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Student Works to Improve the Quality of Minnesota's Land and Water

UMD's Hannah Smith says, "Connecting with other indigenous people and comparing and contrasting resource management has become a growing passion."

There is a strong environmental theme to Hannah Smith’s journey, and UMD’s Program in Environment and Sustainability is an important stop along the way.

Smith, a junior in the College of Liberal Arts, has a goal. She wants to be part of the growing science community that accepts traditional ecological knowledge. That means she is taking a lot of science classes, and she is paying attention to the history and traditions of her Anishinaabe background and that of others. “It’s important for me to learn more about how other First Nation peoples are dealing with social, economic, and environmental problems,” she said. “Resource management is similar across reservations, states, and countries, and the solutions are also likely to overlap.”

While a freshman and sophomore at White Earth Tribal and Community College, her world changed when she was awarded a NASA Summer Internship Research Experience in Geospatial Technology and Climate Change. It was a partnership with the NASA Tribal Colleges and Universities Program. That prestigious program took her to Haskell College, Lawrence, Kansas.

While participating in the NASA internship, from 2012 to 2014, she designed a water quality database, which has now been passed on to White Earth. Her map encompasses six different watersheds that flow into and out of White Earth land. The goal is to prioritize rivers, streams, marshlands, and lakes for testing on White Earth Nation and get accurate and comprehensive readings of water quality.

“We need to gather more hard data so people know how much, where, and when things change,” Smith says. “Gathering data from the wild rice lakes is especially important.” Her work gained her national attention, and she gave presentations on the project in Boulder, Colo., Washington D.C. and Hanover, N.H.

At UMD she has found support from Mike Mageau, assistant professor, and others in UMD’s Geospatial Analysis Center. Smith is currently interning on a Minnesota Sea Grant project that looks at impacts of the 2012 flood on Fond du Lac Reservation and the Fond du Lac neighborhood in Duluth.

The project looks at ways for communities to become more resilient in the face of hazardous weather events, which are becoming more common due to climate change. The project team includes Rebecca Teasley, a UMD Civil Engineering assistant professor, Courtney Kowalczak from the Fond du Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, Karlyn Eckman from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Val Were from Minnesota Sea Grant and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and Dawn Newman from University of Minnesota Extension.

UMD student Hannah Smith  
Hannah Smith  
Part of the influence for Smith’s direction comes from the biology field book notebooks she kept at White Earth. “Making connections is so important,” she said. “When I catalogued a plant, I listed the name of the plant, the Latin name, its Ojibwe name, its cultural uses, and an Ojibwe story.” Every plant is important. “There are three unique biomes at White Earth, and they are all connected.”  

She gets out of the classroom, too. She’s the outreach coordinator for the Anishinaabe Student Organization, and she participates in the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Other interests keep her busy. Once a month, she volunteers at a climate change camp for middle and high school students at the Cloquet Forestry Center. Smith also has volunteered as an art teacher, mentored seventh and eighth grade girls, and taught a Geographical Information Systems workshop at White Earth Community College.      

Smith, who will graduate in 2016, is sure graduate school is on the horizon. “Once I connected environmental studies with my heritage, I could feel myself excelling,” she said. She isn’t certain which program is right. Science is her first love, but she is intrigued by policy and governance as well. “Whichever path I take, working with the White Earth Nation will be part of it.”


UMD Those who can Duluth

Written by Cheryl Reitan. February, 2015.

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