Neil Patterson, Jr. grew up on a Tuscarora reservation before attending the State University of New York’s Environmental Science and Forestry Department (SUNY-ESF). He earned a degree in Environmental Forest Biology and returned for a Masters in Natural Resource Management. Patterson now works as Assistant Director with the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at SUNY-ESF.
Tell us about your work with SUNY–ESF and Native Earth.
Patterson: SUNY is a statewide public higher education institute where I received my undergraduate degree in Environmental Forest Biology. That was the first time I left the reservation. Recently I returned to complete my masters degree in Natural Resource Management.
In 2012, the college started the Center for Native People and the Environment (CNPE) directed by Robin Kimmerer. One of the first things the Center did was to create the Native Earth Initiative. It’s a camp for native American high school students that is a blend of indigenous knowledge and scientific/Western science.
I’ve participate in the camp from the very beginning. The way the camp is traditionally run is based on something we call Kaneheratechreh, or Ganyonyok. This is an opening address that’s used by Haudenosaunee people, a kind of a recitation that is made in our language that references creation elements of the natural world to which we give thanks.
Students initially spent time at the Thompson Island Youth Camp in Akwesasne Mohawk Territory on the St. Lawrence River and at SUNY-ESF Cranberry Lake Biological Station in the Adirondack Park. The locations and the lesson plans are a blend of indigenous knowledge and science.
I was recently hired as Assistant Director for CNPE and we have diversified our Native Earth initiative. The camp takes place over 6 days at the Huntington Wildlife Forest, another property owned by the SUNY–ESF with a long history of scientific research. We took them out for 4 days and 3 nights backpacking in remote areas of the Adirondacks. The camp was more ambitious and allowed students more of hands-on experience.
How did you get in touch with your passion?
As a kid, we were led down all kinds of pathways to the outdoors. I grew up picking berries in the summer, spearing fish in the spring, and gathering firewood in the fall, which I didn’t really appreciate at the time. It was a lot of work, it was sweaty, there were a lot of bugs, but spending time in the woods has always been my passion.
I couldn’t stand high school. I was doing all right in science and math, but I wanted to quit. My mother was like, “Oh, well, what do you want to do?” I said I just want to hunt and fish my whole life. And she said, “You can do that, but you might be kind of poor living in a van down by the river. Maybe you could go to school for that?”
I’d never thought of that until then. I found a flyer for the College of Forestry and thought I’d just apply there and see what happened. It was the only school I applied to and I got in. I decided to try it out.
Was there a time when you felt unfulfilled or disconnected in your work life?
Probably on a daily basis. After I graduated with an undergraduate degree in 1996, I moved back to the reservation and founded an environmental program for the Nation. I was program director there until I began this job at the college. For almost 20 years, it was a lot of capacity building, which involved a lot of grant writing and reporting. That’s probably when I feel disconnected, sitting in front of a screen. But knowing that what I’m doing is for a greater effort makes it worthwhile.
What inspires you to move forward?
Cutting firewood. It’s monotonous, but you know winter is coming. You start to meditate on the simplicity of the task at hand and get into a zone and realize that it’s for a purpose. Whenever I feel disconnected, I try not to think and just do. Part of the work is a necessary evil. I grew up cutting and stacking firewood – I swore I would never do it again – but now, I’ve lived with a wood stove for the last ten years. I’ve found solace in what seem to be mundane tasks.
As you became committed to a purposeful career, what were the internal doubts or external obstacles that challenged you?
The biggest doubts came from not having a path laid out before me. I didn’t have a boss to tell me what to do. In the early part of my career, there was uncertainty. I was the director. I had to set up an environmental program and I didn’t know what that should like or feel like. For the first 12–15 years of the program, we were housed in my parents basement.
In this part of the country, the Nation that I’m working for consists of chiefs and grandmothers who are not paid politicians. They are appointed by clans. The chiefs are appointed by the clan mothers.
I feel like my whole career’s been a lot of doubts. So you just take it day-by-day. I knew there were problems in our community that had to be addressed. Problems that were 50–60 years old: solid waste management, water quality, recycling, and hazardous waste. I had a professor tell me that it takes about 5 years when you start something from scratch.
Tell me about the Native Earth Programs. Is it for High school students alone, can anyone go?
The summer camp is for high school students who are Native American. We draw from several parts of the state, and we’ve had students from Maine and other parts of the northeast. One of the initiatives is to diversify and bring smaller, decentralized camps to communities. The last two years, we ran a winter camp for middle school aged students at Tuscarora. It was a day camp where we taught winter skills with a blend of science and indigenous knowledge.
Last year we started a program at the Onondaga Nation Elementary School, where we taught students in grade school about frogs. We’re trying to reach students at a younger age and build camps based on the needs of the community. The ideas is to connect with young students who could eventually experience the summer camp where they leave home for a week or ten days.
What sort of activities do you participate in during the Native Earth Camp?
