UW-Madison/Native Nations Summit on Environment and Health highlights importance of collaboration

By Jennifer Estes, Rubén Franco, Kevin Mauer, Joshua Rodriguez,
William Voinot-Baron, Selah Agaba


On March 12 and 13, the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted the UW/Native Nations Summit on Environment and Health at the Fluno Center. Presented by the University’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the Summit served to bring leaders of Native Nations together to discuss needs in their communities and potential collaboration with UW researchers. This Summit is of historic importance, as it is the first time in 100 years that representatives from all Native Nations in the state gathered on campus.

Collaboration was the Summit’s impetus from the beginning. University faculty and staff worked with the twelve Nations in Wisconsin to fund the Summit, design its format, and welcome 150 participants. University officials conveyed their intention to collaborate throughout the event. "The university is not here to ‘help,’ " Paul Robbins, Director of the Nelson Institute, would say at the Summit’s close, "All of campus has come to listen and to learn."

This sentiment resonated with the tone set by the keynote address given by Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), who emphasized that all data from research must be “tribally driven and tribally owned.” The generation and use of data are better realized from the bottom-up than from the top-down. Other tribal leaders agreed, expressing in a later session the desire to empower tribal members themselves with the tools to conduct research. Pata said that, according to the guidelines of the NCAI, research related to tribes should not merely satisfy intellectual curiosity, but must be directly beneficial to the tribes themselves and, of course, must do no harm. Research always leaves an impact on the researched and is, she said, "never culturally neutral."

Yet, from a policy perspective, research is indispensable. Larry Roberts, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Indian Affairs of the U.S. Department of the Interior, an Oneida tribal member and UW alumnus, stressed the role of research in the creation of federal budgets. Congress, he said, is above all influenced by data.

For Pata, the narratives we construct are persuasive, as well. She told the story of President Obama’s meeting with Indian youth, which precipitated the creation by the Office of Management and Budget of the first ever forum including all White House departments to discuss the state of Indian Country. The forum has since been held quarterly and is informed both before and after the meeting by teleconferences with tribal leaders nationwide.

Lauding such efforts, Pata challenged the attendees to have "courageous conversations" that can inform research collaborations into the future.

During the morning of the second day, tribal leadership from 10 of the indigenous Nations provided exciting ideas and recounted the recent victories and recurring challenges that were specific to their own tribes but also general to Native communities across Wisconsin. Notably, the participation of the Brothertown Indian Nation, whose sovereignty has not been federally recognized, exemplified the inclusive character of the Summit. Invoking previous collaborative efforts between researchers and Native communities, Lac du Flambeau Council Member Jerome "Brooks" Big John expressed hope that this Summit could lead to projects of consequence. Big John recalled recent collaborative efforts with researchers and legislators. "They’re starting to get it," he said, referring to better communication and understanding between the parties.

Many of the tribal leaders echoed Big John’s excitement to continue partnerships that invite more participation from tribal members and foster Native-driven research in Native communities. Invoking a phrase in the Menominee language used by his grandmother, Menominee Nation Chairman Gary Besaw said, "This is a good thing happening here today."

In order to kick-off a dialogue about potential collaborations, sixteen UW researchers briefly presented on projects they are currently carrying out in partnership with Wisconsin tribes. Examples include the design of an integrated community and agricultural center, the development of materials to aid in the revitalization of Native languages, and the fostering of more culturally appropriate nursing practices. Summit participants then spent the afternoon in topical breakout sessions focusing on water quality and fisheries, healthy living, culturally appropriate economic development, education and culture, climate change, forestry and wildlife, traditional agriculture and food sovereignty, health in the clinic, and mining. The sessions involved a dialogue between tribal leaders, community members, Native students, and UW faculty, staff and graduate students. The aim was to begin discussing ideas for future collaborative research endeavors that might best serve the interests and needs of tribal community members. The very process of conducting collaborative research was also an important component of the discussions. For instance, participants raised the question of how university researchers might best support the work that the tribes are already carrying out on their own, and how the rich knowledge of tribal members and the data produced by academics may be brought into productive conversation.

Former UW-Madison President Charles Van Hise, to whom the Wisconsin Idea is often attributed, was president when the Society for American Indians gathered in Madison in 1914. Van Hise’s vision, that the benefits of the University extend beyond the classroom, was reinforced and reinvigorated through the Summit. Collaboration, the underlying theme of the Summit, is facilitated through constructive dialogue. While this dialogue is not without occasional disagreement, the intent of the Summit was not necessarily to reach a unified plan, but instead to share and listen to the stakes involved for different Summit participants. In this vein, collaboration itself is an ongoing process that must be productively negotiated. In expressing his excitement in the light of the renewed collaboration between the University and the Native Nations of Wisconsin, Robbins promised to continue the conversation not only in Madison but also within Native communities, in part by encouraging UW researchers to spend more time in them. The great potential of the Summit will be realized through this ongoing dialogue and collaboration. Indeed, the University’s offer to extend its benefits beyond the classroom are terms that must be shared.