Living Earth Festival

By Michelle DePass, Tribal ecoAmbassadors Presentation at NMAI-Living Earth Festival

As EPA’s Assistant Administrator for International and Tribal Affairs, my work connects me with interesting and innovative people on a daily basis.

This past Saturday, I had the privilege of introducing an amazing group of tribal college professors and students at the Smithsonian’s Living Earth Festival. Every year, dozens of native chefs, artists, writers, and activists showcase their knowledge and work at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in DC. This year’s festival included a “Top Chef”-inspired native cook off, a goat cheese-making workshop, a drum and dance troupe, a green chili roast, a farmer’s market, and a ladybug release.

The focus of the festival is to celebrate indigenous contributions to environmental sustainability, knowledge, and activism. As we all know, so much of that celebration and sharing is focused on the next generation—the future environmental engineers, activists, and keepers of native culture. Watching my young son take in all the sights, sounds, and smells of the festival, I reaffirm that this passing on to the next generation isn’t an option—it’s a must.

I was so impressed with the great work done by the tribal professors who participated in our Tribal ecoAmbassadors Program this past year. David Stone and his students at Tohono O’odham Community College in Arizona took their research and development of a carbon-negative building material to a new level – they began creating larger structures for road barriers, sidewalks, and sculptures on the reservation. Neighboring tribal governments and local businesses are interested in their work and look forward to leveraging their research. This could provide much needed jobs and housing on the Tohono O’odham Reservation.

Climate change, something that disproportionately affects tribes, is being studied through a new course and data collection methods at Diné College in the Four-Corner region near Shiprock, New Mexico. Margaret Mayer and her students are also looking to expand their work and partner with larger universities, sharing equipment and creating a cohesive curriculum.

These ground-up approaches are allowing a small program like the EPA Tribal ecoAmbassadors Program to have a big impact on the people and communities surrounding these projects.

At the close of its second year, the Tribal ecoAmbassadors Program has given over 100 tribal college students the opportunity to work with their professors and EPA scientists while solving environmental problems in their communities. Projects have resulted in 3 transferable online courses ready to share with other TCUs, and over a dozen new partnerships.

If you’re interested in applying for the program, I encourage you to visit our website for links and more information.

About the author: Michelle DePass, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for International and Tribal Affairs