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Tribal-led Science

September 5, 2019
two men talking
Wyoming Technology Business Center Director David Bohling meets with High Plains American Indian Research Institute Director James Trosper about the new $50,000 Wind River Entrepreneurship Competition.

Wyoming EPSCoR partners with tribal entities for science outreach and education.

By Micaela Myers

On the Wind River Indian Reservation, those who have great ideas can take part in an entrepreneurship competition and business mentoring process. Meanwhile, school children and community members will soon be studying the microbiome, work that is funded by micro-grants. What do these seemingly very different things have in common? Both are outreach efforts funded by the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) via the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Wyoming EPSCoR office at the University of Wyoming has created strategic partnerships so that the tribes and entities on the reservation can lead the efforts.

“We’re trying to build infrastructure that changes the narrative around research and how it takes place on the reservation,” says Project Coordinator Emily Vercoe.


Encouraging Entrepreneurship

In April, the UW’s High Plains American Indian Research Institute, together with the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, hosted “WY Wind River: Economic Development and Entrepreneurship Symposium” on campus.

In his opening remarks at the event, Gov. Mark Gordon said, “We want to make sure we do everything in our power to create the right kind of environment for entrepreneurs to thrive.”

Gary “Litefoot” Davis (Cherokee), executive director of the Native American Financial Services Association, was the keynote speaker and joined state Sen. Affie Ellis (Navajo), of Cheyenne, in moderating a panel discussion by Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho leaders including Fremont County State Rep. Andi Clifford, Art Lawson, Cy Lee, Scott Ratliff, Jerad Stack and Orville St. Clair. The panel focused on the pillars of economic development as identified by the ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming) task force, seeking to apply these concepts to both Wyoming and the Wind River Indian Reservation.

James Trosper, director of UW’s High Plains American Indian Research Institute, which is EPSCoR’s partner in the entrepreneurship efforts, says, “Wyoming and the reservation can work together to help each other’s economies grow.”

At the symposium, the new $50,000 Wind River Entrepreneurship Competition was announced. In partnership with the High Plains American Indian Research Institute, the competition is hosted by UW’s business incubator, the Wyoming Technology Business Center, which already sponsors competitions in Laramie, Casper and Sheridan. Interested community members will be mentored from refining their pitches all the way through helping them think about entrepreneurship and grow their ideas.

man standing with arms crossed
Darrell Bell Sr. came to UW to study business and entrepreneurship with plans to start a construction business that employs Native Americans in the Wind River area.

The Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone have a long history of entrepreneurship across a large portion of the continent, Trosper says. The Arapaho were known as the “Phoenicians of the Plains” for their multiyear trade journeys ranging between the Southwest and the Northern Plains, while the Shoshone introduced the horse to northern tribes and were key players in the Rocky Mountain fur trade and rendezvous of the 1830s.

“Both tribes were wealthy by anyone’s standards,” Trosper says.

Entrepreneurial tribal economies were disrupted by settler expansion, culminating in the creation of the reservation system, Trosper notes.

Federal policies restricted economic independence as a means of controlling tribes and confining them to reservations. For example, reservation agents issued rations to replace traditional hunting and trading activities, then reduced those rations as punishment if tribal members crossed reservation boundaries. Such policies created an enduring cycle of poverty and dependence.

“We want to go back to the way the tribes were when we were entrepreneurs,” Trosper says.


Microbiome Micro-grants

“At the outset of this project, we asked the tribes what they wanted. They said we really needed to start educating our youth, getting them excited and interested in science and feeling confident and competent to pursue science,” Vercoe says.

Wyoming EPSCoR’s grant is the largest at UW, and the main grant focuses on studying microbiomes across the state to help predict how different regions respond to environmental disturbances. Microbiomes are made of the micro-organisms in a particular environment. These organisms play essential roles in cycling nutrients, decomposing organic matter and determining the fate of pollutants released by human activities.

