With more than 40 years of professional experience working in the field of natural resources, I am sometimes asked to share the personal outdoor experiences I had as a tribal member growing up on my reservation. When the request involves children, and those children are Native American, I am especially honored because in my culture the elders share traditional teachings of how we are connected to nature, both through stories and traditional songs.
As we celebrate Earth Day 2016, I am reminded of a recent invitation from the U.S. Forest Service Tonto National Forest and Smokey Bear to speak at a career day on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona. I had an audience of 180 tribal fourth graders from Rice Elementary School to share my experiences growing up on a reservation and the lessons I learned about the outdoors.
“How many of you know where the Mescalero Apache Reservation is?” I asked the fourth graders, who quietly listened as I shared stories of when I was their age. I thought back to my time hiking and camping, not only on my reservation, but also on the adjacent lands of the Lincoln National Forest, fishing for trout in the clear waters and lakes, and hunting deer, antelope, turkey and elk so our family could enjoy traditional family meals.
Those outdoor experiences and the teachings I received from my elders helped me to understand and appreciate what Mother Earth provides for us and that we should receive that provision with great respect. I am compelled by both traditional teachings and western science to help connect our next generation to the land.
As a young person whose lessons were imparted by highly respected elders of my Tribe, I honor those teachers by talking with students regarding the preservation of the traditions, culture, values and morals of my people. I know one day they too will impart the wisdom of their elders.
I shared with the San Carlos students that they must listen to their parents and grandparents as they talk about the land. They should learn how they can make a difference in the care of nature and to understand that it’s good for them to get outside more, and to learn about their reservation, the national forests and other special places around them.
To promote enjoyment of the outdoors, every student received an Every Kid in a Park pass good for them and their families at more than 2,000 federal land and water sites until Aug. 31, 2016. They also received Forest Service information on the nearby Tonto National Forest where they might use their new pass. The pass is part of a Presidential initiative to give every fourth grader the chance to explore America’s great outdoors and our unique history. The President called upon seven agencies, including the Forest Service, to “help get all children to visit and enjoy the outdoors and inspire a new generation of Americans to experience their country’s unrivaled public lands and waters.”
Similar large-scale events are happening all across the country. The program will continue on Sept. 1, 2016 with outreach to the next class of fourth graders as well.
In addition to the Forest Service, the other agencies that are part of Every Kid in a Park include the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; National Park Service; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.