimes are great healing experiences. During one ceremony, an issue came up with one of the participants and she became overwhelmed by a recent devastating family event. The ceremony leader was able to move seamlessly into a healing ceremony for that person. After the healing ceremony, the leader completed the water ceremony.
Leadership: Traditionally women played a leadership role in organizing knowledge [research], and managing community relationships [policy] with the bodies of waters and associated resources. In recent times agencies that undertake research and policy development for water in tribal communities do it in ways that do not recognize the unique perspectives of Native women. The Women Elder’s Nibi/Mni Council [WENMC] meetings held throughout the grant period engaged the community wisdom of women. The meetings laid the seeds and foundations for development of a community innovation; the aggregated communal voices of to develop water research and policy in tribal communities. To accomplish this WENMC meetings began with ceremony and activities in which asked women to deepen, explore, and share their relationships with the waters in their communities. Making women’s perspectives, beliefs, and ceremonies related to water visible [and interdependent] was transformative. Some relevant quotes from participants: “I want to be more involved with Council Meetings. I want to start to make changes on my Rez.” “Empowering Anishinabe Ikwe on Nibi!!”

Key lessons learned

Women’s Involvement In Program Design: When we first conceptualized our grant proposal and design, we believed it was important to only recruit tribal women elders who, in most Indigenous cultures, are the designated protectors of water. At our first meeting, women elders told us that young women and other tribal members must also be included. The men were needed to keep the circle balanced and to perform specific roles in the ceremonies. Although women perform the water ceremonies young woman and girls must be present to be mentored into the tradition, and most ceremonies involve fire which is often the responsibility of men. Younger tribal member were needed so future generations could learn the stories and ceremonies – providing for the next seven generations.
Empowering Participants and Communities: As organizers of the grant, we felt a certain obligation to take responsibility to ensure the success of our programs. Sometimes, it just felt easier to plan things ourselves. We sometimes worried too much and at times just seized control when local participants didn’t seem to be getting necessary tasks done. It was difficult to let go of things, but we learned that things find a way to work themselves out if we just let them happen rather than trying to control them. For example, at one meeting one of the participants who was planning lunch had a miscommunication with their local caterer and the main dish (buffalo burgers) was delivered raw. She fired up her grill and cooked them herself. Although lunch was late, it gave the group more time, which was needed, to engage in the discussion at hand.
Importance of Being Involved: We undertook a water engagement survey of women in tribal communities that we visited. The Likert scale survey showed that overall [29 surveyed] women felt it was important that: 1] they be involved in water quality and resource management decisions in their communities, 2] that tribal agencies manage water in ways that reflect their values and opinions and traditional beliefs, 3] they be involved in ceremonies and have the confidence to lead them. In contrast the survey also showed that most women did feel that they were involved in water management decisions in their communities or that water management decisions reflected traditional beliefs. These results reflect a tension between women’s beliefs about water and how it is currently managed in their communities. This program planted seeds at to how this can change, and we want to follow up on this with support.

Progress toward an innovation

Our process has engaged Native women [and their communities] to explore their own personal and cultural connections to the living bodies of waters in their home communities, and to build out leadership skills communally from these connections. This has been a collaborative process that has evolved over time with feedback from women, women elders, water walkers, and tribal community members & leaders.<br>The process has produced a breakthrough - a community innovation - the WENMC itself, a group of women from tribal communities in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota who regularly meet to collectively support each other to grow strong women's voices in their communities. This community is evidence that we are closer than when we started.

What it will take to reach an innovation?

We did achieve the innovation; however, that innovation needs to be nurtured and supported to begin to make substantial changes as to how water is conceived of [research] and managed [policy] in tribal communities. Our initial intent was to begin to build bridges across from women’s beliefs and opinions about water and how it is managed to the agencies manage it in tribal communities. It is clear to us now that creating bridges requires strong foundations, and that we first needed to work to develop strong foundations in the women communities. Now we need to build the bridges.

What's next?

Women elders carry the local knowledge, ceremonies, and traditions that form a foundation for how tribal communities relate to the waters. They are also the communal centers of tribal life and thus play key roles in catalyzing the communal wisdom and action of tribes.
Our next steps:
1. engage tribal leaders and other important stakeholders and water agency staff to engage with the WENMC to evolve research and policy so that it reduces the tension that women perceive between their perceptions of water and the way it is conceived of and managed in their communities.
2. Develop culturally relevant, integrated STEM curricula for Native serving schools that engages Native students [especially girls] to integrate Western & Native perspectives about water, and to pursue careers in science and engineering.

If you could do it all over again...

Expect the Unexpected: Wonderful things can happen when our best made plans go wrong. Too often in our western way of thinking, especially for grants, we do our very best to adhere to the goals and tasks stated in the grant. However, sometimes things don’t go as planned and we have to improvise. In the example above, helping a women heal from a devastating family tragedy was not a goal of our grant. However, not addressing the issue was not an option. Helping this women in crisis enabled us to continue the work and facilitated an outcome that would not have been achieved if we had not taken the time to help her.

One last thought

We really appreciate the Bush foundation support – given the small size of the intended audience, find resources is difficult.