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Dockry moves from the forest to the classroom

Citizen Potawatomi Nation member Michael Dockry has spent his career in the forest — teaching about them, planning them, sustaining them and interviewing people about them. After nearly 20 years with the U.S. Forest Service, the Slavin family descendant accepted his current position as assistant professor in the Forest Resources Department at the University of Minnesota for the 2019-20 academic year.

“I thought, ‘Look, if I can go and educate the forestry and natural resource students before they get their professional jobs, that’s going to have a way bigger impact than me out there trying to work with single offices or groups of people,’” he said.

Tribal member Michael Dockry leads a tour of the Menominee Indian Reservation and explains the tribe’s approaches to sustainable forestry. (Photo by DKakkak)

Dockry became interested in forestry as a freshman in high school. He loved the outdoors and canoeing, but he learned about forestry as a profession when he participated in a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources program for students. He later graduated with his doctorate in forestry from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 2012.

“I feel connected to the forest, and I’m learning to understand my relationship with trees and other beings in the forest,” he said. “I think that’s what I’ve been kind of going through my whole life, and when I’m working with different tribal communities and understanding different understandings of their relation to the forest, that just renews my interest.”

Native knowledge and voices

A large portion of Dockry’s job with the Forest Service, and one personally significant to him as a CPN member, involved him teaching other foresters about the federal government’s trust responsibility to work with tribes when surveying and planning for work on Native American land. That process begins by building relationships with Indigenous nations and considering their experiences from the start.

“That was a hard thing because not a lot of people learn that in forestry school. For the past 20 years, it’s me trying to teach people. And finally, an opportunity came up here at the university to start a tribal natural resource management program,” Dockry said.

Having cultural and historical knowledge of a piece of land makes it easier to create Indigenous partnerships when planning use and preservation; however, forestry workers often lack information.

“I think we move the conversations forward and vice versa. When we have foresters talking that aren’t understanding where the land came from. Which treaty was signed, what were the tribes that signed, what are those tribes today, what are the rights that were retained in these treaties, what are our obligations when we’re managing this land — that typically isn’t talked about,” Dockry said.

His experience shows that a diverse group is more likely to make well-informed decisions benefiting everyone involved. That includes not only discussions about forestry but related subjects such as inequality, environmental justice, climate change and more.

“We need tribal voices in those discussions because we have been excluded from those conversations. … At a minimum, we have the tribes engaged in our land management decisions because we need them to formulate solutions because these problems are too hard for just, let’s say, foresters to handle,” Dockry said.

More than once in his career, fellow Forest Service employees described learning from tribes as a “transformational” experience.

Ecological mimicry

Dockry suggested ecological mimicry as one of the most environmentally friendly and effective ways to maintain forest habitats as well as harvesting resources. Many Indigenous agricultural methods emulate nature in a symbiotic relationship between the earth and humans, and Dockry spent his time as part of the Forest Service learning those values.

“I got to know and understand how they think about forestry and sustainability … where we’re incorporating human beings as part of the environment, we’re thinking about relationships with all the different beings that are held in the forest, we’re thinking about a spiritual relationship,” he said.

As a member of the Forest Service, Dockry worked with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2009. The groups developed new data points and observation sets when collecting information on birch bark trees aside from height, diameter and other conventional measurements. The new sets included moss growth, trunk shape and bend, and flakiness of the bark.

“Just looking at the forest differently helped us develop data sampling that now we can use in order to help maintain birch, help manage birch trees, so that tribal gatherers are going to be able to gather different types of birch trees for their own reasons,” such as canoe building, Dockry said.

Mimicry done in the right way redirects and manages harm placed on these ecosystems by human interaction, such as controlling wildfires, mass harvesting and more. The Forest Service, working with tribes and other organizations, creates solutions that implement age diversity, clear grasslands for seedlings and allow Native Americans to care for the land in traditional ways passed down for generations.

“Forestry or cutting trees to make lumber isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I want people to understand that,” Dockry said. “It has to be done in a good way, and it has to be grounded in making sure that what we’re doing helps the forests become healthier, helps the forest regenerate, and that we’re not just abusing the forest to get the wood out.”

Next generation of foresters

As a career path, forestry includes everything from interviewing people and learning culture, biology, geographic planning, maintenance, data collection and analysis, and computer science. Dockry wishes more people knew about the wide breadth of opportunities available.

He started a collaboration with the American Indian studies program at the University of Minnesota after accepting his current position. As an unexplored avenue of academia, Dockry believes the combination of forestry and Native American studies holds practicality and significance for the workforce.

“Everything that we’re doing in natural resources has implications for American Indian studies, and a lot of the scholarship that they do has ecological land relationships with natural resources at the core,” he said.

“There’s a huge desire for the non-Native students because they realize, too, they’re going to get a job — if it’s a state job or federal job, maybe a tribal job in natural resources — if they don’t know anything about tribal treaty rights and natural resource management, they’re at a disadvantage.”

Dockry currently teaches seven students in his graduate-level program. Native students seek him out on campus as a professor to understand their thoughts and creative ideas with an Indigenous background and experience. Ultimately, he hopes to prepare the next generation of foresters to include Tribes throughout their careers.

“I’m sort of thinking, if I have 80 students per year for 10 years, that’s 800 students that are going to know how to work with tribes. And so I got really excited about that aspect of it,” he said.

“They really keep me on my toes and make me want to do it because I’m doing it for them.”

To read more of Michael Dockry’s work, visit mikedockry.net.