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CPN member seeks to increase accessibility to culturally-important plants through graduate research

Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member Susannah Howard’s interest in nature and the land has grown in unexpected ways since deciding to attend graduate school at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She majored in geosciences with a certificate in Native American and Indigenous studies while at Smith College in Massachusetts and described herself as a “hardcore rock nerd.”

Howard spent the summer of 2018 as an undergraduate researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The Frigon family descendant worked on a wild rice lake, familiarizing herself with its growth requirements, biogeochemistry and the geography of land and water resources.

“It became a lot clearer that as much as I liked geology, I wasn’t going to get to make the same kind of difference as I would if I had been a little bit more well-rounded in the plant sciences and the soil sciences,” Howard said.

She anticipated entering the workforce after completing her bachelor’s degree in 2019, but instead made an unexpected move. In the fall of 2019, she enrolled in the environmental science master’s program at SUNY-ESF and rushed to learn botany basics as well as brushing up on climate science and natural resources management and law. Howard’s academic advisor is CPN member and acclaimed botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of New York Times bestseller Braiding Sweetgrass.

“It was a fortuitous moment in that SUNY-ESF just got their first round of funding through the Sloan Foundation to bring Native students to the college to study with Robin and other people under the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, and my first crew was the first group under that program,” Howard said.

Citizen Potawatomi Nation member Susannah Howard takes water quality measurements while studying menomen (wild rice) decline and restoration in Minnesota. (Photo provided)

Climate change and traditional knowledge

The program presented the chance to combine her passions for her Potawatomi heritage and earth sciences. A group of Potawatomi from across North America with expansive knowledge of biodiversity, including academics, scientists, resource managers and more, formed the Potawatomi Plant Protection Network throughout the last couple of years.

“(The Plant Protection Network’s) thought process originally was that for most CPN members, ancestrally, we’ve already kind of experienced a version of climate change, albeit quite rapid,” Howard said. “The walk from Lake Michigan to … Kansas then Oklahoma is like a rapid experience of climate change that is sort of unprecedented in modern times but really won’t be very soon.”

Anticipating the impacts of climate change grows more difficult as the severity of temperatures and rising sea levels increases. Some traditional plants, such as menomen (wild rice), require a specific habitat to flourish, which rapidly decreases as rainfall levels change and growing seasons shorten.

“All of my research, it will help (the Potawatomi Plant Protection Network’s) future endeavors (in) plant protection by really bringing together all of the known information we have about all the plants that all the Potawatomi communities care about,” Howard said.

She also hopes the information leads to collaboration between local government as well as private landowners, opening land access for Potawatomi to gather plants and teach traditional practices.

“And if it’s something like wild rice, if you could work with the landowner, it would be amazing to get access so that you can teach kids how to do it so that in 10 years, that whole body of knowledge isn’t lost because the wild rice isn’t where it used to be,” Howard said. “So, it’s complicated, but it’s fun.”

Her ambitious plans include a potential website database for all of the information collected from 11 tribes in the United States and Canada, complete with maps of individual plants’ availability in both current and traditional homelands. Howard’s goal is to bring Potawatomi together “by bringing the plants to them rather than trying to bring them to the plants.” Howard began analyzing climate change adaptation plans this semester.

“I’m trying to kind of sift through thousands of pages of documents to just what every tribe is talking about in terms of cultural plants. Are they accessible now? Were they accessible? When were they accessible? What’s the knowledge behind them? And what do we propose the access will be in the next 10, 15, 20 years as climate change progresses?” she said.

Natives in STEM

Howard is a member of the Potawatomi Leadership Program class of 2016. The experience made her search for Potawatomi from all tribes in her educational and professional endeavors. As an undergraduate, Howard was one of the few Native STEM students at Smith College. She described the chance to work with Kimmerer in New York as “too good to pass up,” especially in a program with other Indigenous people.

“I’ve been really lucky with the Tribe. I seem to meet more Potawatomi every time I go anywhere or meet a new group of people. So that’s really important to me, I think, to not feel like I’m alone,” Howard said.

She has worked on creating a network of Native scientists and finding ways to give back to the Native community through participation in organizations including the Geologic Society of America and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Howard hopes her work and accomplishments make the path easier for future generations of Natives in STEM fields.

“I think part of what motivates me in STEM is that I can bring more kids along. … The further I get into my career path, the more kids I could meet and sort of push into the right places, whether it’s getting them funding or giving them support,” she said.

For more information about the Potawatomi Leadership Program, visit plp.potawatomi.org.