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Alluvial Hope: The Transformative Practices of Placemaking at a Montana Tribal College


This dissertation examines how forms of care for people, lands, and resources are cultivated through interaction in a Natural Resources program at a tribal college. Salish Kootenai College (SKC), run by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) on the Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana, is one of the oldest and most successful tribal colleges in the U.S.. Tribal colleges were established during the civil rights era in response to a legacy of education for Native American students that sought to devalue and even eradicate heritage languages and cultural ways of knowing and being. By re-centering Indigenous knowledge systems while addressing community needs, tribal colleges represent complex spaces that both respond to and are shaped by a legacy of Western schooling for Native American students. Based on 18 months of ethnographic research and focusing on juniors and seniors in the Hydrology and Wildlife and Fisheries departments, I examine the everyday interactional landscape for this group of students, as they attend classes, participate in student clubs and events, and conduct research in the field. Along with recorded student life histories and photographed linguistic landscapes, this multidimensional study challenges a body of work that focuses on the misappropriation or absence of care in institutions, to instead examine how situated, responsive forms of care at SKC become the foundation for how care for lands is imagined. Using Basso’s (1996) concept of placemaking as a lens to consider how students engage with history through imaginative practice, I illustrate how, through stories, local forms of care connect to long-standing cultural understandings of care for lands and communities. This imaginative practice, in turn, cultivates a particular kind of hope, what I call “alluvial hope”, that is characterized by movements of collective action, that like the multiple paths of rushing water through time, carve pathways alongside each other that create a richly patterned legacy. In using the metaphor of an alluvial plain to understand hope, I show how the past is considered a resource, that through collective practice, can be recombined with new elements in order to move towards the goal of community well-being. This project also approaches disjuncture not as an end in itself, but as informing how care manifests in everyday educational practice and outlines the contours of the path ahead for these students who will shape how the lands, wildlife, and waters are protected for generations to come.

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