Environmental Innovation Winner: The Dave Larsen American Indian Immersion Experience

  • April 5, 2018
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  • Bjorn Olson

You know a project is special when, after reading the nomination, you pause and mutter under your breath, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” When I found myself immediately checking if I was eligible for The Dave Larsen American Indian Immersion Experience (spoiler alert: not a chance), I knew this was one of those projects.

The tricky thing about innovation is that it is by definition “new,” and can be hard to find let alone evaluate. Not the case here. The Environmental Innovation criteria included collaborative partnerships, creativity in solving an environmental challenge, and the potential to ensure a prosperous economy, equitable society, and healthy environment. This program has all of these in spades.

The Dave Larsen American Indian Immersion Experience is a semester-long college class for American Indian high school and college students that teaches environmental stewardship and activism from an Indigenous perspective. The class also includes an interactive five-day tour of American Indian nations throughout Minnesota where students gather knowledge from sites of environmental, historic, and cultural significance and from tribal leaders, educators, artists, activists, and musicians in each location. The tour enables tribal nations and colleges to welcome young indigenous students into their communities to create learning environments that are respectful of cultural practices in order to enhance Indigenous voices and visibility in the environmental movement and educational system.

Collaborative Partnerships

A quick look at the list of partners involved in this project reveals how collaborative and adaptive it truly is. The project partners across five school districts (Robbinsdale, Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul Public, Edina, Columbia Heights), North Hennepin Community College, the University of Minnesota, and several tribal nations and colleges– including the Lower Sioux Community and Fond du Lac Nation and Tribal College– to facilitate hands-on experiences with leading Indigenous educators and create cross-institutional and community collaboration for student success.

This diverse set of partners is crucial for collaboration as tour locations, themes, and itinerary change each year to make them culturally and environmentally relevant to participants and to respond to the changing needs of this community. Partners work together to create experiences and arrange meaningful visits; coordinate with speakers, educators, and tribal leaders; and select participating students to ensure each experience exposes students to different reservations and tribal experiences. Each course requires nine months of complex planning between these organizations and community members in Minnesota and, to date, more than 100 American Indian students have participated in the tour since it began in 2015.

In addition to hosting panel discussions and screenings of tour documentaries to audiences of 500+ community members on college and school campuses, the project has presented at national and international conferences, including NZARE (New Zealand Association of Research in Education), AASHE (Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education), and UMACS (Upper Midwest Campus Sustainability).

A prosperous economy, equitable society, and healthy environment

As a testament to the truly innovative nature of this project, it is recognized nationally as a unique, one-of-a-kind program that engages American Indian youth in environmental stewardship and protection from an Indigenous perspective on American Indian land.

In addition to the environmentally-centric curriculum and culture, the primary impact of this experience is undoubtedly equity-based. From the admittedly inadequate amount of knowledge and information I have about the program, the more I learned, the more I found myself returning to the concept of healing.

As American Indians are underrepresented in many facets of our world and face the lowest graduation rates and lowest percentage of teaching professionals in K-12 and higher education nationally, this program increases voices and visibility in the environmental movement and education system in Minnesota and beyond. The program also confronts the lack of awareness of the true culture, history, and identity of American Indian peoples in our education system and society at large.

It is, perhaps, most telling of the innovative nature of this project that its primary impact does not come in the form of quantitative metrics, additional funding leveraged, or cost-effectiveness; but in the form of experience. Program founder Ana Munro recounts one of the program’s best moments: “Two girls were visiting their own tribe, White Earth, for the very first time. The tribal member greeted them both and welcomed them home.”

Dave Larsen’s Legacy

Dakota elder Dave Larsen’s legacy, vision, and values live on in this program. His goal, as told by program founders, was that students would feel more American Indian when they got off the bus. He wanted students to feel happier and more confident in themselves, and find more power within themselves by the end– and the secret to that was through education. He said that to be educated was to draw out what was already within.

Munro recounts her experience with Larsen by saying, “We learned so much from Dave. He changed our perspective on caring for Mother Earth and taking care of each other.”

Celebrate this Program

Our ceremony to honor the Dave Larsen tour and six additional awardees will be on May 23 where we’ll honor the amazing state-wide work that’s benefitting our environment, economies, and communities.

Get your tickets