The United States Department of Agriculture has awarded Montana State University $280,000 over three years to support the PATHS, or “Pathways to Agriculture and Native foods, Tribal Health and Sovereignty,” program. Principal Investigator Holly Hunts, an associate professor in Montana State University’s College of Education, Health and Human Development, said: “This is an interdisciplinary effort to look at problems and solve them. We are exponentially smarter when we work together.”
Eric Birdinground, a senator in the legislative branch of the Crow Tribal government and chair of the tribe’s Health and Human Services Department, said an important feature of the PATHS program is that students will bring back what they learn to their community. Richard Little Bear, president of Chief Dull Knife College, sees another benefit as well. “Our students have a hard time leaving the college, and the reservation, so PATHS and similar programs provide a bridge to the four-year mainstream institutions.”
And of course the primarily focus of the program—agriculture and food sovereignty—are crucial. “The program will educate them about foods in general and about our own Native foods. That part is helpful because so many of us have gotten dependent on the Walmart system of distribution of our food,” Little Bear said.
Janie Simms Hipp, Chickasaw Nation, is founding director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. She said the MSU program complements the work being done at her university, and she will be helping to implement the PATHS program. “There is a desperate need to have a strong group of students who are ready to step into extremely important tribal leadership roles as soon as possible,” she said, and this program will help train them.
Students will spend six weeks this summer at MSU where they will work in different labs, go on field trips to tribal agricultural projects, and engage in other creative learning experiences. When they return to their tribal colleges and universities, the program will stay connected with them for a full year until they come back to MSU for another six weeks next summer, at which point they should be ready to pursue a research interest of their own.
The research opportunity is what has Antelope’s attention. “I’m really excited about the research because when I was a junior in high school I did the MAP program at Bozeman. You go there for eight weeks and do research and take classes. That was a great time for me. So this time, six weeks, being on campus, being an adult, having my family with me. I’m really excited to get that campus life, the city—maybe I won’t be so scared when it comes time for me to leave to continue my higher education.” Antelope, 21, is working on her associate’s degree at Blackfeet Community College.
“Our goal is that they will want to finish a four-year degree in agriculture or food or nutrition or some health field. We’d be happy if they came to MSU,” Hunts said. The university would welcome more Native American students, especially in areas like cell biology and neuroscience and biochemistry, she said.
The PATHS program is open to students at any tribal college. The funding covers two cohorts of four to five students each, with each cohort attending the program for a total of 14 months beginning in the summer of 2017 and the summer of 2018. The program includes a $1,500 stipend for the summer, $1,500 during the academic year and another $1,500 the following summer. Additional funds cover housing, food during the summer sessions, in-state and out-of-state travel, lab costs and supplies, a total of over $14,000 per student over 14 months each will participate. Native American mentors who have successful track records at MSU in either food sovereignty, nutrition, agriculture or health will work with students throughout the program.
“In the second summer, we’ll go to Washington, D.C. so students can meet with the federal movers and shakers in agriculture,” Hunts said. “We want to make sure they are connected to policy makers and know how to get policy changed.”
Hipp said the Washington trip and introducing students to how the federal government makes policy is an essential part of getting them ready to serve their communities. “This component is especially important right now when USDA is getting reorganized and the president’s budget calls for literally doing away with some of the key programs that tribal governments have relied upon to build up the food sovereignty movement. We can’t stand by and say we’ll deal with it later,” she said.
Another immediate benefit of the program, Hunts said, is that “students will also be really employable by the end of the 14 months, with lab, data entry and library skills.”
Core members of the PATHS team at MSU are Hunts; David Sands, a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture; Ed Dratz, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Letters and Science; Florence Dunkel, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology; and Claire Sands Baker, a longtime nonprofit consultant.
For more information, contact PATHSMSU@gmail.com or text 406-599-9457. Information is also available on Facebook.