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Empowering native youth through grassland restoration on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation

Sarah Mosquera
Grassland restoration project fellow Savannah Spottedbird works alongside Haile Chase -The Boy to take transects while in the field.

Haile Chase-The Boy stands in ankle-high, green and yellow grasses beneath a cloudless sky on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation on a hot, dry morning last summer.

“These native grasses were supposed to be gone,” said Chase-The Boy. “But we’re still here. These grasses are still here. And so that’s how I find it empowering.”

Chase-The Boy is a field technician for the Fort Belknap Grassland Restoration Project.

“Our ancestors walked all over this,” said Chase-The Boy. “They were here, you know, and for me, it’s like church out here. I think that this program will honestly, like, make that cool again.”

The Grassland Restoration Project started in 2020 and is a first-of-its-kind partnership between the Fort Belknap Indian Community and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Native 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 prairie grasslands. The training, which is resuming for the 2022 season, also aims to empower young tribal members by teaching them how to heal the land.

Sarah Mosquera
Three grassland restoration project fellows joke about how many seeds each of them have collected. None of the fellows had done field work in the past, but they quickly learned to enjoy the process.

Twenty-three-year-old Sakura Main was one of last year’s fellows and is returning this year as a field technician.

“I didn’t think I would be interested in, like, finding out, grasses that, you know, grow here and stuff like that,” said Main. “And especially having, like, the traditional part tied into it, it’s pretty interesting.”

Native grasses like green needlegrass, Sandberg's bluegrass, and western wheatgrass have adapted over millennia to thrive in the northern Great Plains. The plants’ deep roots help the soil retain moisture and nutrients, and their seeds hold genetic information that makes them more resilient to environmental stressors like the region’s persistent drought.

The once intact native prairie is fragmented today — a shift that can be traced 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 gather native grass seed opens the possibility of restoring a more drought resistant landscape.

“There have been a lot of different land uses happen on tribal and BLM land in the last hundred years,” said Wendy Velman.

Velman is the BLM’s botany program lead for Montana and the Dakotas who oversees the Fort Belknap Grassland Restoration Project.

“The cool part about working with the reservation is that as the elders share stories with the youth, they can get a much better understanding of very long-term historic uses on their landscapes,” said Velman. “They get to delve into that historic knowledge that is not available on other parts of land from, you know, from white science perspective.”

The program blends hands-on Western science training with Indigenous knowledge, exposing the young Fellows to sacred stories and places that provide a connection to Aaniiih and Nakoda language, morals, and culture. Program coordinator and cultural liaison, Dan Werk, says this link is crucial.

“It’s powerful for them to hear those things, you know,” said Werk. “You know, just trying to set the tone for ‘em and let ‘em know that there’s things out here that you can grab a hold of and that are going to help you live a more fulfilling life. We’re really a unique people, you know, and letting ‘em know how unique they are.”

Sarah Mosquera
Eisenberg sits on a camp chair surrounded by the fellows and field crew. The team, led by Eisenberg and Fox, will collect grass samples, take transect measurements and analyze seed samples.

Indigenous ecologist Cristina Eisenberg leads and trains the Fellows as they gather grass seeds.

“When they’re in the field, all they do is smile,” said Eisenberg. “They love what they’re doing and it’s very, deeply meaningful to them.”

Eisenberg and her team gathered twenty-three pounds of seed last summer, ninety-six percent of which came from tribal land. The seeds collected on the Fort Belknap reservation belong to the Aaniiih and Nakoda tribes, who can choose to sell this seed to the BLM for future restoration projects on public lands.

“This is not science for the sake of science at all, you know,” said Eisenberg. “That’s, like, the least important part of this. It’s really about healing.”

Eisenberg recently went before the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to testify about the program's model. She spoke about the power of grasslands to sequester carbon, and the importance of partnering with tribal nations to increase resilience to climate change. Honoring tribal sovereignty and Indigenous knowledge, she said, are essential to this process.

“Together, we can empower tribal nations and help America meet the climate challenge,” said Eisenberg.

The Fort Belknap Grassland Restoration Project plans to train and employ up to thirty young tribal members during the 2022 summer field season.

Field technician Haile Chase-The Boy says the work feels like church.

“This is where we feel grounded,” said Chase-The Boy. “And honestly, I hope everybody finds that in their life ‘cause it’s just, it’s such an amazing feeling and this program really does that for me and, you know, my co-workers.”