For centuries, people indigenous to North America have had a cultural link to the land and its natural resources.
That longtime relationship is moving into the computer and satellite-mapping age this fall at Haskell Indian Junior College.
With the help of the U.S. Geological Service in western Lawrence, Haskell will begin teaching Native American students how to use geographic information systems (GIS) for land management.
"Everyone out here is excited about this," Tom Trombley, a USGS hydrologist, said last week during an interview in Haskell's new GIS laboratory in Ross Hall.
Trombley and Lesley Brewer, a former Haskell student who is a USGS hydrology technician, will serve as adjunct faculty members this fall to teach the initial GIS class.
They will be joined by Chuck Haines, a Haskell science instructor, who is also involved in the project.
Dan Wildcat, who chairs the department of natural and social sciences at Haskell, said the USGS gets contracts from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to do work for the tribes for water management and forest inventory.
He said the USGS brought the idea about the training program to Haskell. Haskell officials also talked with the Environmental Protection Agency about the program; the EPA also is supporting the training, he said.
"This is a way we thought we could help Haskell," said Johnnie Shockley, acting district chief of the USGS Water Resources Division, Kansas District, in west Lawrence.
Shockley said her predecessor, Rich Herbert, was on a national education initiative to get minorities trained in environmental fields, like hydrology and environmental science and ecology. Since USGS and Haskell are both under the umbrella of the Department of Interior, Herbert worked to get the GIS program set up, she said.
Even though GIS has the ability to provide information on multiple topics, the Haskell program will focus on water resources, Shockley said.
"Eventually we hope that once these students get trained there will be the opportunity for us to establish cooperative positions and they can do work for us in GIS," Shockley said.
Haines said the new GIS program's link to Haskell is a natural.
"Our Native American students are tied to the land and this helps bridge that in terms of some of the technologies," Haines said. "They've been very excited about it and it does deal with land use and their tribal needs and some of the more traditional values of the way they see the land and the way they conceptualize it."
Haines and Trombley said they hope about 20 Haskell students will sign up for the initial course being offered for the fall semester.
Trombley explained that in the course, students will learn how to create maps with layer upon layer of information. GIS information put on maps can include demographic population information as well as physical land features, he said.
"Anything you can put on the map, you can put on the computer," Trombley said.
"It's a real slick way of keeping track of data," Haines said.
Tribal needs are one of the main reasons the program is beginning, Haines said.
"Since Native Americans own land resources, the current technology can help manage those resources. It makes it much quicker and it can store a lot of data," Haines said. "It's a very powerful tool."