MISSOULA – A new academic focus area on “Traditional Environmental Knowledge” is giving students insight into understanding Native American worldview and environmental knowledge at the University of Montana.
UM’s Environmental Studies program has created the new TEK focus area.
“This focus area explores traditional environmental knowledge within the lives of historic and contemporary Native peoples and their communities,” said Phil Condon, UM Environmental Studies director. “It is the first of its kind in Montana.”
The Environmental Studies program is a diverse, interdisciplinary program that focuses on the concepts of social change and contemporary environmental issues. The program offers both undergraduate and master’s degrees. After students fulfill their core course work, they work closely with a faculty adviser to design their own program based on their interests.
Environmental Studies at UM has about 50 graduate students and 225 undergraduate students, with a small cohort of Native American students. Students interested in the new TEK focus area will work with the faculty adviser to select relevant course work, internships and possible fieldwork to strengthen their understanding.
“I was fortunate to have learned Blackfeet plant knowledge (or ethnobotany) from my grandmother,” said Rosalyn LaPier, an enrolled Blackfeet and Metis and faculty adviser for the new focus area. “As tribal, state and federal agencies incorporate TEK within their policies and programs, it has become essential for Native and non-Native students to understand TEK’s role in promoting community-based solutions to environmental issues.
“I hope that I can share with students what I learned from my grandmother,” LaPier said. “My family and I continue to gather plants as we have since my childhood. But I can also share my own experiences of living close to the land and how climate change is impacting Montana. Students can then take this learning as they move into the workforce. They can incorporate TEK concepts with Western scientific methods to help address issues such as climate change and other environmental issues in their home communities.”
The Environmental Studies program hired LaPier two years ago to bring her unique blend of personal and professional experiences, and in particular her specialization in traditional environmental knowledge. In addition to decades of learning firsthand from her grandmother, the late Annie Mad Plume Wall, LaPier also has worked nationally and locally with Native advocacy groups.
She currently serves on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the American Indian College Fund’s Building Sustainable Pathways Advisory Committee.
We are excited about the new Traditional Environmental Knowledge focus area,” Condon said. “Environmental Studies at UM seeks to strengthen our courses and community engagement with Native people. The TEK focus adds a new dimension to these relationships.”