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CSU Professor Brings Indigenous Perspectives To New Natural Resources Class

Colorado State University professor Dominique David-Chavez’s stands by a tree stump in the Smith Natural Resources building. She created a new course that incorporates Indigenous perspectives.
Stephanie Daniel
Colorado State University professor Dominique David-Chavez’s stands by a tree stump in the Smith Natural Resources building. She created a new course that incorporates Indigenous perspectives.

Newly minted Colorado State University professor Dominique David-Chavez is in the Smith Natural Resources building on the Fort Collins campus. She likes to introduce herself in her Indigenous language.

“Mabrika, which means is a form of greeting or welcome,” she says. “Dominique Aitainaru David-Chavez diri, that's who I am. And Arawak/Jibaro/Taíno daka, that's my community.”

David-Chavez stands beside what she calls an “elder tree stump” in the lobby. The large reddish stump is turned sideways and at its widest stands as tall as 5-foot-1 David-Chavez.

“I just stand in awe of it sometimes and I just think about how old this one is,” she says.

More than 80 labels have been pasted on it, creating a horizontal timeline that starts right of center and moves outward. The first date is 130 and reads: "The temple of Olympian Zeus completed."

Kneeling down, she reads another one of the labels.

“My ancestry is Arawak Taino or Caribbean Indigenous and so, we’re the people who discovered Columbus,” she says. “But then here, you have 1492, Columbus discovered America.”

The timeline, she says, is all about discovery, conquest, fallen dynasties and who is in power. But the tree remembers more than just that.

“I think about how could we rework this timeline to include what would be important in our communities,” David-Chavez continues.

Maybe that’s natural events, she says, like a drought, fire or adapting to a hurricane.

“These are a lot of the things that we remembered are really significant cultural happenings, like an exchange, a meeting of new people, coming to know new seeds that we now grow as a food source,” she says.

This is the concept behind David-Chavez’s new course, “Natural Resource Rights and Reconciliation.” She taught it for the first time this spring as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship.

“We kind of do a lot of 101 about what does it mean to be Indigenous?” she says. “What is the real history of the land here and not just what you got in your K-12 history book?”

The course covers hundreds of years of history. It examines how colonialism and imperialism shaped the field of natural resources and how the industry can look to Indigenous peoples to become better stewards of the land.

“How to take care of the water, how to take care of the soil, how to understand the atmospheric changes and indicators for change in the season, to know when to plant, to know when to harvest,” David-Chavez says. “They have these incredible, really valuable frameworks for doing science in a very ethical and responsible way.”

In a recent virtual class, she spoke about the Antiquities Act of 1906, which protects natural and cultural resources by creating national monuments on public lands.

“It gets really interesting when you look at the original act in detail and thinking about Indigenous right and history,” she said.

The lecture then moves to Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, which was created by President Obama in 2016. Eleven months later, President Trump reduced its size by 85%. Now the Biden administration is looking at reversing the decision.

The students were split into groups for discussion.

“You’ll work together collaboratively to analyze the different positions of stakeholders and the rights holders,” David-Chavez said.

Senior Emely Cruz Arrazola is a student in the class. The environmental policy and politics major has Indigenous ancestry and identifies as a Latinx woman. Growing up, she says she did not learn much about Native American history and took David-Chavez’s class to get a different perspective on environmental studies.

“I never realized that they are rights holders, not just like stakeholders in environmental issues. They have legal rights and legal grounds in this field. So, I think that was one of the biggest takeaways from the class,” Arrazola said.

The class also covers land acknowledgments.

In recent years, some Colorado cities and colleges have publicly recognized the land they are on as the traditional and ancestral homelands of Indigenous nations and peoples. These are known as land acknowledgment statements.

CSU launched its land acknowledgment website in 2019, which includes a video statement. It begins with an audio from a 1906 phonograph recording of Hopi Nation Eagle Song.

“Colorado State University acknowledges with respect that the land we are on today is a traditional and ancestral homeland of the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Ute nations and peoples,” says a speaker.

CSU is a land grant university that was founded in 1879 with 89,000 acres under the Morrill Act. The U.S. paid $3,654 for the Indigenous land, according to data from High Country News. The principal endowment raised from the grant was more than $411,670. For every dollar paid to the tribes, CSU raised $113. By 2018, the endowment totaled $355.9 million.

“Significantly, that our founding came at a dire cost to Native nations and peoples whose land this university was built upon,” says another speaker in the video.

The university’s land acknowledgment had been in the works for years, said David-Chavez. But it was accelerated after two prospective Native American students were racially profiled and questioned by police during an admissions tour in 2018.

“It’s interesting to think that people who are indigenous to these lands, to this part of the world, people perceived as looking like they don’t belong here or looking like they don’t belong on campus,” she said.

The incident sparked outrage she said. Indigenous students like David-Chavez, who was working on her PhD at the time, shared their personal stories of racism and implicit bias. They presented then-President Tony Frank with a list of actions and demanded change.

“We really used that as a point of leverage to catalyze something better,” she said.

But land acknowledgment, she added, is just the beginning of the work that needs to be done.

“We need to honor rights first and foremost, inherent rights that people have to the land, to their life ways that have been traumatically taken from Indigenous peoples,” David-Chavez said.

She mentioned other steps to be taken, including restoring land to tribes, prioritizing and funding access to Indigenous language, and allowing the communities most impacted by colonization to lead the work.

This is a lesson Arrazola plans to heed when she works in environmental justice or politics.

“I can’t speak for Native American peoples or Indigenous peoples, but I can always ask if they’ve been involved in the process,” she said.

In the fall, David-Chavez will continue to her research on Indigenous land and data stewardship. Then teach her class again in the spring. But her hope is one day the course becomes obsolete, because Indigenous perspectives will be woven throughout all classes in the department.

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