Tribal Stewards Returning to Malheur!


Written by Beth Macinko, Oregon Natural Desert Association/Photo by Sage Brown

If you visit the Refuge this month, you may notice a crew of young adults assisting with lake surveys, harvesting willow for fence repairs, and conducting bird surveys. This group is part of the Oregon Natural Desert Association’s (ONDA) Tribal Stewards program, which offers Native American young adults an introduction to conservation careers and provides hands‐on experience and opportunities for personal growth. The inaugural crew worked at the Refuge in 2019, and this year’s crew is looking forward to being back thanks to the support of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Through an immersive field‐based program, Tribal Stewards participants restore streams and uplands, maintain trails and complete monitoring and research. In addition to paid restoration and research experience, the tribal stewards receive mentorship and explore potential career pathways. The program is funded through grants and contributions from project partners including FOMR. Northwest Youth Corps organizes and outfits the crew and participants are recruited through outreach in local communities and at Chemawa Indian School.

Alyssa James, Diné (Navajo), one of 10 young adults who took part in the 2022 Tribal Stewards crew, shared some her experience in an interview with ONDA last fall:

What was your favorite project? The fisheries work at High Lake was really fun, except for all of the mosquitoes! I also liked building fences around springs at Little Crane Creek, the staff from Malheur National Forest kept us working all day and that was the only week that went really fast for us because they just kept us busy.

What was the most challenging week of work? Denny Jones Ranch was very challenging, it was really hot and we did a lot of walking. But I kind of liked hiking around and being out all day working, and then coming back knowing that you’ve lived through the day.

Is there a type of work that you gained experience with this summer that you are interested in pursuing further? Botanist.

What is it that draws you to plants? Plants are all so different and their scientific names are very crazy but so interesting. Learning more about them seems like a good challenge to take on. I want to keep learning about plants that grow around my home and help bring them back for medicinal or ceremonial use. I am also interested in being a midwife, we use a lot of different medicinal plants during home birth and I would like to help with that.

Past participants have reported highlights are working with other Indigenous young adults, getting to know new areas or deepening connections to place, and realizing their ability to persevere through adverse conditions.

This program was created to address underrepresentation of Indigenous people in conservation and land management careers and a lack of opportunity to gain professional skills desired for natural resource jobs. Participants from past crews have continued their pursuits in the natural resource field through education, returning to lead Tribal Stewards crews, and internships with land management agencies.

In addition to their week on the Refuge, the 2023 crew will be working at two of Burns Paiute Tribe’s conservation properties and Oregon Desert Land Trust’s Trout Creek Ranch.



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