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Camp Weaves Traditional Native Teachings, Western Science

Tribal elders, ESF faculty bring two areas together

Weaving together the traditional environmental knowledge of the Haudenosaunee with environmental science is the focus of the Native Earth Sumer Camp for Native American youth in August.

The camp, offered through the Center for Native People and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), provides a 10-day experience for native youth from upstate New York and beyond which blends traditional environmental knowledge and environmental science.

Campers spend the first five days at Thompson Island Youth and Elders Camp in Akwesasne, N.Y. Said Dr. Robin Kimmerer of ESF, director of the Center for Native People and the Environment, "The first five days tribal leaders talk to the kids about traditional teachings related to taking care of the earth. This is combined with environmental science activities."

The remaining days are spent at ESF's Cranberry Lake Biological Station in the Adirondacks where the activities are more science focused while being tied into the traditional Haudenosaunee teachings.

"We try to follow the order of the Thanksgiving Address," explained Kimmerer. The Thanksgiving Address is an expression of acknowledgement, greetings, love and appreciation for every part of the natural world, according to the Iroquois Indian Museum website.

"There's a day to be talking about plants, fishes, both ecologically and culturally," said Kimmerer. "We give gratitude to the fishes and talk about aquatic ecology both in the cultural and the scientific ways."

"It's a braiding together of environmental science and traditional ecological knowledge," she said.

For example, she explained, when the basket makers come to camp they show students how the traditional baskets are made from black ash tree starting with the tree. Because the black ash tree is one of the targets of the emerald ash borer, a wood-boring beetle that attacks ash trees, Kimmerer said, "We look at the science of the tree the ecology of how those trees grow, their cultural use in baskets and their protection or their threat - it's hard to protect them at this point - from the emerald ash borer."

ESF alumnus Neil Patterson Jr. '96, director of Tuscarora Nation's Environmental Program, comes to the camp to lead the fisheries day activities. "He combines his knowledge of traditional fisheries practice with biology of fish and aquatic systems," said Kimmerer. "The kids go fishing and learn the scientific techniques for catching and monitoring fish populations, but then they also eat the fish and learn what fish need to survive and what makes fish healthy. It's a holistic integration of culture and science."

The campers also learn about plants, especially traditional plant medicines and traditional plant foods. They then learn the scientific ecology of how to protect those plants that are used, said Kimmerer.

"One of the great days is when we have a traditional indigenous trapper who comes and talks to the kids," said Kimmerer. "At first a lot of kids are put off by that. But then they find out there's this deep respect for the animals and the deep native science that's involved in being a good trapper. They learn that there's also the conservation side of it. "

Considering the scientific backdrop, the camp is extremely innovative. "Often times native youth don't participate in western science to the extent that they might because they often feel it's at odds with traditional culture," said Kimmerer. "What we're trying to demonstrate through the camp is that they (traditional knowledge and science) work together hand in hand. Traditional teachings about how to care for the earth can be used in partnership with western science. We also hope to encourage their participation in environmental science careers."

Now in its fifth year, the camp has seen some of its early participants pursue science-related fields including tribal environmental leadership from a political perspective. "Simply to have them go on to college is a big deal," Kimmerer said. "They're the first generation in their family to go to college."

Campers come from all six Nations of the Haudenosaunee and sometimes from other states such as Wisconsin, Arizona, Massachusetts and Maine.

"It's so much fun. I wish more students could or would come," she said. "The wonderful thing about it is the instructors are tribal elders, tribal environmental leaders as well as ESF faculty and graduate students. It's a really nice community that we create among us in delivering this to the youth."

The camp takes place Aug. 8 to 17.

This year, ESF's partnerships in the area of Native Peoples and environmental education extends to the College's role as a sponsor of the Stage of Nations Blue Rain ECOfest July 27-28 in Hanover Square, Syracuse. The two-day festival is the largest festival in the Northeast, merging Haudenosaunee values and environmental stewardship with eco-friendly vendors and educational opportunities complimented with Native American crafts, food, and entertainment.