Humility, respect elevates collaboration with Tribal nations.
When College of Forestry Associate Dean Cristina Eisenberg reflects on college and university efforts to acknowledge the Indigenous people who were forcibly removed from their traditional homelands, especially those whose land was seized to fund and site land grant universities, she sees a work in progress.
Eisenberg, whose heritage is Latinx and mixed Native American from the Rarámuri and Western Apache Tribes, wants to take the land acknowledgment beyond a statement made at Oregon State gatherings or a footnote on websites and emails. The associate dean of inclusive excellence in the College of Forestry and Maybelle Clark Macdonald director of Tribal initiatives, Eisenberg is leading efforts to honor Tribal sovereignty while working with Tribes to address natural resources issues and find pathways that lead to equity and inclusion for Indigenous people.
Eisenberg is the lead principal investigator for the Pacific Northwest Tribal Forest Restoration and Native Seed Project, a three-year, $5-million grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior. Researchers are using Traditional Ecological Knowledge practiced by Tribal nations in Southwest Oregon to assess soil processes, seed banks, forest structures and wildlife habitats to help make forests on Bureau of Land Management lands in the region more resilient to climate change.
Eisenberg and her Oregon-focused research team are developing partnerships with five sovereign Tribes in the state: the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Coquille Indian Tribe and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.
Eisenberg believes partnering with Tribal nations is one way to make land acknowledgment an active process. But it requires bringing the idea of a potential collaboration to the Tribes as early as possible and approaching them with cultural humility. If Tribes want to participate, the next step is to work together to create a Memorandum of Understanding, which is a binding, enforceable contract.
Cultural humility means first acknowledging the deep trauma Tribes have suffered from the theft of their lands. It recognizes the differences between cultures, including among Tribal nations. “Those differences need to be not just honored, but totally respected,” Eisenberg said. “You do things on a Tribal nation’s terms.”
One of those terms, which is a cornerstone of Indigenous values, is reciprocity. “Whatever you take from a system, you give back at least what you take, and you only take what you need,” she said.
Other terms include incorporating Tribal priorities into research, priorities that may vary among the Tribes involved. Western researchers are expected to work not only with the Tribes’ natural resources experts but with all Tribal members, including elders and children. Tribal members are invited to co-author manuscripts and are acknowledged in publications. Data that is collected on Tribal lands belong to the Tribes, and information on culturally significant plants must be protected through a Data Sharing Agreement and not made publicly available without the Tribes’ permission. Finally, much of the project’s funding must go directly into Tribal communities by supporting Tribal youth, providing jobs and purchasing goods and services.
Reciprocity benefits university researchers through Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Eisenberg describes TEK as “this deep wellspring of wisdom that is thousands of years old. It is science. It is humans interacting with nature and the worldview of Indigenous people who are embedded in nature.”
This is a different perspective compared to Western science, which has long held that “humans can control nature,” Eisenberg said. “And today, we know that doesn’t work. Our relationship with the natural world is broken. Western science is not enough to fix it.”
TEK is increasingly seen as a valuable resource for addressing natural resource issues, so much so that the Biden administration has issued a memorandum that commits to incorporating TEK into federal scientific and policy processes.
Throughout her career, Eisenberg has found Tribal nations successfully combine TEK with modern technology and scientific methods, augmenting their reciprocal relationship with the natural world.
“I’m a very rigorously trained Western scientist,” she said. “Indigenous people love Western science. But we see it as a tool. It’s not the way we look at the world.”
Eisenberg said both BLM leadership and Tribal partners have been happy with how this collaboration is progressing.
“The BLM is getting data from federally owned lands that will help improve forest landscapes so that they are much more resilient to climate change,” she said. “The Tribes are getting empowerment, capacity and similar benefits to their lands, although most Tribal lands are in better condition. It’s a win-win situation.”
For Tribal nations. For university researchers. And for the natural world.
Making the land acknowledgment personal
Cristina Eisenberg believes making a land acknowledgment personal makes it more meaningful. Using Oregon State’s official land acknowledgment as a basis, she added her own thoughts and commitments. Then she had her draft peer-reviewed — by Indigenous leaders within and outside the university, College of Forestry Dean Tom DeLuca, non-Indigenous colleagues and students. After gathering feedback, she sent out a revised version for another round of review, a process meant to be as respectful as possible.
Eisenberg has also written a positionality statement that is on her faculty website. This emerging practice augments the description of a scholar’s research interests to include their social positions, as well as the identities that shape their worldview and influence how they approach
“It says, ‘This is who I am. And this is how who I am informs what I do.’”
Cristina Eisenberg's land acknowledgment
“I am committed to taking people and the institutions with whom I work beyond the land acknowledgment to find ways to support and empower Native Americans and their communities. I am mindful of the truth that for thousands of years the Marys River, or Ampinefu, Band of the Kalapuya have been in relationship with the land where Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, now sits, and I now live and work. I acknowledge that they were forcibly removed to reservations in Western Oregon and that their living descendants are part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians. I value the long and deep interactions they have with the land and aspire to find ways to honor and manifest that value in my work