Last month, Oregon State University College of Forestry announced it had hired alumna Cristina Eisenberg as director of tribal initiatives. The new position aims to partner with tribes in Oregon and the region on restoration projects and recruiting Native American students. A forest ecologist by training, Eisenberg is also working with tribes in western Oregon on a new, three-year pilot project funded by the Bureau of Land Management to make forests more resilient to climate change by using Indigenous practices and environmental beliefs known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge.
Eisenberg is also the forestry college’s first associate dean of inclusive excellence, a role informed by her own experiences as a Latinx and Native American first-generation college student, to provide support and new opportunities for underrepresented students. Cristina Eisenberg joins us to discuss returning to Oregon State University to lead these new efforts within the College of Forestry.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: Today is the first day of Cristina Eisenberg’s new job. She was hired by Oregon State University’s College of Forestry as the first Associate Dean for Inclusive Excellence and the Director of Tribal Initiatives. Eisenberg is an OSU graduate and a forest ecologist by training. In this new position she’ll partner with regional tribes on restoration projects and in recruiting Native American students. Cristina Eisenberg joins us now. I was hoping you could help us understand some of the words in the first part of your title. Associate Dean for Inclusive Excellence. What does inclusive excellence mean to you?
Cristina Eisenberg: The best way I can explain inclusive excellence is that people who come from very different backgrounds face different challenges. And so if you take, let’s say, a person who is six feet tall and a person who is five feet tall and they
have the same acuity of vision and they’re tasked with looking over a fence that’s five feet eight in height and describing what’s on the other side. And they’re not given any tools. So the person who’s five feet tall can’t see what’s on the other side. And that’s how it is with not just Native Americans, but underserved students who come to an amazing place like Oregon State. They face challenges that have to do with their backgrounds. In my case, I’m a first generation student. My mother had an elementary school education and my father had a middle school education. So when I went to college they had no way to advise me or guide me. So that’s one example. There are many other examples of these inequities that we don’t even know exist despite our best intentions.
Miller: If in the example you gave, which is one that I think some of our listeners may be familiar with at this point, of a ladder to help provide equity. So the ladder is something that’s being given to do that. But what might you be providing or what would you want people in the College of Forestry to be doing differently that would be the equivalent of the ladder in real life?
Eisenberg: Yes, so everything that has to do with my position title will provide that ladder in a variety of ways. One of the things that I am tasked with doing is establishing the Office of Indigenous Natural Resources. That it will be a safe inclusive space where students, faculty, staff, who are Native American will build community. For them it complements other really great initiatives such as the longhouse at Oregon State University. That also does a similar thing. This is very specific to the College of Forestry and it helps create a welcoming environment.
I also lead the DEI Initiative which is pretty long standing. It was initiated in 2017 when the DEI strategic plan was created for our College. My role is to help advance the amazing work that has been done and more work needs to be done. And then the tribal initiatives are to provide opportunities and funding to tribal nations in Oregon, the nine tribes of Oregon, with a strong focus on tribal youth and creating educational and work opportunities for tribal youth.
Miller: What are examples of the initiatives that you’re most excited to set up or to partner with these federally recognized tribes in Oregon? What kind of work do you most want to be able to do?
Eisenberg: Work that brings together traditional ecological knowledge or native ways of looking at the natural world and living in it with Western science in a way that is socially just. So Secretary Holland refers to this as environmental justice. To heal the earth, we need to heal ourselves and that includes healing the damage done to Indigenous communities, Native American communities in places like the United States. So when you bring together both ways of looking at the world, that’s called two-eyed seeing. So we just obtained funding for a pilot project in Oregon working with the western tribes of Oregon to assess BLM forest lands and figure out how to create resiliency to the massive challenges that Oregon forests are facing right now, having to do with climate change, the high severity mega fires, for example, insect outbreaks, and other things.
And how are we to build ecological resiliency. And to do that we will be creating a task force of Native American people from members of these tribes and including some graduate students and staff, working with elders, working with the tribal council, and setting best practice for working with tribal nations in a way that totally honors and respects sovereignty rights, data sovereignty and builds equity and inclusion.
Miller: What does data sovereignty mean in this context?
Eisenberg: Well, so you have a tribe that has been around for 15,000 years and they figured out how to live well on the land and how to tend the land, steward the land and that included in the Pacific northwest and many other places. Setting fires, for example, prescribed fires improved the harvest of culturally significant plants like camas and prevented the forests from burning up the way they are today because these were low severity fires.
