Students Attend AISES National Conference
In September 2021, Michelle Anderson, Chris Villarruel and Lori Huck, three undergraduates who have worked with SAFL’s REU on Sustainable Land and Water Resources (SLAWR), attended the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) National Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. They were accompanied by Diana Dalbotten, SAFL Associate Director of Diversity and Broader Impacts and Coordinator of REU SLAWR. AISES is an annual 3-day event which focuses on STEM studies and careers for Indigenous peoples of North America and the Pacific Islands, all while providing a space for participants to make meaningful connections with one another.
"I think a student’s participation in AISES can be life-changing," says Diana. "They have opportunities to meet Native American faculty, industry and government leaders and receive mentoring in a small and supportive environment. They can also connect with peers and near-peers who have similar interests. For many students, this provides them with confidence as they move on to participation in other scientific conferences."
Michelle Anderson Studies the Effects of Sulfates on Manoomin
Speaking about her experience at AISES, Michelle Anderson, a member of the Red Lake Nation pursuing a degree in Indigenous Sustainability Studies at Bemidji State University, says,
“It was empowering knowing people like me from around the country are striving for the same goal: being an Indigenous mind working through a Western science world.”
At AISES, Michelle was awarded second place for undergraduate research during the highly competitive poster competition. Her poster focused on her work with REU SLAWR’s Team Zaaga’igan, a group which conducts research in collaboration with the Fond du Lac Department of Natural Resources and the University of Minnesota-Duluth. “I discovered the REU through Diana,” Michelle shares. “It was a really great fit in terms of what I wanted to do with Indigenous science.”
For Team Zaaga’igan, Michelle researched the impacts of sulfide in surface water on Manoomin, as well as its effects on the porewater below the surface. Manoomin, or wild rice, is a sacred food and medicine for Ojibwe tribes—and it’s in trouble, with “an estimated one-third of Manoomin stands hav[ing] disappeared across Wisconsin and Minnesota.” In 2012, Nancy Schuldt, Water Protection Coordinator for the Fond du Lac Department of Natural Resources, established this project in response to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s attempt to raise the state’s acceptable level of sulfates. “Sulfates come downstream from mining and are prevalent in the Iron Range area,” Michelle explains. “Boise Forte, Fond du Lac and Grand Portage [reservations] are all impacted.” With data from this project, advocates for Manoomin have been able to back, in court, the claim that raising sulfate levels is bad news for Manoomin and Minnesota. “Because of this,” Michelle says, “the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hasn’t raised the sulfate levels.”
Looking forward, Michelle would like to work with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), a group which provides natural resource management expertise to the eleven Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan who reserved hunting, fishing and gathering rights.
“I went to one of [GLIFCWC’s] conferences with Diana, and I was really intrigued by how the different Tribes from around the Great Lakes region came together to update one another on how they’re managing their lands," Michelle says. "We still have this sense of community, and we’re still looking out for each other and the land. I think that’s really beautiful.”
Lori Huck Makes Science Accessible
For Lori Huck, a senior majoring in Geology and GIS at Oklahoma State University, AISES was a welcome space of support. “I’m a first-generation college student. [In certain situations,] I had no idea what to do and no one to ask,” Lori shares. “But at AISES, people supported me and connected me to all of these resources.” While at AISES, Lori, who is Choctaw, was most struck by the talking circles.
“You sit with elders and people can go up and talk about what they’re going through,” Lori shares. “It helped knowing the elders were there to help us get through.”
During the summer of 2021, Lori, an OK-LSAMP and McNair Scholar, joined REU SLAWR’s Team Salish and Pend D’Oreille Aboriginal Watershed (SPAW), hosted and mentored by Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana. “My project was to work with the water quality administrator [Chauncey Means] for the Salish and Kootenai Tribes,” Lori explains. In this role, Lori translated a stream restoration project undertaken by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes into an accessible, colorful StoryMap.