“The primary objective of the grant is to do an extensive survey of the environmental microbiome in the state across different gradients (such as elevation and climate),” says EPSCoR Deputy Director Sarah Konrad. “This survey will be more extensive than any completed anywhere to date and involves more than 19,000 samples.”

The samples will be analyzed to better understand the environmental roles of the microbes and their responses to changes in precipitation, soil properties and land use. This work will be tied to getting Wind River youth and community members interested in science through competitive micro-grants with a microbiome-related focus that will be awarded to children, teachers and community members. Partners on this work include UW’s High Plains American Indian Research Institute, Central Wyoming College and the Wind River Native Advocacy Center (WRNAC).

WRNAC focuses on the K–12 and community activities. Executive Director Skyler Dixey says, “My hope is to distribute these micro-grants and help the community get an understanding of what the microbiomes are, what they can do, and spark the youth’s mind and soul on the reservation  for future scientists and future projects.”

Community members will receive guidance on how to write their grant proposals for projects, and a board will determine which are funded.

“There’s so much interest in the natural world,” Vercoe says. “Kids are curious and want to know about it. We’re trying to make explicit connections to what’s happening in our world  at the microbial scale and how it’s relevant to their daily lives.”

“Maybe there’s someone who always wanted to be a biologist or a kid who wants to be a scientist,” Dixey says.  “We need people here on the reservation to be able to go  out and do this fieldwork. I think it will be beneficial to the tribal members and community and create that good partnership between UW, the community and EPSCoR.”


woman standing
EPSCoR partners with Central Wyoming College Professor Tarissa Spoonhunter on a mentorship program. Carrie WhiteAntelope, pictured above, is one of the student mentees for the college’s Wind River reservation traditional ecological knowledge program.


Mentoring for Success

EPSCoR’s third partner leads Central Wyoming College’s American Indian Studies program. Professor Tarissa Spoonhunter works with EPSCoR on developing partnerships with tribal entities and on a youth mentoring program designed to engage young people in environmental science. 

For the mentorship component, Spoonhunter helps youth find hands-on research opportunities. For example, one of her students is working with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department on a bighorn sheep restoration project that includes Wind River Indian Reservation land.

“My other role is to recruit students and give them experience and hopefully build a pathway for them from the reservation to UW,” she says. Spoonhunter serves as a senior mentor for UW’s Native American Summer Institute Health Science Pathways program.

“Through the summer program and through mentoring, we were able to make these connections and work with each other rather than be us versus them,” she says. “For me, it’s about giving students opportunities—the more opportunities, the better, because we’re such an impoverished community. We have a lot of first-generation students who don’t know what it is to have that higher education. They don’t have that support system at home. I want to make sure we can be their support.”

Spoonhunter also helps make tribal members aware of research that impacts the reservation. With EPSCoR’s larger microbiome focus, she hopes students can eventually help in collecting samples. The research could help tribes in a number of areas.

“What could benefit the tribe is if they have specific concerns that tie into microbiomes—it could be water, it could be soils,” Spoonhunter says. An example includes looking into why cottonwood trees—which are used in ceremonies—are dying. “A possibility would be for us to do a soil sample where cottonwoods used to be in numbers. What’s causing them not to grow anymore?”

She says that the tribe also has interest in the hot springs by Fort Washakie and bison restoration. Microbiome sampling could also be beneficial to these sites. However, it’s important for the tribes to approve the research and see its benefits. Spoonhunter also stresses the importance of inviting the tribes to the table from day one of research that involves the reservation.

Spoonhunter and EPSCoR scientists also offer informational workshops on the reservation. Vercoe says that this past spring’s series of workshops was very popular and motivated the EPSCoR program to wonder, “What other kind of structure-building, research-oriented workshops might be of interest, and can we bring some of our faculty, staff and research scientists to the reservation to help start defining what research is, what it could be, and demonstrate  a different relationship between tribes and researchers?”

The goal is to put the tribes in the driver’s seat when it comes to research that impacts the Wind River reservation. EPSCoR’s current partnerships help accomplish that while also providing hands-on science programs and business assistance for community members.


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