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Science Research Continues On Tribal Lands Amid COVID-19 Restrictions

The state tribal-relations committee recently wrote a letter urging the public to respect the closure orders on reservations across Montana, which have been slower to reopen than elsewhere in the state. But science research continues to flourish on tribal lands, despite COVID-19-slowdowns and uncertainty.

This story is part of our series looking at the impact of the novel coronavirus on science in Montana.

Shandin Pete, director of the Indigenous Research Center at Salish Kootenai College, is talking to me via Zoom from inside his closet, draped by shirts dripping from hangers.

"You can’t look at it all bad," he says. "The greatest discoveries you can make is when you get out of your comfort zone."

The newly-formed Indigenous Research Center, or IRC, received $3.5 million from the National Science Foundation last August. The center serves as a hub for Native American science, and promotes research methods that incorporate indigenous worldviews. It’s also developing training for researchers coming into the Flathead Reservation that will address the unique concerns of doing science in indigenous communities.

"We're slowly churning forward. But of course the global pandemic has really switched the gears on us."

Pete says the center had field work planned this summer at ancient rock-art sites, and to examine hydrological markers historically used to predict river behavior.

"But now we’re gonna have to change our game, and we might be looking at alternatives. What that is, I don’t know yet."

In response to COVID-19, he says they’ve started thinking about using technology like podcasting and Zoom.

But those solutions don’t work for everybody. Rosalyn LaPier, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana, studies Native American activism and traditional ecological knowledge of plants. She says face-to-face research is important for her work.

"When you’re interviewing somebody about, for example, how a specific plant is used for a specific purpose, it's much better to be with a person walking through the woods or walking through the prairies where they can show it to you and talk to you about it, versus doing it over the phone."

LaPier is Blackfeet and Métis, and she says the pandemic makes it particularly difficult to talk with elders, who value one-on-one contact and are uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19.

"Elders each year are getting older. So, being able to interact and visit with people and interview them, I think is just gonna be much more difficult this spring and summer when I normally do that kind of activity."

Tom McDonald, Fish and Wildlife division manager with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, says researchers from off the reservation gathering information on tribal land need approval from the tribes. But since the pandemic hit, the number of those requests for the summer field season has plunged.

"The farther out the research institute or university, the more likely they’re not gonna pursue it this season," he says.

For the most part, McDonald says tribal conservation science has stayed on course, but with added safety and health precautions including social distancing. There's one exception.

Every spring, the tribes net lake trout and host a fishing competition called Mack Days designed to get as many of the non-native fish out of Flathead Lake as possible. That was postponed this year, to encourage social distancing. The program was designed to provide better habitat for native bull trout, which are federally listed as a “threatened” species, to return to the lake

"We’re starting to see results, so it’s a shame to think that we may relieve or step off that gas pedal a little bit," McDonald says.

This series is supported by a grant from the National Geographic COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Nick Mott is an reporter who also works on the Threshold podcast.