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CAMPUS CONNECTION

Saint Mary’s GeoSpatial Services continues work with tribes

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Andy Robertson and GeoSpatial Services staff

Andy Robertson and GeoSpatial Services staff conduct field validation of critical desert wetlands in White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

Saint Mary’s University’s on-campus project center GeoSpatial Services has collaborated with a variety of big-name, national businesses and organizations on natural resource management and mapping, but our ongoing work with Native American tribes has been particularly meaningful and fulfilling.

Knowing the work has made a significant impact on improving the water quality and way of life for several tribes is gratifying — and serves as an example of Saint Mary’s longstanding mission of service, and its commitment to character and virtue and focus on environmental justice.

GeoSpatial Services’ work with Indigenous tribes began in 2009 with the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians. The organization has now branched out to work with seven other tribes, three of which reside in Minnesota.

When you think about Native American tribes, they generally reside on and manage reservation areas that are designated by their treaty rights with the federal government. The challenge is that these tribes find themselves needing to manage these lands in a sustainable manner for future generations as well as to improve their current quality of life, and they typically have a very small staff of professional individuals and little support from state and federal organizations.

A majority of the work GeoSpatial Services does with the tribes focuses on water quality and the implementation of the Clean Water Act. For these tribes, the need for clean water is crucial to the quality of life of current and future generations.

A variety of farming practices, urban development, non-point source pollution, and general usage have significant impact on many reservations’ water supply, used for drinking, subsistence activities like farming, hunting, and fishing, and commercial uses.

We provided geographic analyses, and they have used that 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, more secure water supply for the tribal community.

Building working relationships with tribal nations can be difficult due to trust issues. We have 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’re not just involved to get a paycheck.

For GeoSpatial staff it became much more than a job.

Katrina Danzinger, a junior biology major, said that working with Geospatial Services opened her eyes to how valuable their applied research is.

“I know that this research is going to benefit a community that is dependent on nature,” she said. “I couldn’t have gotten this experience in the classroom. GSS has shown me what it’s like to fulfill a need to an underserved community. Because of our work, I feel like I’m actually making a difference.”

And the impact is ongoing. We’ve designed systems that have checks and balances that allow tribes to demonstrate that the practices we’ve implemented have made a difference. We’re also working with tribal colleges to develop course materials to educate tribal members.

Hopefully it creates some level of impetus for change.

It’s really exciting to be able to provide tribes with tools and data that really help them change what’s happened to them in the past and bring some level of environmental justice to these underserved communities.

“I know that this research is going to benefit a community that is dependent on nature. I couldn't have gotten this experience in the classroom. GSS has shown me what it's like to fulfill a need to an underserved community. Because of our work, I feel like I'm actually making a difference.”

Katrina Danzinger, a junior biology major, 

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