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When History and Dreams Meet: Investing in Indigenous-Led Science as a Climate Solution

Updated: May 10

On a June day in 2006, my little sister and I were in the backseat of an old Chevy, watching my Ina drive around the Oglala Nation Powwow grounds. Ina means life giver; she is my mother. It was the golden hour of the day, late afternoon, and the sun glistened through the tops of the trees. We were scoping out giant cottonwoods. I was nine, and my sister was six. Our feet still did not reach the floor of the car.

The car drove slowly past the cottonwoods, and then my Ina pulled in to park near the tree.

“This is it,” she said. “Wait here, girls. I’ll be right back.”

We peered out the window as she walked off towards trees living near a creek. I watched her walk through the trees, touching some and not others, and sometimes closing her eyes as if taking in their gentle presence.

She came back to the car, “Grab the equipment in the back, girls.” My sister and I hustled out of the car, feeling empowered by the responsibility. We opened up the trunk and pulled out the equipment: an increment borer.

She carried plastic bags for her potential tree core samples. We carried her field notes and the strange T-shaped tool. We stopped at the tree that met her scientific qualifications. My sister and I stood back and watched her pray over the tree. Just by closing her eyes and holding out her offerings, she acknowledged its life. 

We sat there in silence, praying too. Then she left the offerings at the trunk of the tree and grabbed the metallic T-shaped tool from my hands. Directing me to hold a piece, she aligned the screw-like end to the aged bark, took the tool and drilled cautiously. Water shot out as if from a highly pressured faucet. My sister and I looked at each other. We didn’t know trees held water like that. The water smelled like the polluted creek water Lakota kids are warned away from on the reservation. It smelled like a mixture of garbage and tree sap.

She pulled out the evidence and had us count the rings of the tree before placing the samples in the bags. She explained, “That’s how we can tell how old the tree is.” This tree had been around for at least two centuries, meaning it had witnessed the wagons used by the Lakota People as they shifted from their nomadic freedom to a new life of stagnancy on the reservation. Dying and surviving by drinking polluted water, this tree held secrets from before our time. As we prepared to depart, my Ina confided in me, and expressed her sadness. When I asked why, she said, "Those were the tears of the tree.”

Later, I learned that she used a certain type of plant medicine, as directed by our elders, to cover the hole left behind from the drilling, to save the tree’s life. Recently, I asked my Ina what that medicine was. While she told me, I am unable to share because our knowledge of environmental medicine is something we must keep exclusively for ourselves. I can tell you that when this borer tool technique is used by Western scientists, it is common for the tree to eventually die because the hole is exposed to pests. But not in Lakota hands, as my Ina knew how to overcome it. Till this day, the tree we learned from stands, continuing to witness the shifting lives of Lakota People.

My Ina has this vision: that with our Lakota way of life, leading the way, while utilising Western science as a tool, we can create change in our Lakota Nation. Like a vital stream of water to a tree, I too want to contribute to that vision. But this isn’t about blending Indigenous science and Western science. This is about Indigenous scientists being able to lead their own work and, in turn, step further into our roots as scientists, engineers, doctors. 

I want the world to know that the timeless and infinite knowledge is, till this day, still alive, thumping and beating like a heart. There is hope–it is here. It has always been here. This vision that we are more than our current conditions, and that our story began a millennia ago, before colonialism, is our lifeline.  

I grew up surrounded by victorious stories fueling intergenerational hope. I heard stories of how my grandfathers and grandmothers were unapologetically Lakota in all its glory, defying false narratives and inhumane restrictions imposed by the U.S government – this runs in my blood. 

My grandfather’s stories and existence remind me of a time of pre-reservation and pre-colonialism. It provides the framework for the work that I do in science and in international UN delegations.  

My grandfather often reminds our tiospaye [community] that there was a time when it was illegal and dangerous to be Lakota. That if we were to speak our languages and practise our land stewardship, or any form of prayer, we’d be turned over to the state, held captive, or killed.

But he also reminds us that we persisted. We carried on our Lakota ways throughout time, underground, and in the night, knowing that it was truly the only way we would survive. Up until my grandfather was 12 years old, he was raised by a Warrior from the Battle of Little Bighorn. He witnessed the gunshot wound on his grandfather's ankle and heard firsthand the accounts of the battle ground. My grandfather’s voice, while sitting in darkness surrounded by the loving warmth of the fire, reminded me that what I dreamed could be. He is the reason why I have hope. My grandfather literally and figuratively reminds us that history has never been absent.

When history and dreams meet, change begins. 

At 12 years old, I was on my way to an engineering school summer camp. I was excited because I had gained my first ‘acceptance letter’ to an off-reservation programme about Maths and Science and Lakota culture. I felt empowered by the fact that I had already experienced science equipment with my Ina years before.

Most of the camp blurred by, as a cohort of 12 Lakota children travelled to sacred sites across the country within Oceti Sakowin territory. We rolled out to these sites in large white vans, with Lakota elders and knowledge holders leading the way. We learned about the chemical and organic compounds that existed within the formation of the land alongside our oral tradition stories. To understand that Lakota People have always inherently been environmental engineers and scientists, and that our stories were scientific evidence of this, inspired me. 

I led a team of Oglala youth to collect water and soil samples along the fluvial exits of the Black Hills. It was a one-year exploratory study on mercury and other harmful toxins investigating the impacts of intergenerational mining. While I can go on, I found that this wasn’t just any research. This was grassroots-led, Indigenous-led, treaty-rights-based-science, and climate change preparation. I have been trained to do this type of work since I was 12 years old. This work did not come out of nowhere.

My years of studying environmental engineering, engaging in international United Nations mechanisms, and learning from the wisdom of my grandfather and my Ina have not merely led to identifying solutions; they have highlighted that we have always been the solution. Today, as I travel the world, I pay close attention to international climate change, water, and land policies that are often crafted without our voices. Through my upbringing I witnessed promising solutions and, now more than ever, it is crucial that these are integrated into future policy frameworks.  

As a young Indigenous scientist now returned home, I come back to what started me on this journey in the first place. From the late-night winter fires, to early mornings waking up and greeting the stars, to seasonally visiting our sacred sites, this land is where I draw strength from. Lakota People have always been environmental engineers; I am simply following my bloodline. I am reminded that despite the storm we’ve experienced, we continue to dream and build as a People. To me, that is power. 

For decades, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has had its horrid statistics, all of which are true. Our history has always been absent from mainstream consciousness. I live in a world where the bridge between me and pre-colonisation is only a phone call away. I live in a world where our traditions, and ways of being, have never been absent. It is there if you are willing to listen to it.


Anpotowin Jensen, Oglala Lakota, earned her B.S and M.S in Civil Environmental Engineering from Stanford University. She is a youth delegate for the Black Hills Sioux Nation Council at UN forums. 

Artwork by Karolina Uskakovych— a designer, artist, and filmmaker from Kyiv, Ukraine. Karolina is a co-founder of the Uzvar_Collective and Art Director for the magazine Anthroposphere: The Oxford Climate Review. She is also artist-in-residence at Re(Grounding) programme as well as the Digital Ecologies research group. Her current research explores traditional ecological knowledge in relation to gardening in Ukraine.


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