University of Montana’s Dr. Ruth Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills Shares Insight for Increased Indigenous Inclusion

For more than 45 years, the Society for Advancement of Advancing Chicano/Hispanic and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) has supported an array of activities related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) inclusion programming. Recently, Dr. Ruth Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills presented at the SACNAS “Achieving True Diversity in STEM” webinar and the West Hub was fortunate to participate and gain valuable insight from her talk.

Dr. Ruth Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills (Hidatsa, Mandan, Dakota, and Nakota) initiated the concept for the NSF-funded WILLOW project as she was finishing her doctorate program at the University of Montana. Since Fall 2020, she has been leading the project, which aims to increase the success of Native American faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“I think that there is probably a wide variance on communities’ needs regarding technology as some areas still don’t have stable access to the Internet, which makes inclusion very difficult,” said Dr. Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills, who is the Director of Food Sovereignty at the Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College and Co-Principal Investigator for the National Science Foundation-funded WILLOW program. “Bringing high-speed Internet to all tribal lands could certainly assist with increasing inclusivity and allow tribal people to share culture and community projects with those outside of their areas.”

In addition to the need for broadband networking, Dr. Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills discussed the importance of community building and how active-learning approaches have worked well with developing relationships with tribes. She mentioned the importance of not only involving the young generations, but also including the tribal elders.

“Bringing in Indigenous values greatly assists with building relationships,” she said. “This has been difficult over the past year and technology has been helpful when and where it is available to keep in touch with communities.”

Her current work involves the WILLOW Alliance project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. WILLOW is a collaboration between University of Montana in Missoula and Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana. Their goal is to develop, implement, and study a model for the professional success and satisfaction of faculty and instructional staff in STEM who are enrolled in, and/or descendants of, Native American tribes.

Dr. Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills came up with the project’s title “WILLOW” based on the actual willow plant, which is highly valued in many Native American cultures as a symbol of inner wisdom that represents flexibility and adaptation – surviving and thriving in challenging conditions. The vision was to support Native American faculty in STEM to become like the willows: a group of people who were abundant and thriving, as well as serving as a medicine for their people.

“One of the things that we could use at the WILLOW project, as well as at my affiliated institutions, is guidance on how to securely store data and how to manage data in ways to make it most accessible,” said Dr. Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills. “Coming home after my doctorate program, I didn’t realize how much my tribe and my college needs some of the foundation set for our tribal data and we do not have any type of research code or policy to follow.”

In addition to a mentoring program, grant preparation workshops, and an institutional support program, the WILLOW project also encompasses fellowships; several WILLOW fellows were recently interviewed on a podcast regarding “Achieving Success” and that is found here.

Those interested in learning more about WILLOW are encouraged to reach out to Dr. Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills directly at rhall@nhsc.edu.

About the West Big Data Innovation Hub: 

The West Big Data Innovation Hub is one of four regional hubs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build and strengthen strategic partnerships across industry, academia, nonprofits, and government. The West Hub community aims to catalyze and scale data science for societal needs – connecting research, education, and practice in thematic areas such as natural resources and hazards, metro data science, health, and data-enabled discovery and learning. Coordinated by UC Berkeley’s Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society, the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and the University of Washington, the West Hub region includes contributors and data enthusiasts from Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and a global network of partners.