Educating the way to change

Illustration by Shelsey Braswell

Established in 1992, the Institution for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) is an organization that supports the environmental protection of Native American natural resources. The organization does this by working with NAU, tribal governments, the state and the federal government.

ITEP has created a program that aims to educate people about the effects climate change will have on indigenous land. It does this by giving lectures and informing people on legislation that affects the environment. ITEP also gives NAU students the opportunity to become educators.

Kat Evans, an assistant instructor for the ITEP Environmental Education Outreach Program, majors in applied indigenous studies and anthropology. Evans said she began working at ITEP because of her passion for educating others about sustainability.

As an assistant instructor, Evans travels to different locations on the Hopi and Navajo reservation to educate children about sustainability, and sometimes the children will come to NAU to learn as well.

Among these lessons, Evans teaches how to conserve water, which substances contaminate water and how to avoid using those substances. The kids also learn the importance of renewable energy and alternative options to fossil fuels. They also discuss the importance of air quality and ways to minimize air pollution. Evans said her position with ITEP has offered her a fulfilling experience.

“It’s given me a lot of hope,” Evans said. “I can tell [the children] are thinking about [sustainability], and I can tell that they enjoy learning about it, and hopefully they will use this knowledge in the future.”

Evans shared her concerns about the environment and how those issues are being addressed.

“I like that there’s a bigger movement now of people around my age pushing for sustainability,” Evans said. “I just don’t think [reversing climate change] will happen in time, and that really scares me.”

Although indigenous people are trying to practice sustainability on campus, others are working in their hometowns.

Junior Maree Mahkewa is affiliated with the Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Institute, a nonprofit organization that tries to create community oriented sustainability practices to pass to future generations. This is also done by educating kids and promoting teaching methods rooted in preserving their culture and the environment.

The institute builds homes for low-income families on the Hopi Reservation out of all-natural materials, such as straw and adobe. The houses are also powered by solar energy and come equipped with a system that collects rainwater for drinking and agriculture.

The organization also offers programs to kids about farming methods, and how to use what they grow for food and medicine. They organize farmers markets that reinforce trading rather than buying. Another program is an attempt to sustain the bee population by teaching beekeeping methods. Mahkewa said that everyone has the capacity to be more sustainable, and that it doesn’t need to be a hard process.

“I think a lot of people are making a bigger effort to be more sustainable,” Mahkewa said. “I think we need to focus more on producing less waste and single-use plastics.”

Students like sophomore Breanna Davis are an example of how students can incorporate sustainability in their everyday lives.

Throughout her time at NAU, Davis has tried to reduce her carbon footprint by using less electricity and taking advantage of public transportation. She said she has limited her consumption of single-use plastics by using reusable straws and water bottles. These lifestyle changes are implemented in her home on the reservation.

“People say it doesn’t make a difference, but I think it does,” Davis said. “If everyone made the effort to have a more sustainable life, I think the environment would eventually prosper again.”

Evans said teaching kids sustainability to carry into the future is great, but it won’t create immediate change. She said people need to make these changes now and start seeing the Earth as a priority.

“A lot of indigenous culture is rooted in the preservation of the Earth,” Evans said. “This idea is what we need to embrace in order to save it.”