Temperate grasslands are one of the world’s greatest biomes, occupying 8% of the earth’s surface. However after cradling human needs for centuries they are the most endangered, the most altered, and yet the lead protected biome on the planet.”
In the Great Plains alone, 97% of tallgrass prairie, 71% of mixed grass prairie, and 48% of shortgrass prairie had been lost by 2003. There are 42 species of North American birds that breed solely on these vanishing grasslands.
So how do we protect not only the Canadian prairies, but also the at-risk birds who live there? One of the ways we can is through education. If people, especially youth, are aware of at-risk biomes and species, they can help by monitoring populations and making choices to protect the grassland prairies.
This January, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation students in grades 7-10 learned how to be Zitkada Awanyankapi or Bird Protectors! They learned about bird species at risk, how to identify local bird species and the significance of the grassland ecosystems. The workshop was integrated with Traditional Dakota Knowledge about birds, presented by CIER staff and Sioux Valley Dakota Nation’ member, Cheyenne Ironman. This workshop was part of the Dakota Field Guide and Storybook project. The purpose of this project is to increase awareness of local birds and species at risk.
Cheyenne Ironman is working to share Traditional Dakota Knowledge through workshops like the one in January and through the development of a Field Guide, which combines western information on local birds with Dakota language and culture. “By documenting and sharing Dakota bird knowledge we can decolonize how we interact and view the world around us,” said Ironman. She also said it helps demonstrate cultural resiliency by revitalizing knowledge that was also at risk of being lost. “This is knowledge that isn’t used in an everyday context, so it was a good refresher for a lot of the elders we interviewed,” she said, “They were like ‘oh yeah!’ and as we were going along, they would remember things again. It’s really good to document that.”
“Imagine seeing and hearing the world the same way our kunshis (grandmothers) and unkans (grandfathers) did, knowing our traditional stories about birds and knowing the names of them in our own language"
At the January workshop, students learned about important prairie birding areas and local bird identification from Amanda Shave of Nature Manitoba, one of CIER’s partners on this project. Danielle McKinnon from the Brandon Riverbank Discovery Centre (where the workshop was held,) brought taxidermy birds and binoculars. Images of birds were posted around the gym so students could participate in an indoor “bird watching” session.
The students also had time to play and experiment with bird calls, they were quizzed and won prizes. Thanks to our funder Environment and Climate Change Canada, we had great prizes such as water bottles and bird feeders.
We would like to thank our partners on this project, the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and Nature Manitoba.
This project was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada through the federal Department of Environment and Climate Change. Ce projet a été realisé avec l’appui financier du gouvernement du Canada agissant par l’entremise du ministére federal de l’Environnement et du Changement climatique.
Like other organizations in these uncertain time, CIER is adapting. We sat down with CIER Executive Director Merrell-Ann Phare to learn how CIER is rising to the challenges brought by COVID-19.
How is COVID-19 affecting First Nations and Inuit communities across Canada?
This is a difficult question to answer because this virus and the measures put in place to contain its spread are entirely unprecedented. We know that Indigenous communities – like all communities across Canada – are already being impacted and will continue to be impacted in many ways, and that the specific impacts will vary widely depending on the community. But we also know that many Indigenous communities have unique circumstances that means they will experience the virus differently than other places. During the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, for instance, Indigenous peoples were massively overrepresented in the number of hospitalizations, critically ill patients, and deaths that resulted from that virus.
We can think of many risk factors that might make some Indigenous communities more vulnerable to COVID-19. Communities that struggle with overcrowded housing, poverty, and food insecurity will have greater susceptibility to respiratory diseases. Northern communities that rely on the medevac air ambulance system could be easily overwhelmed by a sudden increase in critical illnesses. High food prices in remote communities may increase even more if supply chains are significantly disrupted. Yet at the same time communities are responding in all sorts of creative ways to support each other and stay safe in these uncertain times.
How is CIER rising to the challenge?
CIER does a lot of work in communities, which means that many of our projects and partnerships have been affected by the pandemic. We are working with our community partners to adjust timelines and devise creative solutions on a case-by-case basis.
Moving forward, CIER also plans to work closely with communities to help support them in these uncertain times. Communities know best what they need to prepare and respond to the spread of COVID-19, but this is an incredibly stressful and disruptive time that makes planning and implementing programs very difficult. Where we can add capacity, we will. Beyond this immediate response, we will explore ways to help communities bounce back over the long-term.
One thing that is critical at this time is having a collaborative and coordinated emergency response plan, which means that collaborative governance tables are more important than ever. This is a space that CIER is very familiar with through the Collaborative Leadership Initiative (CLI), which brings Indigenous and municipal leaders together to devise regional solutions to complex shared challenges. The CLI table provides an opportunity for these leaders to work on a develop a regional emergency response plan, both for this health crisis and for other future challenges.
How is COVID-19 affecting our environment and can we learn anything from it?
COVID-19 is changing the environment in numerous indirect ways by changing how humans are interacting with it. For example, I know that the Dene Nation is receiving funds to support their members going out on the land to avoid covert transmission. This is an example of Indigenous people relying on their traditional practices, and helps explain the need for and reason why [one of the many reasons why] Indigenous people continue to rely on their traditional land based skills. These types of examples help connect the dots for people about why “being out on the land” matters.