Montana Prof Uses Tech to Teach Native Environmental Knowledge

Germaine White has helped develop app-based field guides to the Flathead Reservation’s fauna and has built a NASA-funded platform to share knowledge about climate change with Native students.

by Patrick Reilly, Missoulian / April 9, 2019

(TNS) — Many people try to escape technology by seeking out nature. But for Germaine White, the two go hand-in-hand.

As information and education specialist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, White has helped develop app-based field guides to the Flathead Reservation’s fauna and DVDs with the tribes’ traditional knowledge on wildfire.

Last Thursday, she brought her laptop to a secluded spot by Mission Reservoir to discuss her latest project: A NASA-funded online platform for Native students to study and share knowledge about climate change.

It’s the latest step in a 35-year career in education, one that began with teaching Native American Studies at Salish Kootenai College. Since then, White has held several roles in the tribes’ educational, cultural and environmental programs.

She gained a crucial insight into these efforts in the mid-1990s, when she spent a year on the North Slope of Alaska for teacher training and found the instructional materials lacking.

“There was no cultural framework in any of the materials that were produced” for the students there, she remembered. “You can't talk to Inupiaq Eskimo about mowing the lawn [or] a picnic in the backyard … All of the educational material we produce is not relevant because their life and their world is incredibly specific, it is specific to the Arctic.

“It was really fun to think about, how do we develop materials that are appropriate for this landscape? And then, when I came home, I thought, ‘I want to develop materials that are specific for this landscape.’”

She’s spent the past two decades doing just that. On the picnic table by the reservoir, she laid out books she helped prepare about the bull trout, and a map and informational guide to the lower Flathead River. She also helped produce the storybook and DVD “Beaver Steals Fire and the Fire on the Land."

They were prepared in coordination with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ larger conservation efforts. Education and outreach, White said, are a crucial complement to on-the-ground conservation work, because they preserve these projects long-term.


“We can do landscape restoration when a system is profoundly broken,” she said, “but in order for this to be sustained we really need to teach a sense of stewardship so there'll be some continuity.”

A few years ago, White turned that approach to climate change. “We had land, water, [but] we didn’t have atmosphere,” she said. Yet the need was there. The federal government’s Climate Resilience Toolkit website predicts that “Climate change impacts are projected to be especially severe for many of the 567 federally recognized tribes in the United States that depend on traditional places, foods, and lifestyles.”

White has seen signs of those changes here, from the duration of winters to the intensity of wildfires. For the past five years, she’s been building a tool to help students log and learn about these changes.

In 2014, she and a team from Salish Kootenai College received a $900,000 NASA grant to develop Living Landscapes. Currently being rolled out, it includes high school curricula; two college courses; a video series; climate tools from NASA and other federal agencies; and a social networking site for students and classes.

With that last tool, she said, “students from Navajo [Country] can connect with students from Alaska,” and share the impacts of climate change that they’re seeing. “I think one of the real benefits of the social networking site is that students can begin including that knowledge and sharing that knowledge.”

Native Americans’ experience with their homelands stretches back millennia. And in a fast-changing environment, White believes it’s more crucial than ever.

“We live closest to the ground, we've lived here for the longest period of time,” she said. “I think, that if for no other reason than for 12,000 years of observation, experience and occupation in a particular landscape, that that knowledge is just profoundly valuable.”

For more information about Living Landscapes, visit

©2019 Missoulian, Mont. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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