So that knowledge is proprietary to tribal nations. Each tribal nation is different. Each tribal nation has their own traditions and knowledge. It’s very place-based. And so a Western scientist who’s not Native American and not a member. Even someone like me who’s not a member of the tribes in Oregon can’t say ‘give me your knowledge and then let’s apply it to these federal lands or these other private lands’. So it’s like a patent. And so tribal data sovereignty is part of sovereignty rights. And it’s all very clearly specified in federal laws. This is something that the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture are working hard to really recognize and implement. It comes out of the White House. There’s an order to partner properly with tribal nations and that includes observing things like data sovereignty.
Miller: How does traditional ecological knowledge mesh with Western scientific knowledge or practices? I’m curious about the ways in which you see them really working well together, hand in hand or I guess two-eyed seeing as you said, and the ways in which they could be maybe in, opposition is too strong a word, but really different ways of taking in the world?
Eisenberg: Well, some of what you’ve covered on your show is the amazing Western science that has been coming out of the northwest and other places. And how we did science 25-30 years ago was in a very linear, uh you know, bimodal [way], either it’s this way or that way. And then around the early 1990′s, these new statistical methods came out. And we now do very systems-based ecological studies where we look at how everything is connected and measure the weight of those interactions using Western science and best statistical methods. And that’s certainly what I did for my PhD in a place like the College of Forestry. Well Native people have been thinking that way. It’s systems thinking in a holistic way, how everything is connected. The world is always changing. We can’t step into the same river twice. And so traditional ecological knowledge is how we adapt to the change that’s constant all around us.
So there’s this synergy in the systems thinking approach that both Western science and traditional ecological knowledge is intrinsic to both here and now. This was not the case, like I said, maybe 30 years ago. Western science was much more linear so there’s amazing opportunities right now. I’ve worked with Indigenous people all over the world. I was the former chief scientist at Earthwatch Institute and had projects that I had oversight over on six continents. And every Indigenous community I worked with in very different cultures, but the same approach to nature is that it’s a system, it’s holistic, it’s always changing. So we have to change with it and we have to listen to what nature is telling us. So this is the really exciting nexus between TEK and Western science. Every tribal nation I worked with all over the world was hungry for Western science as a tool, not to set aside their traditional ecological knowledge but to complement it.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with Cristina Eisenberg, the new Director of Tribal Initiatives at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry and the new Associate Dean for Inclusive Excellence. Can you describe the work you’ve been doing for a few years now with the Fort Belknap Indian reservation? Because it seems to me that it actually encapsulates a lot of what you’re talking about in a pretty concrete way. What’s going on there?
Eisenberg: Yes. The federal government approached me. The Department of Interior, the native plant conservation of the National Plant Conservation Program, led by Peggy Olwell, heard about work I’ve been doing with tribal nations in Canada involving prescribed burning and assessing to restore eco-cultural restoration, as it’s called, the prairie and forest lands up against the Rocky Mountain front. And they had been trying to work with the Department of Interior with tribal nations for many years. But there was an issue with lack of trust.
So they saw the project. They joined me in the field. Peggy Olwell in Canada said ‘can you do this in Montana on tribal lands’. The prairies are really in need of restoration. And also the focus of Peggy’s work is to collect the seeds of native plants for restoration. These native plants are focal species the same way that a bison is a focal species or a wolf is a focal species. So what they do is they stabilize the soil and help create the proper biological processes for other plants to colonize a site that is being restored that was formally degraded.
So we set it up as a pilot project and the primary focus is to involve native youth in the restoration work and providing them with internships that are paid and then paid positions as technicians. And now a couple of those youth are gonna be starting as students in the College of Forestry and some have expressed an interest in going to graduate school. So it becomes a pipeline of leadership across cultures. And that project is in its fourth year and we just received funding to extend it another five years. What we’re doing there is collecting seeds, creating an eco cultural restoration plan, taking a really in depth look at the soil. Because we’re finding that plant communities on reservation land are much more vigorous, the best way to put it, than plant populations on federal land. And both lands are mixed use and are subject to grazing by livestock. So it’s not just a matter of livestock grazing being the issue.
And I’m working with Tom DeLuca, the Dean in the College of Forestry and he’s an eminent soil scientist. So we’re looking at what’s happening in the soil and we think it has to do with the tradition of burning fire stewardship that tribal nations practiced for many years. And even when they were forced onto reservations, they continued those burning practices. So that’s some of what we’re doing right now. It was also set up as a pilot and now it’s evolving into a long term project and that is what we’re hoping to do in Oregon and Tom DeLuca is the co-PI, as well, in Oregon. So is Chris Dunn, so isTom Kaye and Si Gao. They are Oregon ecologists that specialize in ecological restoration, buyer ecology and soil scientist. And we are looking to the future to create more resilient landscapes by using two-eye seeing.
Miller: Cristina Eisenberg, thanks for joining us today and congratulations again on your new position.