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USDA program to integrate Indigenous perspective into ag, science

Rosebud youth gathered around a table
Interns with the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative meet for a discussion after a morning of hands-on work in the garden. The internship introduces youth to various aspects of food production while developing workforce readiness. Helping youth get involved in agriculture through internship programs is part of the new U.S. Department of Agriculture project on the Rosebud Reservation.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture program to boost student interest in science and agriculture is coming to the Rosebud Reservation.

The Immersive Learning Experience and Rural Networking, or iLEARN, program will help K-12 educators develop and implement hands-on learning modules that will incorporate concepts, such as regenerative agriculture, into the science curriculum, according to South Dakota State University biology and microbiology professor Madhav Nepal.

He leads a team of SDSU researchers that is partnering with Sicangu Community Development Corporation and the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation, known as REDCO, to increase enrollment in science courses and to encourage students to pursue careers in science and agriculture. The project is supported by a five-year, $500,000 National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant.

Matte Wilson holds a box of seedling in a greenhouse
Matte Wilson, director of the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative, shows off seedlings which will be planted, harvested and then sold at the local farmer’s market.  

Nepal has been helping agriculture and science teachers in South Dakota improve their curricula through the iLEARN program since 2017. However, this NIFA project is unique because it incorporates the Indigenous ideology known as 7Gen.

 REDCO CEO Clay Colombe described 7Gen, which the Rosebud Sioux Tribe has incorporated into its constitution. “7Gen requires us to make decisions based on the best interest of people Seven Generations from now. It’s about relationships and understanding interrelatedness among people, systems and all aspects of life.”

Colombe sees the project’s focus on Indigenous education as an opportunity to promote regenerative agriculture as an important part of the movement to sustainability and climate resiliency. “There is a lot of talk about climate change in the Rosebud community, but people typically only think of renewable energy,” said Colombe. “We hope to show people that regenerative ag— which comes out of Indigenous thought–is just as important, if not more so.”

Nepal agreed: “The concept of regenerative agriculture, which is a NIFA priority, is engrained in Lakota and other Indigenous cultures.”

Colombe credited President Barry Dunn and Distinguished Professor Bill Gibbons, director of the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station, for connecting him with Nepal. “The university does a lot of good work. This project gives us an opportunity to partner more deeply with schools (in our community) so educators who work with Sicangu youth have the mindset and skillset to teach within this knowledge framework,” Colombe said.

Gibbons said, “Our college and university welcomes opportunities to encourage young people to seek careers in agriculture and promote economic development that will help these communities thrive.”

Colombe continued, “There are amazing things happening here at Rosebud.” The Rosebud Reservation is home to the Wolakota Buffalo Range, the largest native-managed buffalo herd in the world. In addition, the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative

which provides access to and education about local foods and regenerative agriculture, was one of 10 winners of the Rockefeller Foundation Food System Vision Prize.

“The (NIFA) project will help make sure younger generations are able to build on what we have started and take these innovative projects to the next level,” Colombe said.

Enriching science curricula

Though many South Dakota high schools have agriculture education courses, reservation schools do not offer separate courses. Therefore, any agriculture content must be embedded in the science curriculum, Nepal said. As a result, young people are often not aware of possible careers in agriculture.

“We are developing curriculum that not only brings Indigenous perspectives to science, but also integrates emerging technologies, such as precision agriculture,” Nepal said. He anticipates incorporating new technologies, such as the use of drones and satellite images, into the elementary and high school science curricula to spark interest in agriculture and biotechnology.

The iLEARN teacher workshops will take place at a site on the Rosebud Reservation. “An interdisciplinary group of SDSU faculty members and SDSU Extension folks will go there as a team, with the workshops beginning this summer,” Nepal said. Team members include physics professor Larry Browning, chemistry professor Matthew Miller, senior lecturer Jiyul Chang, whose expertise is in precision ag, and assistant professor Srinivas Janaswamy, a food scientist.

Through the project, 27 teachers will develop and implement 48 agriculture/science teaching modules, which emphasize hands-on learning. In addition, the team will work with 12 school and tribal education leaders to facilitate the incorporation of these modules into the curriculum. Part of the grant funding will also support translating the lessons into Lakota, so they can be incorporated into the curriculum of Lakota immersion schools, such the Children First Learning Center in Mission.

The iLEARN team anticipates the lessons will reach more than 200 students. However, the overall impact may be broader because the lessons are available on SDSU’s public research repository, Open Prairie.

Going beyond the classroom

In addition, the NIFA grant supports career fairs in the schools and communities to further spark students’ interest in agriculture. “We plan to bring successful Indigenous businesspeople and entrepreneurs to the reservation to talk about their careers,” Nepal said.

REDCO’s Learning and Development Department will be involved not only in coordinating the professional development workshops on the reservation and incorporating social-emotional components to the lessons, but also in helping youth get involved in agriculture through internship programs. This multipronged approach will help students see the career opportunities available with organizations that are making a difference in their community.

About the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation

REDCO is the economic development arm of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and is based on what is commonly known as the Rosebud Reservation in south central South Dakota. REDCO leads an ecosystem of organizations working in tandem to create systemic change grounded in Lakota values. REDCO primarily focuses on enterprise and policy, while its sister organizations Sicangu CDC and Tatanka Funds focus on grassroots community development and asset building, respectively.