Courtesy Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Reservation
This geodesic dome is just part of a state-of-the-art lab and field station on the Consolidated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation that opened last fall. It and its twin accommodate 4,400 square feet of growing space.

Futuristic Bio-Lab Melds Science and Ancient Wisdom on Umatilla Rez

Jack McNeel

A new, state-of-the-art field station and laboratory in Mission, Oregon is bringing together science and ancient wisdom as tribal members and students analyze everything from pollutants to the uses and composition of traditional plants using the latest technology.

“This is pretty exciting. It’s the first of its kind in Indian Country, as far as I know,” said Stuart Harris, a tribal member, scientist and director of the science department on the Consolidated Tribes of the Umatilla’s reservation.

The field station consists of an analytical lab, a biology lab, two geodesic greenhouses with 4,400 square feet of growing space, a bio-diesel shop, and space for meetings and classes. Lab equipment can analyze for pesticides, herbicides, solvents and other chemical pollutants in water and soil. Researchers will be able to test for more than 30 elements, including lead and arsenic. Another machine measures mercury directly from solid and semi-solid samples. Still another uses ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy to determine the concentrations of many compounds.

Stuart Harris, director of the Science Department on the reservation of the Consolidated Tribes of the Umatilla, was instrumental in getting the state-of-the-art lab up and running. (Photo: Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Reservation)Other tribes have analytical facilities, to be sure. But nothing tops the capabilities at this site. Harris has been involved with pollution work since graduating from Oregon State University in 1991 and has been working to get this field station up and running since 2006. The sophisticated facility officially opened at the end of October 2012.

Many factors led to the project’s development, but primary among them was the need to monitor cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site, which sits on ceded lands that the tribes retain certain rights to. The Hanford site was originally 586 square miles, but cleanup is under way, and by March 2011 the area had been reduced by 385 square miles. The Umatilla want to ensure that no contaminants remain.

“The primary effect we want is to go out there and do our own testing to make sure there are no chemicals and radio-nuclides on the site so we can reoccupy it and do it safely,” Harris said. “We want to repopulate the landscape with native plants. We want to make it into an area where we go and gather foods and medicines and not just simply grow something else. America’s got plenty of places to grow things. This is one of those places we can keep for the wild things that still exist.”

While they’re at it, the tribes can delve into the scientific underpinnings of the information collected by traditional knowledge over millennia. Of the 710 species of plants on the Hanford site, 545 are native plants and about 280 are edible, while others can be used for medicines, fiber or dye.

“We can better understand some of our foods and medicines,” Harris said.

The lab also represents a collaboration, the fruits of a 20-year relationship between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Umatilla tribes, said Jill Conrad, a Nez Perce member and the DOE tribal program manager for the area covering the Hanford nuclear site. The DOE provided some funding, and the Umatilla tribes gave land and infrastructure, as well as permission to build.

“It’s through that collaboration that the field station got built,” Conrad said. “I was thrilled to see the completion.”

Stuart Harris, right, shows off some of the equipment to federal officials from Washington at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Umatilla lab and field station in October 2012.

The field station will also serve to encourage tribal students to go into science and engineering and offer college students the opportunity to do research within the reservation borders, a strength that both Harris and Conrad emphasized.

“It’s located in the center of their community,” Conrad said. “Community members are going to benefit directly from it. [There will be] botanists and scientists and biologists and all the other disciplines right on the reservation for Indian kids. That’s pretty rare.”

“That kind of relationship is unique,” Harris said. “It’s a smart way to go, training the people who are eventually going to take over the site, to teach the kids to be scientists so they can do the best job.”

Harris noted that the facility would also help meet the challenge presented by President Barack Obama for more STEM learning: science, technology, engineering and math.

“We are going to do it by using this as an education component with local Indian kids, putting them to work in the summer,” he said. “We’re stepping up to the plate.”

The Umatilla tribes realize that the complexity of the problems at Hanford requires them to educate some members to respond to the documents that the lab will produce, involvement that will help protect their treaty rights.

“There’s so much to study out there,” Harris said. “Indians have a lot of exposure to the environment in various ways, lifestyle-type things. Understanding how airborne, or spills, or water pollution interact with the environment and get into Indian bodies is what we do. If you have a laboratory it makes everything a lot easier. You can do everything in-house and not have to send it to someone else.”

Testing for PCBs or mercury in fish are examples of that, he added.

Work done through the field station will not be limited just to tribal projects or concerns because it needs to become economically self-sustaining. The facility will be run as a business, supplying analysis to other groups besides the Umatilla.

“Someone has to pay the rent,” Harris said with a chuckle. “We hope to provide a cost effective program to pay the bills.”

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