Tribal students sample the wide fields of agricultural science and practice

 Char-Koosta News 

PABLO — A group of 16 high school students explored the world of agriculture during the Safeguarding Natural Heritage Youth Program’s Agriculture and Natural Resource Camp. Students visited programs from Missoula to Browning and were exposed to a variety of careers in agriculture including farming and biocontrol as well as livestock and natural resources.

Camp Counselor Dana Tenas Hewankorn (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) said the program had a lasting impact. “The kids learned that agriculture is more than just cows and plows,” she said. “There is so much that goes into agriculture and natural resources. I learned about its connection to sustainable living and food sovereignty. Since this camp, some of our students have talked about reconsidering their career and educational path. This was a great opportunity for them.”

While in Missoula, the students learned about the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance (INCA) work in Biocontrol. Biocontrol coordinator Danielle Plainfeather (Apsaalooke) said the program aims to find natural solutions to weed infestation. “We take different species of bugs that have been proven to eradicate noxious weeds from different collection sites across Montana. When the bugs emerge for the season they are hand picked or we use nets. We measure them, contain them, count them, and distribute them to land owners or organizations that work in conservation with noxious weed infestations.”

Plainfeather said the program has had proven success eliminating leafy spurge on the northwest corner of the Crow Reservation. “Based on thorough research, we introduced the flea beetle to affected areas,” she said. “Their only food source is leafy spurge and when they were done with that area they died. It’s a self-sustaining approach. We support biocontrol because it eliminates the use of herbicides and it protects the environment. It takes a lot of time and patience but biocontrol is effective and it protects the natural plant life.”

In Missoula, the students visited the PEAS Farm, which is a large-scale sustainable community farm that has been in operation for 12 years. The garden’s produce is supplied to local schools and organizations focused on serving the city’s identified 20 percent population living in poverty. The farm also collaborates with the University of Montana to provided educational opportunities in the fields of agriculture and offers produce to the general public on a paid membership basis.

Hewankorn said the PEAS Farm highlighted projects that could be implemented on reservations. “The PEAS Farm is so much more than a farm it provides education and really gives back to the community,” she said. “Food sovereignty is a major focus right now and I think that project is something that could benefit tribal communities.”

From Missoula to Browning, the students toured Gus Vail’s (Blackfeet) privately owned ranch. Plainfeather said the students got an inside look at this sustainable approach to controlling knapweed on his property. “Gus raised his cattle from birth on a diet that consisted exclusively of knapweed, which is unique because cattle typically don’t eat it,” she said. “It was exciting to see new approaches on biocontrol and to see the success that he’s had was phenomenal. He is a tribal member and our organization (INCA) encourages Native ranchers and farmers to utilize sustainable approaches of operation and that was great.”

While in Browning, the students also visited the Blackfeet Bison Ranch, which is home to the Blackfeet Nation’s 90 head heard of bison that are descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd and were shipped from the Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. Hewankorn said they students learned about resiliency from the herd. “There were record winters in Browning for the past two years and we learned that there were 1500 local cattle lost over that time and zero bison lost,” she said. “Aside from their resiliency, bison are worth more as livestock - five dollars a hoof versus cows which are one dollar a hoof. We learned bison also help this earth while grazing.”

The 10-day camp was hosted by Salish Kootenai College Extension Office and the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance (INCA). INCA connects Native farming and ranching initiatives to federal programs, grants, and protections. Student program director Gail Whiteman (Apsaalooke) said the INCA aims to assist tribes in developing agriculture districts on each of Montana’s reservations. “There are 10 to 12 million acres of tribal lands in the state of Montana,” she said. “We need representation at the table of making agriculture decisions in this state. Tribes need to manage the natural resources and how agriculture is managed on their own land, from their nation.” 

The INCA program assists tribes in developing agriculture plans, conducting research, and developing policies in the area of agriculture. Whiteman said all tribes have an opportunity to broaden their involvement in agriculture. “My vision is to get more natives involved in their own processes,” she said. “For example, we don’t having enough representation because no one knows why agriculture effects them. We’ve been told that if we don’t care for our own natural resources someone else will. The original people who care for mother earth are the people who have been oppressed and now we’re coming back and we’re going to be strong.”

For more information on the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance visit: https:/www.inca-tcd.org

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