facebook app symbol  twitter  instagram 1

Mobile Ad Container

For many tribes in the southeastern U.S., conservation efforts by outsiders have often meant a disregard for traditional practices.  

The Southeastern Grasslands Institute (SGI), which is based at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., wants to make sure it doesn’t make the same mistake. The group engages in an array of grassland restoration projects across the Southeastern United States. Those projects range from reviving dead ecosystems by planting new grasses to mapping and protecting existing grasslands.

The group wants to expand that work to collaborations with tribes - and that means meeting them where they are, said SGI Executive Director and Co-Founder Dr. Dwayne Estes. When the opportunity arose through a grant from the Department of Agriculture, SGI hired the first of its tribal liaisons.

The goal, Estes said, was to build collaborative relationships with tribes across SGI’s projects, rather than showing up and assuming the Institute knew best. That meant bringing Indigenous people in to lead the way on building these partnerships.

“For me, I'm a non-tribal person, I'm a white guy from Tennessee,” Estes told Tribal Business News. “We certainly understand that an individual tribal member doesn't represent all of Native American peoples, but we felt that was a key first step. We wanted to have credibility and to have someone on our team who is Indigenous take the lead for our organization.”

The two liaisons in question are Corlee Thomas-Hill (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) and Gabrielle Patterson (Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb.) Thomas-Hill initially joined SGI part-time as a tribal coordinator under an America, the Beautiful grant from the Fish and Wildlife Administration. A later, $2 million USDA award, the Working Lands for Wildlife grant, helped make Thomas-Hill’s position full time in fall 2023. 

“A lot of tribes are already doing a lot of really great restoration projects. I don't want to step on anybody's toes. It is just learning what they need and helping where we can,” Thomas-Hill said.

“Some tribes may not have the same monetary resources, the funding we may have. They may not have the manpower. We try to find out how we can help support these existing projects alongside our work.”

The Working Lands for Wildlife grant also paved the way for hiring Patterson in spring this year. Patterson came to the position from a background in teaching Native American history, she said. The SGI opening was a chance to expand from routine classes into working with and speaking to multiple tribes across the country. 

“I knew I wanted to work with tribes, and I didn’t just want to work with one tribe,” Patterson said. “Every day is different, which is what I think I really like.”

SGI’s liaisons work closely with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division as well as tribal historic preservation officers. Patterson said she and Thomas-Hill will provide a crucial tribal voice at SGI, as well as a way for the organization to connect with the communities they’re supporting with their projects. 

“It is critical to stay in contact with tribes,” Patterson said. “If a tribe that SGI works with is having an event, it is essential for one of (us) to be in attendance.” 

The two liaisons join SGI amid the launch of the conservation organization’s first tribally-led project near Franklin, Tenn. Called the “Old Town Farm,” the project is located near one of central Tennessee’s prehistoric Native American villages. 

Tribes with a connection to the area, such as the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Shawnee, are invited to provide input on the area’s restoration. SGI will use that input in tandem with the land’s owners, former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist and his wife Tracy, to develop their restoration plan. Together, the collaborators hope to restore and manage surrounding meadows and woodlands.

“We became friends with the modern day landowners, and they really encouraged us to try and restore the historical grasslands that would have been present on this farm. We started that relationship 3 or 4 years ago,” Estes said. “When we hired our first two tribal liaisons, we began to envision that this could become our pilot project on letting tribes take the lead. This is our chance to begin to work with the tribes to gain their perspective and understand what’s important to them.”

Grasslands are an imperiled biome, according to a report by bird conservation nonprofit Audubon. Per that report, less than 40 percent of what was once 550 million acres of grassland remain in North America today. Many of those grasslands are fractured and split between cropland, energy production, and the spread of urban sprawl. 

In her work in environmentalism, Thomas-Hill has watched conservation groups barrel into tribal territories and insist on new practices, she said. Those demands are often unconcerned with existing traditions that have worked long before the conservation groups arrived. 

Work like the tribal liaisons at SGI could be a model for other conservation groups looking to improve tribal relationships and incorporate more traditional knowledge, Thomas-Hill said. 

“Native voices have been ignored or overlooked in conservation for too long,” she said. “It’s important to ensure SGI’s work includes understanding the needs of tribal communities and their homelands.” 

Aside from the Old Town Farm project, SGI’s tribal relationship building is a “listening tour” among the tribes in the Southeast, Thomas-Hill said. That’s led to preliminary projects like maintaining seed banks, providing capacity building efforts, and supporting research.  

In the meantime, SGI continues to bolster their Native ranks with plans to hire a third liaison and assemble an intern squad this fall.

“We’re really figuring out what this looks like for us and what this looks like for tribes,” Thomas-Hill said. “Leadership is just very open to us helping where we can and figuring out what tribes’ priorities are.”

Estes hopes that seeking tribal input on the Old Town Farm project and expanding their liaison team will lead to further partnerships down the line. They could even start in Central Tennessee, where grasslands are “mostly forgotten,” Estes said. From there, SGI hopes to expand these tribal collaborations all across the southeastern US. 

“We have to figure out where [grasslands] belong, how to bring them back, which species of plants and animals to help restore them,” Estes said. “A natural part of that whole process is how do we invite and collaborate with tribes in a way that is uplifting for all parties involved? Corlee is in North Carolina, Gabrielle is in Louisiana, our new liaison will be in Oklahoma. As we grow this program, we're excited about future opportunities.”

It’s going to be a process, Patterson said. Tribes aren’t a monolith, and different tribes in different regions have different needs. Most want ecological knowledge used in their lands’ conservation, for example, but not everyone wants that knowledge shared beyond the tribe.

The trick is going to be listening, and hearing out each potential new partner, and figuring out how best to build that relationship, Patterson said.

“We're trying to start these relationships with those who want to partner with SGI, who have that same interest and really focus on building those collaborations,” Patterson said. “I hope that years from now SGI has that reputation within the Native American world that not only we listen, but we incorporate what we're hearing.”

About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
Other Articles by this author