Sustainability Initiatives at the Tribal Colleges

By Al Kuslikis, STEM Associate, American Indian Higher Education Consortium and Beau Mitchell, Sustainability Coordinator, College of Menominee Nation

(This article appears in the February, 2012 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) and its Tribal College and University (TCU) membership are actively engaged in promoting sustainability both on their campuses and within the communities they serve.  TCUs are ideally situated to play a leadership role in developing and promoting sustainable practices within their respective communities and nationally.  There are no higher education institutions more closely engaged with addressing the economic development, public health, workforce development, and research needs of their communities.  As tribal institutions, they are particularly well-positioned to draw on and reinforce the traditional practices that have sustained their people for countless generations before European contact, and which can inform our collective efforts to respond to the sustainability challenges of today.

Navajo Technical College students demonstrating a wind turbine they designed for homes

Tribal colleges are responding to the call for leadership.  Northwest Indian College in Bellingham Washington has developed a bachelors’ of science degree program in Native Environmental Science that integrates traditional understandings of natural phenomena with the Western scientific paradigm.  Blackfeet Community College in Browning Montana has developed an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Natural Resource Management specifically to support the tribe’s commitment to alternative energy, especially wind, and is currently meeting 50% of its electricity needs through wind energy. Little Big Horn College is partnering with Montana State University in researching the use of nitrogen fixing bacteria to sequester carbon released in the coal liquefaction process.  Navajo Technical College is working with Arizona State University and the Navajo Nation to customize photovoltaic systems that are optimized for the environmental conditions and electricity use patterns of Navajo families in Arizona and New Mexico.  Those last two examples are projects funded by the US Department of Energy through the American Indian Research and Education Initiative (AIREI).  AIREI is an important effort to connect tribal communities, tribal colleges, regional universities, and the DOE National Laboratories in developing and implementing energy research designed to support tribal energy priorities.

The College of Menominee Nation is one of the charter signatories of the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment and is committed to becoming climate neutral.  The CMN Sustainable Development Institute (SDI)  is leading this effort, and has engaged the entire campus community in the effort.  Guided by traditional understandings that inform Menominee sustainable forest management practices, a vision of a sustainable campus was crafted and the associated indicators were benchmarked.  It is a component of the Sustainable Development Institute’s mission to continue to research, build upon, and share traditional Menominee knowledge and practices with the rest of the world.

Another important initiative is the AIHEC-NREL Energy Fellow project, developed as a partnership between AIHEC, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the College of Menominee Nation Sustainable Development Institute.  Beau Mitchell, the CMN Sustainability Coordinator, has been recruited by AIHEC to serve as the inaugural Energy Fellow.  He is working with the Tribal Colleges to support green campus initiatives, develop energy education curriculum materials, and in general promote sustainable practices at the colleges.  A core activity of the Energy Fellow is to facilitate strategic energy planning, using the model developed by SDI for sustainability planning implemented on the CMN campus.  The cohort members include College of Menominee Nation, Diné College, Haskell Indian Nations University, Institute of American Indian Arts, Northwest Indian College, Salish Kootenai College, and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute.

AIHEC and the nation’s TCUs look forward to expanding our sustainable campus and community efforts – and the partnerships upon which they’re based – ensuring that the indigenous perspective remains a strong component in the response to global ecological challenges.