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Opinion: The University of California must encourage Indigenous stewardship of UC lands

(Ashley Ko/Daily Bruin Staff)

By Michelle Lin

Nov. 20, 2022 11:03 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 22 at 7:21 p.m. to remove sensitive information.

“As a land grant institution, the University of California recognizes its presence on traditional, ancestral Native American territory.”

When students, faculty and administration hear this land acknowledgment, they are reminded that the land has greater cultural, historical and ecological significance than merely a place of education or work.

However, our university has a responsibility to take concrete action with its resources and lands.

Indigenous land stewardship would allow traditional land caretakers to work with the land and maintain its health and biodiversity. According to the National Park Service, the tradition of burning lands improves soil and plant diversity. European land management practices led to the buildup of organic material, which could cause devastating wildfires.

In both aspects of conservation, giving Indigenous tribes stewardship of UC lands – particularly the UC Natural Reserve System, which contains more than 47,000 acres across California – and increasing Indigenous involvement in buildings and gardens would create a more sustainable cultural and physical environment. The UCLA administration should use insights from Indigenous communities as well as the American Indian Studies department to continue these preservation efforts.

The idea of conservation is often seen in the environmental sense, but UCLA’s American Indian Studies department also focuses on the conservation of cultural heritage as well as understanding where the two intersect.

The UC Natural Reserve System is utilized for education and research. Shannon Speed, the director of the American Indian Studies Center, said she supports the development of a stronger relationship between Indigenous communities and UC lands.

The work being done with the UC system’s reserves could be amplified by Indigenous communities taking a more prominent role in managing them.

UCLA’s Office of Sustainability and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability have also worked with Native communities to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into the cultivation of plants that are native to the area to increase the campus’s sustainability, Speed added.

This kind of collaboration is not unfamiliar to the UC as a whole. Stett Holbrook, a representative of the UC Office of the President, said in an emailed statement that the Native American Advisory Council advises the UC President on a variety of Indigenous issues, from Native American staff retention to opportunities for University engagement with Indigenous communities.

As such, Indigenous stewardship of the largest university reserve system in the world is not only a good idea – it’s a very possible one.

Such relationships could be extended to many aspects of campus as well. Stella Nair, an associate professor of Indigenous Arts of the Americas, described an instance in which reconstruction projects could have benefited from the consultation and involvement of Indigenous communities after hurricanes caused significant damage in Dominica.

“These things (homes) are deeply problematic because there’s no airflow – (they) get really hot and muggy but are very stable,” Nair explained. “They could have been much better if they’d actually partnered with the Native community in their design.”

As the UC is acquiring new buildings or lands, partnering with Indigenous communities would allow for better treatment of lands and ensure that Indigenous traditions are respected.

“We’re facing this terrible moment of climate change and a very changing landscape, and I think that the impact on (Indigenous) communities is kind of dire because there are a lot of heritage items made from materials that are harvested from the land,” said Ellen Pearlstein, a professor in the Information Studies department.

Allowing these communities unfettered access to the UC reserve system could allow them to have better access to much-needed cultural resources. If they’re given the right to help manage the land, they could help ensure these resources are kept abundant into the future.

Native American community members are trying to protect plants from being treated with toxic pesticides, added Pearlstein, who also works in the UCLA/Getty Interdepartmental Program in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage.

Such plants include those used for basket weaving, and the poisoned material could prove hazardous for the basket weavers.

The UCs can help facilitate the connection between culture and environment, especially with their extensive financial resources and land holdings.

This isn’t to say that the UC hasn’t made any progress in facilitating Indigenous access to cultural resources. At UCLA, the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden works with Native weavers to create a garden with basket-weaving plants.

But a small garden plot for cultivating these resources, however well intended, is not enough for an institution with so much land. The University has an obligation to do more – not only for the benefit of California tribes but for the good of the land itself.

While the UC Natural Reserve System claims it is a natural space for scientific and research endeavors, the component of culture and history could be added by working with Indigenous communities across California.

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Michelle Lin
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