I make the opening address, or “The Words that Come Before All Else.” For example, with fish, we would talk about the biological, chemical, and geological relationships that both Natives and Non-natives have with fish species. Then, we would actually catch fish and talk about indigenous beliefs, attitudes and uses of fish. It’s the same things with stars, birds, and trees. We introduce someone who has scientific knowledge as well as someone who has indigenous knowledge of that particular organism or ecosystem.
I noticed that the Native Earth program made a few references to a “Thanksgiving Address.” What is the significance of this?
That’s the address or the opening of the new world order. It’s more of a cosmology on how we see the world. It’s recited at the open and close of every meeting.
We ask everyone in the room to become of one mind and consider that there are life systems on the earth and in the sky that we have a responsibility to and give thanks for. It’s done in our language. I’ve been learning and developing the thanksgiving address in the language of Tuscarora, which is difficult because there’s only one guy left in the world who speaks fluent Tuscarora. I grew up just down the road from him. I was also fortunate to have my mom who took an active interest in the language and became a teacher of the language. She helps guide me.
Do you see a future between Native American culture and environmentalism?
Absolutely. There was a chief from Onondaga when I first started out who told me, “In our language, we don’t have words for the environment.” At least for Haudenosaunee people, you almost can’t be an environmentalist if you are a human being. You have this intimate relationship with the elements of creation. You don’t think of human beings as having a particular interest, or pursuit, or approach. It’s a completely holistic immersion. There is a very strong link between the environment and our culture, but these are not in themselves separate ideas.
All the cycles of ceremonies follow the cycles of nature. Right now, we give thanks in our long houses for the harvest. This is the time of year when we bring in corn, squash, venison, and fish. Eventually, we will reach the end of our year when the stars are at the right position. Then we give thanks for the entire year and we announce that the cycle will be continuing. Eventually. we’ll be out tapping maple trees, or gathering berries, or celebrating the planting that will come.
Our culture is completely based on giving thanks to the cycles that occur in nature. You need those things to practice your culture. You need to have wild strawberries, which are vital in our medicine, you need to have maple trees. To be a human being is to be part of the environment and vice versa.
How do you think students benefit from learning about stewardship?
I feel it’s important for students to witness or become part of what in science is called a reference ecosystem, or an ecological reference which says: there is a time and place that we hope to achieve. We use this as a reference. We think about what the rivers were like before they were polluted, or what the forests were like before they were Walmarts. But it’s very hard not only for students, but for people in general to see what is possible. We’re trying to provide a frame of reference that says, “Look what wilderness can be. Look at how we take care of it and strive to strike a balance between human needs and the natural world.”
I like to think of the camp and our programs as taking kids to a place that they would probably never be able to experience normally. Take them to a wilderness setting and talk about the challenges of maintaining that space, not just theoretically.
We focused this year’s camp on invasive species. We started out the camp with some basic field identification and instruction on invasive plants and insects that are actually all over their communities right now. But in this place – in the Adirondack Park – we’ve been very successful in keeping those invasive organisms out because it’s so wild. We pose a question to the students: What would you like your reservation to look like?
Having the juxtaposition of the wild and pristine environment of the Park and their reservation is a great contrast and a great reference point to say, “Well, here are the challenges to maintain that.”
What makes you happy in your work?
I’m really happy about sharing of ideas. SUNY-ESF has a small town atmosphere. Any chance I get to interface and interact, debate, or just listen to people who have such diverse backgrounds and interests can be overwhelming but beautiful. My office is located on a floor where the professor next to me has spent her whole life studying snails, and next to her is somebody who spent their whole life studying mollusks, and down the hall there’s someone who is focused on mushrooms. That’s what I’m really happy about, just talking to those people, and seeing how passionate they are about their work and such great ideas come from that cross-pollination.
How does your work make a positive difference to society? Why is this important to you?
I think it’s the sharing of concepts like thanksgiving, reciprocity, honoring, respecting, and celebrating the cycles of nature in a planet that is quickly becoming overpopulated and overused. I’d like to think we have a message, a philosophy, we can share with human beings that can help create a just transition from this age of fossil fuels, carbon pollution, and the list goes on: famine, hunger, and all of these problems. We have to figure out how to deal with all of these. I think our philosophy is useful.
I heard growing up and Haudenosaunee people have always said, “One day, we’re going to speak to the world.” And it’s sort of coming true. Alot of our leaders, our chiefs, our clan mothers, our faith keepers are now in meetings at the United Nations and world forums.
It’s such an amazing prophecy that is actually coming true. Only a hundred years ago we were beaten for speaking our native language, for having our long hair, for being an Native American. It wasn’t that long ago that the United States put us in boarding schools to get us to become white. Now people are saying we need to hear your message. I think there’s a reason for that. I think that’s how the work we’re doing is going to benefit society as a whole.
What advice do you have for those who want a career that benefits the common good?
It’s important not to be discouraged. Always be aware that this is the right time.