After growing up in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, senior Nizhoni Tallas knew that coming to Virginia Tech would mean leaving the familiar behind. What she did not expect was that becoming a Hokie would mean finding a new familiar — collaborating with Indigenous communities on issues of natural resources management.

“I’ve learned that there’s not just one path to knowledge,” said Tallas, the 2021 recipient of the David Wm. Smith Leadership Award from the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “There are so many different ways that tribal communities manage, plan, and sustain both their natural resources and their culture, and I’m grateful to have had the chance to dive into projects and connect to so many people and communities.”

Tallas’ interest in work with Indigenous groups to find innovative ways to share traditional knowledge while honoring cultures has spanned the country — and even the globe.

From researching the cultural significance and current decline of Manoomin (a traditional wild rice) crops at the University of Minnesota this past summer, to studying water resource challenges for Virginia tribal communities as an intern for the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, to learning about traditional practices with members of the Sámi people of northern Norway, Tallas has seen the diversity of Indigenous communities and some of the foundational values that they share firsthand.

“Having the chance to visit the Sámi and learn about their culture was incredible,” said Tallas, a member of the Diné tribe who is majoring in natural resources conservation in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.

“They took me on a tour of their community and shared their practices of herding reindeer, and I shared about my community in Arizona,” she continued. “I was surprised at the few cultural similarities and practices that are shared between two groups who are so far apart geographically, but I also understood the uniqueness of each traditional practice. It was a powerful experience that really made me want to continue to pursue the work I want to do in the future.”

That work involves finding spaces where western approaches to natural resource management can better merge with traditional ecological practices so that crucial knowledge can be shared collaboratively.

“I feel like a lot of western science views traditional ecological knowledge as not actual science,” said Tallas, the first Hokie to receive a Udall Undergraduate Scholarship in the tribal policy category. “But there is so much knowledge that has been passed on through tribal communities, and they have learned a great deal about how to steward the land in such a manner that it can prosper for generations. I’m trying to figure out how to intertwine those two ways of knowing so that everyone benefits, especially Mother Earth.”

Tallas, a Presidential Global Scholar and Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship recipient who studied in Switzerland during her sophomore year, has taken an active leadership role on campus. As a member and current president of the group Native at VT, she has worked to increase visibility and awareness of issues Native American communities face and took part in urging Virginia Tech to become the first university in the commonwealth to officially recognize Indigenous People’s Day.

“Nizhoni has provided a lot of mentoring to other Native students here on campus,” said Melissa Faircloth, director of Virginia Tech’s American Indian and Indigenous Community Center. “It can be jarring for our Native students to come here and have to constantly filter questions about their background. Nizhoni has worked hard to help make our center a space where students can find and support one another.”

Tallas’ outreach has extended to helping students who might be reluctant to take courses in natural sciences because of equipment costs. As a recipient of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowship supporting inclusion initiatives, she tackled the challenge of improving success for nontraditional students entering science majors by advocating for field equipment kits to assist those who would otherwise have difficulty purchasing such equipment. Tallas is also a member of the first cohort of Beyond Boundaries Scholars, who arrived at Virginia Tech in 2017 after the university launched that program a year earlier to help recruit high-achieving students, including many from underrepresented communities.

“Financial ability is one of the leading things that determines whether or not a student will succeed,” Tallas explained. “When I was asked to think about barriers for students participating in STEM fields, I thought back to my experiences looking into the materials needed to take land and field measurement courses and wondering how I could afford them. So I thought it would be great to offer, discreetly, kits that had all of the required equipment that would help all students have a chance to participate in fieldwork.”

“Nizhoni is very worthy of this award, and we are all very proud of the work she’s doing,” said Professor John Seiler of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, who worked with Tallas on the effort. “The field equipment kits she suggested are in use right now in our spring labs, and her career ambitions and work ethic are perfectly aligned with the spirit of the David Wm. Smith Leadership Award. She is someone who is always thinking about how to help others and how to give back.”

Tallas, who designed a solar-powered water heater prototype to provide warm water for reservation homes while still in high school, said that her ambition is to continue studying natural resources science in graduate school, with an aim of returning to her community to help tackle the environmental challenges that Indigenous communities face.

“It’s been exciting to have spent four years in Virginia, but the community where I hope to have the biggest impact is back in Arizona. I feel like I’m ready to focus in and fine-tune how I can make a difference at home.”

Written by David Fleming

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