Students work to restore prairie grass on Nebraska reservation
Glover’s Point, the spot of land that lies between the lake and thick woods on the northeast Nebraska Winnebago Reservation, could be an oasis — but invasive plant species choke the landscape, withering the Tribe’s connection to what was once a picturesque patch of prairie and wetland.
Thanks to the work of two Drake University environmental science majors, these 100 acres soon will undergo an ecological transformation, returning it in 10 years time to the environment enjoyed by Winnebago ancestors James Black Hawk and Little Ox in the 1890s. Restoration of the prairie may facilitate enhanced breeding of upland game birds and some waterfowl by creating important ecosystems for hunting.
Seniors Jennifer Koska and Robb Krehbiel applied for and were awarded a $66,700 grant for the Winnebago Prairie Restoration Project to coordinate logistics and develop a strategic plan for prairie restoration and environmental and cultural education on land owned and managed by the Winnebago Tribe.
The project is funded through a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust. The trust is funded by proceeds from the Nebraska Lottery and has awarded more than $127 million to more than 1,200 conservation projects across the state of Nebraska since 1994.
Grant money will cover hiring three tribal workers for four months of clearing and planting the area, travel expenses to and from the project site, and training funds for the Prairie Plains Resource Institute. The Winnebago Prairie Restoration Project is a student-driven capstone experience that leverages their technical expertise so that a people who once had a deep spiritual and geographic affinity to the land can reconnect with Glover’s Point.
“This is truly an interdisciplinary project — one that has, more than anything I’ve ever done, taken me outside of my academic comfort zone and into areas of spirituality, ethics and racial history that will influence how the Winnebago Tribe perceives the current value of its land relative to historic practices,” says Keith Summerville, associate professor of environmental science and policy, and faculty adviser on the project.
“I am extremely proud of the work of my students, who were full and equal collaborators with myself and members of the Winnebago Tribe.”
The prairie restoration was inspired by a guest lecture by Howard Crow Eagle, Central Iowa Circle of First Nations president, who spoke to Krehbiel’s sophomore “Speaking with many voices” class in the spring of 2009 about the importance of land stewardship among tribespeople.
“He connected that passion I had for prairie restoration with a growing passion I had for indigenous communities,” Krehbiel says.
Crow Eagle took Krehbiel and Koska to the Winnebago reservation in 2009 and introduced them to the tribe’s land manager. The students collaborated with multiple groups and organizations, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Prairie Plains Research Institute and Drake University to lay the groundwork for the restoration initiative.
The team has identified tribal members and a tribal stewardship committee to implement a 10-year restoration plan that will involve Drake student participation as well as peers from the Winnebago Little Priest Tribal College.
“I was really happy that one of my talks led to something like this,” Crow Eagle says. “We are guardians of the earth. Our purpose is to protect and oversee. Anytime we can improve our land, it’s like taking care of ourselves.”
Eventually, the project will grow to restore roughly 300 acres of brome to Tallgrass Prairie.
“One year will make a difference, but 10 to 15 years from now will be the peak of change,” says Koska. “Right now, it’s filled with invasive species — weeds. No one really goes back to the land unless they want to go swimming. It has so much potential back there, surrounded by old woods.”
— Brianne Sanchez