“We wanted to show the citizens of the reservation what we were doing on the reservation,” Lori says. “By talking about the importance of the restoration project and creating transparency, we hope that the community will support similar projects in the future.”
Currently, Lori is studying active faults in Puerto Rico with Oklahoma State University’s Dr. Daniel Laó-Dávila. As part of her work, Lori is creating a GIS map and database which will inform government officials, businesses and private citizens about the areas in Puerto Rico that are most prone to damage from major earthquakes. “Very little research has been done here, which will make this data-set important for future researchers,” Lori explains.
In the fall of 2023, Lori plans to attend graduate school. “I want to do something involving risk, hazard and early warning systems—[maybe] trying to understand precursors to volcanic eruptions, or determining how to tell how explosive an eruption might be,” she says. One thing Lori knows for sure: whatever she decides to focus on, she’ll be back at AISES to share her work.
Chris Villarruel Creates Connections Across the US
“I always knew, deep down, that I was going to go to AISES,” says Chris Villarruel.
A member of the Ajumawi and Atsuge Tribes (Pit River Nation), Chris is a senior at Humboldt State University in California, where he is majoring in forest hydrology with a minor in GIS. At AISES, Chris presented the research he conducted as a member of Team Stream, part of the REU SLAWR. “Our research was interdisciplinary, incorporating geo-chemistry with physical hydrology,” Chris explains. In his role on Team Stream, Chris installed stream gauges and piezometers at the inlet and outlet of a lake on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota and a lake near the lands of the St. Croix Band of Chippewa in Wisconsin. “At both lakes, Manoomin has declined greatly,” Chris says. “We wanted to capture data about the surface and groundwater changes throughout the growing season over multiple years [to see if this had an impact].”
For Chris, however, the most impactful part of his experience in Minnesota happened when he wasn’t actively researching. Chris’s great-great-grandfather was a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, an important factor in Chris’s decision to participate in the REU SLAWR. Traveling to Fire Light Camp, a Line 3 protest site established by the Anishinaabe where the pipeline would cross the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota, Chris was able to connect with White Earth Nation members.
“They expressed to me that I’m fighting the battle on the front lines with science as they’re fighting the battle on the front lines, physically, with the tar sands pipeline,” Chris says. “They’re protecting the Manoomin in the most physical way possible, with their prayers and bodies. That was deep – looking at the different levels of how we’re using Indigenous resistance to battle for food sovereignty and against environmental degradation.”
In the last few years, Chris has worked for Redwoods Rising, one of the largest reforestation projects in Humboldt County, California, as well as interning with the Salish-Kootenai College in Montana. He’s also served as an assistant silviculturist for Hoopa Tribal Forestry in California, restoring tan oak, a culturally important food staple for coastal Tribes. Currently, Chris is considering applying for a hydrology masters. “Eventually, whether I do that or not, I want to go back and work for a Tribe, or my Tribe, to strengthen our voice, representation and sovereignty,” Chris says. “Our river has seven dams on it; our salmon have been extinct for almost one-hundred years now.”
But Chris is determined and, as he’s connected with Native partners across the United States, hopeful.
“In this modern world, we’re up against one-hundred years of resource extraction and land dispossession. We’re so familiar with having everything taken from us and having to rebuild. But I tell you what – myself and my Tribe are the definition of resilient.”
As a father of two young boys with his girlfriend, Chris has found strength through his family. “My girlfriend is getting her social work degree [at the same time that I get mine in forest hydrology],” Chris shares. “And we’re going to walk together at graduation.”
Your Engagement and Support
The expenses of undergraduates as they serve on REU SLAWR are supported by the National Science Foundation under award #EAR2054177.
To learn more about SAFL’s REU on Sustainable Land and Water Resources (SLAWR), including how to apply or nominate a student, please visit their webpage at reuslawr.org.
The University of Minnesota stands on the homelands of the Dakhóta. Read more in “Where We Stand: The University of Minnesota and Dakhóta Treaty Lands” in Open Rivers.