Native Village Youth and Education News

April 1, 2009 Issue 196 Volume 2

Giving Back to Their Community
By Susan A. Steeves
Condensed by Gina Boltz, Director, Native Village Publications

Indiana: Purdue's Tecumseh Project provides graduate opportunities for Native Americans. While enriching the school's multicultural community, it also encourages research in Native American communities on Native lands.

“The Tecumseh Project brings together Native Americans from all over the country and develops areas of study that address their interests and goals,” says Kevin Gibson, a member of the Purdue team that established the project. “We encourage Tecumseh students to take what they learn back to their communities.”

Two of the project's first students are Leanna Begay, Navajo, and Nils “Buster” Landin, Chippewa. Both have lived on reservations, and both were drawn to the project through their interest in science and the land.

Leanna Begay researches sand dunes, an area of study that reflects her interest in biology and ecology. Her lab is the high desert county within the Navajo Reservation near Tuba City, Ariz. “I’m learning about sand dune movement and about the native plant species and invasive plants.” Begay says, “I’m learning how the plants are distributed, how they have adapted to their changing environment, how they tolerate wind.”

Wind is one of the factors that make sand dunes constantly moving landforms. For the Navajo and Southwest residents, the dunes are important to the economy, the culture and the landscape. Begay’s family raises cattle and depends on native plants and trucked-in hay for forage. It’s essential that the dunes and native plants be protected from overgrazing and invasive plants.

Begay says Arizona's sand dunes differ from those surrounding Lake Michigan in northern Indiana. “People forget that Arizona, like most places, has varied topography. The farther north you go in the state, the higher the elevation,” she says. “My dunes are located at about 5,000 feet above sea level. They act as a sponge in regenerating groundwater in this region.”

Begay is the first person in her family to graduate from college. She earned her bachelor’s degree in applied indigenous studies from Northern Arizona University. After completing her master’s degree at Purdue, she plans to return to the Navajo Reservation and help her people.

Giving back is high on Buster Landin’s list, too. Buster is from the Lac Du Flambeau Chippewa reservation in Wisconsin. He plans a career in teaching and research and is already sharing his experience with Native American middle- and high-schoolers in an earth science summer program at the University of California. The program, co-sponsored by Purdue’s Sharing the Land project, also teaches healthy eating and exercise. “It’s dealing with the whole person,” he says. “It benefits students’ tribes and their culture.”

At Purdue, Landin is working on his masters degree in soil science.  He is now researching why the soil in one of the last areas in Indiana covered by glaciers is barren. While the soil in that region should still be fertile and young, it acts as if it is very, very old.  Plants can’t grow it -- - it lacks beneficial minerals, has a very low pH value, and has a high level of aluminum.

 Landin is searching for when and why the soil became inhospitable. “I’ve always been interested in glaciers and geomorphology, so I thought soil studies were a natural extension of that,” he says.

"There is anecdotal evidence as to why [these barren spots] it happened, but no hard evidence,” he says. “That’s what our study is about. The unknown causes of this soil condition created an opportunity for me to do research in a new area that can be very beneficial to people and agriculture.”

Landin also has a connection to the namesake of Purdue's project: Tecumseh. The Shawnee leader sought to establish a new homeland for Eastern tribes a few miles north of Purdue's campus.  Landin also has Shawnee, Miami and Delaware ancestry, all tribes that inhabited Indiana. “One of the many reasons that I am proud of my heritage is that I am a descendant of The Shawnee War Chief Bluejacket,” he says.


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