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Since 1983, Aaniiih Nakoda College has been providing associate degrees and certification programs for residents of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and the surrounding areas.
“The college promotes individual and community development by maintaining and revitalizing the indigenous lifeways of the Aaniinen and Nakoda Tribes and by preparing students to succeed in an American technological society,” according to its website.
Recently, the college has added a bachelor’s degree, called Aaniiih Nakoda ecology. This four-year program adds to the 12 associate programs, four yearlong certificate programs, and various short-term career and technical education certification programs.
The new degree builds on the two-year environmental science associate degree, said instructor Dan Kinsey. Required courses include statistics, general ecology, and earth science, in addition to American Indian philosophy, religion, and federal Indian law.
“We’re trying to prepare our students to become caretakers of what we call the Aaniiih Nakoda homelands,” Kinsey said.
Many of the courses and programs are tied to the culture and languages of the people living on the Fort Belknap reservation.
“We do incorporate a lot of the American Indian culture and topics in those courses,” Kinsey said. “It’s embedded in every class that we have.”
In the new program, students study wildfire, forest ecology, and how the ecosystem affects human health. They focus on water in the “Nicʔ/Mní” course, named for the Aaniiih and Nakoda words for water.
“We have a class called sky, which has a little bit to do with astronomy but also basically how American Indians have looked at the stars and have stories and legends about stars,” Kinsey said.
Because the Milk River forms the north boundary of the reservation, a stream ecology class is named after it. It examines the area’s diversion project, explores its dams and irrigation canals, and studies the life in the river.
Science classes include hands-on labs, which are popular with students, Kinsey said.
“Then we start getting our students involved in research projects pretty early on in their degree program, so in the third year we offer research methods on tribal lands,” he said.
Aaniiih Nakoda College offers many opportunities for internships and research that students wouldn’t get elsewhere. They are paid to do fieldwork and collect data for a number of projects.
“We have some really cool partners — the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute,” Kinsey said. “One of those, we’re doing a swift fox reintroduction on Fort Belknap. We coordinate with the Smithsonian and the fish and game department.”
Another reintroduction program is for black-footed ferrets. Other studies involve bison diet, range health, and prairie land birds. An important project on water is the Nicʔ/Mní research and education project.
“In the summertime, our students are out working in the field, doing data collection for these research projects,” Kinsey said.
A benefit of Aaniiih Nakoda College is that many students live on Fort Belknap, he said.
“There are people who live off the reservation and who are tribal members, and they want to attend,” Kinsey said. “They want to learn about Fort Belknap and where they’re from, or maybe they see the program and want to do that.”
Other students travel from nearby areas.
“You don’t have to be a tribal member,” Kinsey said. “You can be any kind of person to come to school here.”