The on-campus project center of Saint Mary’s University GeoSpatial Services has worked with a variety of leading national companies and organizations on natural resource management and mapping, but our continued work with Native American tribes has been particularly meaningful and enriching.
Knowing that our work has had a significant impact on improving the water quality and way of life of many tribes is gratifying – and serves as an example of Saint Mary’s long-standing mission of service, and her commitment to character and virtue and an emphasis on environmental justice.
GeoSpatial Services’ work with Indigenous tribes began in 2009 with the Mohican Indian Band of Stockbridge-Munsee. The organization has now branched out to work with seven other tribes, three of which reside in Minnesota.
When you think of Native American tribes, they typically reside and manage reserve areas designated by their treaty rights with the federal government. The challenge is that these tribes need to manage these lands sustainably for future generations as well as improve their current quality of life, and they typically have a very small professional staff and little support from state and federal organizations. .
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A majority of the work GeoSpatial Services does with tribes focuses on water quality and the implementation of the Clean Water Act. For these tribes, the need for drinking water is crucial for the quality of life of current and future generations.
A variety of agricultural practices, urban development, diffuse source pollution and general use have a significant impact on the water supply of many reserves, used for drinking, subsistence activities such as agriculture, hunting. and fishing, and commercial uses.
We provided geographic analyzes and they used this data to make several strategic land purchases and implemented practices on those lands to improve water quality and quantity. The end result is a cleaner and safer water supply for the tribal community.
It can be difficult to establish working relationships with tribal nations due to trust issues. We need to spend a lot of time building relationships and working with communities to gain their trust and demonstrate that we understand their realities and that we can actually help them – that we are not just involved to get a paycheck.
For GeoSpatial staff, it has become much more than a job.
Katrina Danzinger, a junior major in biology, said working with Geospatial Services opened her eyes to the value of their applied research.
“I know this research will benefit a community dependent on nature,” she said. “I could not have had this experience in class. GSS showed me what it is like to meet a need in an underserved community. Thanks to our work, I feel like I am making a difference.
And our impact is continuous. We have designed systems with checks and balances that allow tribes to demonstrate that the practices we have implemented have made a difference. We are also working with tribal colleges to develop course materials to educate tribal members.
Hopefully this creates some level of momentum for the change.
It’s really exciting to be able to provide tribes with tools and data that really help them change what happened to them in the past and bring some level of environmental justice to these underserved communities.