Supported by the Network for Landscape Conservation’s Catalyst Fund
Greater Hells Canyon Council and the Camas to Condors Partners are thrilled to have the opportunity to work closely for the next twelve months with Tiyana Casey.
Tiyana is a Columbia Plateau Native with a deep sense of purpose, a great sense of humor, and an incredible wealth of experience working in natural resource education and conservation across her homeland. Together, we’re developing tools and best practices to empower Traditional Ecological Knowledge keepers in conservation in the Greater Hells Canyon Region.
Get to know Tiyana a bit in this interview, and stay tuned for updates as we collaborate to increase the pace, scale, and depth of climate-smart culture-smart land stewardship in our home region.
You describe environmental education as your passion and your calling. How did you find your way into this work?
At the end of my senior year at Portland State University, after pursuing many types of degrees and facing many detours to take care of family, I was called to complete a capstone project in my department of study—Geology. I did a project in outdoor science education with a great group of people. What I love about working with folks outside is that everyone is a student and everyone is a teacher. There is no force-feeding information in the four walls of a classroom. There is only feeding curiosity through one of our biggest teachers—the land.
Following that capstone, I began part-time entry level work at an engineering firm, which was a pathway to becoming a professional geologist. At the same time, I also took an internship with a climate justice cohort at the University. This is where I met some of my most important friends and mentors. The internship gave me an opportunity to work with one of my Nimiipuu sisters facilitating Indigenous environmental education in place of students’ regular science classes. This was so intriguing to me because I had never seen such a thing done. I never grew up with Native education in the classroom. Hell, I never felt like I could BE Native in a classroom until college.
These two contrasting experiences set me up for two very different job offers at the end of my 10 years at PSU. The first (lucrative) offer would mean working with a private company involved in the North Dakota Access Pipeline. This was just as the protests were beginning. I wanted long-term employment, but when I understood what this offer would entail, I was devastated. I was in tears. I knew that the firm wanted to use my Indigeneity to help push that pipeline through.
But, within fifteen minutes of realizing that I had to turn this offer down, I received the second offer. This was an opportunity to facilitate native environmental education at Chemawa Indian Boarding School, one of the largest and longest running boarding schools this side of the Mississippi River. I’d be continuing the work I had done in my Climate Justice internship—building a new type of holistic curriculum in a Native school where there were no Native teachers at that time.
I resigned that very day from the engineering firm and accepted the position to teach at Chemawa. I decided to become the person I needed when I was in school. This decision changed my life trajectory.
I thought to myself at the time that all of my research in climate, glacial sedimentology, environmental geology, and even air quality may have been for nothing. It’s since been proven to me that this is simply not the case. All of my training has been useful in some way. Being a traditional foods gatherer and being an Indigenous scientist can very much be the same thing. And I am learning as time goes on that our traditional knowledge runs so deep that it is time that “Science” catches up.
Why is it so important for Indigenous people to be in leadership roles in conservation and other natural resource professions?
When I was working on my capstone, I had the pleasure of using my science knowledge to inspire young people outdoors. The youth I was most intrigued by were the native high-school aged youth we took into my homelands—Warm Springs. I had never worked with a group of native youth until that point in time. And I was the only native person in my capstone course (a trend I get used to more and more as time goes on). I was intimidated and excited to work with these young people. Their knowledge and awareness of the land was incredible. I learned so much from them, and I believe they were able to engage more deeply with the material I was teaching because I was Warm Springs, too.
One student told me that they had not had a Native teacher since they went to elementary school on the reservation. Another student said they couldn’t remember if they’d even had a Native teacher. I related and shared with them that I had not had a Native teacher until I was in college taking an Indigenous Nations Studies course. It made me wonder: would I have been more successful in school if I had a mentor who understood me better?
I also wonder: how would the natural resource fields operate if they were led by people who understand the land on a deeper level?
These two questions are interconnected, and they’re at the heart of the work I’m trying to do now, in this partnership and in my community in Nimiipuu country. I expect to spend the rest of my life finding ways to support young Indigenous people to get their hands in the soil and possibly pursue careers in conservation and natural resources.
What gaps do you see in the world of land management that you know need to be filled?
The field needs young people and Indigenous people! So much land management happens without Tribal consultation or with the bare minimum of consultation on lands over which Tribes have sovereign jurisdiction. So that’s one thing.
It’s also important to empower people in conservation and natural resources who have grown up understanding that the plants and animals are our elders on the landscape, our relatives.
In my career up to this point I’ve taken many groups of Indigenous kids out into the landscape to learn and work. I’ve seen clearly how Indigenous people can positively influence land management and not just strengthen the land but strengthen our own minds and hearts in the process.
Native people have the longest history and most experience in this country. We have unique challenges as a result of our complex history and, in turn, unique needs. Our ancestors have put in place specific responsibilities, specific relationships for us to tend and pass along, which aid in our resiliency, such as our stories, ways of food gathering and hunting, our language, and our right to clean water. We are not separate from the land.
We know how to restore lands that have had their ancient relationships cut away from them. This is another kind of environmental justice: restoration of relationships between people and land. Healing those relationships also heals intergenerational trauma. Healing the land heals the people, and vice versa.
Please speak a bit about the work we’ll be doing together, funded by the NLC Catalyst Grant. What are you most excited to dive into?
We’ve been funded to build capacity and a support network for empowering Indigenous relationships with the land in our home. It’s exciting!
Specifically, I’ll be putting together a curriculum for young Indigenous land stewards based on the Seasonal Round. The Seasonal Round is Columbia Plateau peoples’ circuit of seasonal movement across the landscape, tending relationships with the plants and animals we rely on along the way. This curriculum has been a long time in the making: I developed its core vision for the youth at Chemawa Boarding School, but that work, which was supported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was canceled abruptly in 2016, after the election. The new administration decided it was not a priority.
I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to pick this work up again, flesh out the vision and structure, and bring it into the field. We hope that by next summer we’ll have the resources to train Indigenous crews to engage in climate monitoring and restoration in their homelands, with this curriculum as a framework.
I’ll also be working with GHCC and others in the Camas to Condors Partnership to develop a handbook of protocols and best practices for empowering traditional knowledge keepers in conservation in our region. I’m excited to get what feels mostly intuitive in the relationships I maintain professionally (Indigenous, NGO, government, research scientists, etc) crystallized in this handbook. It will be a good challenge for me because I & other Indigenous professionals realize there are easily miscommunications in these fields. There are also amazing opportunities to form cross-cultural partnerships that serve the lands we all care about and the communities who depend on those lands.