Empowering Indigenous Youth through Grassland Restoration on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation
Grass seeds native to the northern Great Plains can be used to restore areas of degraded grassland. In eastern Montana, native grasses that grow on tribal lands are more drought tolerant. Bowman Leigh recounts how the Fort Belknap Indian community trains its youth to collect native grass seeds and restore these lands in the future.
Haile Chase-The Boy stands in ankle-high green and yellow grass under cloudless skies at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation on a hot, dry morning last summer.
“These native grasses were supposed to be extinct,” Chase-The Boy said. “But we are still here. Those grasses are still there. And that’s how I find it stimulating.
Chase-The Boy is a field technician for the Fort Belknap Grassland Restoration Project.
“Our ancestors went through all of this,” Chase-The Boy said. “They were here, you know, and for me, it’s like the church here. I think this program is honestly going to, like, make it cool again.
The Grassland Restoration Project began in 2020 and is a one-of-a-kind partnership between the Fort Belknap Indian community and the US Bureau of Land Management. Indigenous youth from the Aaniiih and Nakoda tribes enter the program as community fellows and are trained to collect data and seeds that can be used to restore grasslands. The training, which resumes for the 2022 season, also aims to empower young members of the tribe by teaching them to care for the land.
Sakura Main, 23, was one of the fellows last year and returns this year as a field technician.
“I didn’t think I would be interested in, like, finding out, the herbs that, you know, grow here and stuff like that,” Main said. “And especially having, like, the traditional part tied to that, it’s quite interesting.”
Native grasses like green needle, sandberg bluegrass, and western wheatgrass have adapted over millennia to thrive on the northern Great Plains. Plants’ deep roots help the soil retain moisture and nutrients, and their seeds contain genetic information that makes them more resilient to environmental stressors like the region’s persistent drought.
The once intact native grassland is fragmented today – a change that can be attributed to settlers moving to the plains to use its fertile soils for grazing and agriculture. This displaced indigenous peoples and reduced plant diversity.
The effort to collect native grass seed opens the possibility of restoring a more drought-tolerant landscape.
“There have been a lot of different land uses on tribal and BLM lands over the last hundred years,” Wendy Velman said.
Velman is the BLM Botany Program Manager for Montana and the Dakotas who oversees the Fort Belknap Grassland Restoration Project.
“What’s exciting about working with the reserve is that when elders share stories with young people, they can better understand the very long-term historical uses of their landscapes,” Velman said. “They can expand on that historical knowledge that’s not available in other parts of the territory, you know, from a white science perspective.”
The program combines hands-on training in Western science with Indigenous knowledge, exposing young scholars to sacred stories and places that offer a connection to Aaniiih and Nakoda language, morals, and culture. Program coordinator and cultural liaison Dan Werk says that connection is crucial.
“It’s powerful for them to hear those things, you know,” Werk said. “You know, just try to set the tone for them and let them know that there are things here that you can grab that are going to help you live a more fulfilling life. We really are a unique people, you know, and we let them know how unique they are.
Indigenous conservationist Cristina Eisenberg leads and trains fellows as they collect grass seeds.
“When they’re on the court, all they do is smile,” Eisenberg said. “They love what they do and it’s very, deeply meaningful to them.”
Eisenberg and his team harvested twenty-three pounds of seed last summer, ninety-six percent of which came from tribal lands. Seeds harvested from the Fort Belknap Reservation belong to the Aaniiih and Nakoda Tribes, who may choose to sell these seeds to the BLM for future restoration projects on public lands.
“It’s not science for science’s sake at all, you know,” Eisenberg said. “That’s, like, the least important part of it all. It’s really about healing.
Eisenberg recently appeared before the United States House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis testify on the model of the program. She spoke about the power of grasslands to sequester carbon and the importance of partnering with tribal nations to increase resilience to climate change. Respect for tribal sovereignty and indigenous knowledge, she said, is essential to this process.
“Together we can empower tribal nations and help America meet the climate challenge,” Eisenberg said.
The Fort Belknap Grassland Restoration Project plans to train and employ up to thirty young tribal members during the 2022 summer season.
Field technician Haile Chase-The Boy says the job feels like a church.
“That’s where we feel grounded,” Chase-The Boy said. “And honestly, I hope everyone finds that in their life because it’s just, it’s such an amazing feeling and this program really does that for me and, you know, my co-workers.”