Gail Small Montana State University
MSU photo by Kelly Gorham
Gail Small, a professor of Native American Studies at Montana State University and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, has been named a 2015 Leopold Leadership Fellow by Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment.

MSU Professor Selected as 2015 Leopold Leadership Fellow

Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Gail Small, professor of Native American Studies at Montana State University, has been named a 2015 Leopold Leadership Fellow. Based at the Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, the program honors 20 leaders in environmental research who come from 16 institutions in the U.S. and Canada.

In the coming year, Small and the other fellows will receive intensive leadership training to help them engage effectively with leaders in the public and private sectors who face complex decisions about sustainability and the environment.

The institute said that Small was selected for her research about the “intersections of land and resource management, culture, and the environment within the broader context of the sovereign rights of Indigenous Peoples and contemporary climate change.”

“I am honored to be part of such a diverse group of intellectual leaders,” said Small, who is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and an international speaker on indigenous issues. “I am looking forward to learning from them, while also broadening the discourse and knowledge base.”

Small said that she believes the fellowship will help get climate change issues that face indigenous people on the international stage. She said that the distinction honors not only her work, but exemplifies a quote that Cheyenne Chief Dull Knife made in 1878 that remains her inspiration: “We can no longer live the way we used to,” he said. “There is a new way of life that we are going to know.”

Dull Knife (seated) and Little Wolf, Cheyenne leaders who headed an exodus leaving Indian Territory for their homeland along the Powder River in Montana. It was Dull Knife's band that conducted the fateful Fort Robinson outbreak. (Image courtesy

“Indigenous people are still living a subsistence way of life so we are vulnerable to climate change,” Small said.

Small believes that nearly all Montanans are also impacted, due to the great number of people in the state who live a resource-based way of life. Small explained that every semester she asks the 120 students in her classes how many depend on game, fish or berries, for sustenance and Native and non-Native alike raise their hands.

“Climate change is a new paradigm that is going to affect us all so let’s study it,” Small said.

Walter Fleming, chair of MSU’s Department of Native American Studies, said Small’s Leopold Fellowship further enhances MSU’s already favorable reputation in sustainability and environmental studies.

“The Leopold Leadership Fellowship is a significant recognition of Professor Small‘s environmental advocacy in Indian country,” Fleming said. “Her experience in grass-root environmental activism resounds loudly with our Native students and those in our master’s program in Native American Studies. Importantly, she is an outstanding role model for future leaders in American Indian communities.”

Small, whose Cheyenne name is “Head Chief Woman,” was raised on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, one of 10 children.

“We grew up knowing the land intimately,” she said. She still lives on the family ranch near Lame Deer, and said her culture and extended family have enabled her to pursue her dreams. “You grow up in a culture where everything is inter-related and there is little hierarchy.”

Small attended the University of Montana and the University of Oregon School of Law, where she studied with her mentor, Charles Wilkinson. She began her career with the California Indian Legal Services doing fishing rights, Indian religious freedom work, and adjunct teaching at Humboldt State University. She returned to Montana and the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 1984 as part of a team of Cheyenne leaders that helped form Native Action as one of the first nonprofit organizations based on an Indian Reservation.

The Woods Institute said her work with Native Action changed the landscape of Indian law and environmental policy.

Small worked on many diverse issues over her career, including economic development issues that led to the establishment of the first bank on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. After law school, she picked up the work of a 30-year effort by young people to successfully establish the first public high school on the reservation. She has successfully drafted tribal government law and policy for a number of tribes on such diverse issues as traditional tribal burials, cultural impact statements, tribal environmental policy, banking laws, sexual assault and domestic violence and issues to strengthen tribal government and court administration.

Small established national precedent by helping her tribe to assert primacy over air and water quality standards. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is the first tribe in the United States to establish Class 1 Air Quality, an issue that is vital to the health of residents because open-pit coal strip-mines and power plants surround the reservation.

Small was elected to the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, has taught at both Chief Dull Knife Memorial College and Little Big Horn College and, serves as the elected chair of the board for Chief Dull Knife College. She was honored with Ms. Magazine’s Gloria Steinem Women of Vision Award in 1995 and received a Jeanette Rankin Award in 1997. Montana Magazine recognized her as one of Montana’s most influential leaders in the past 25 years. She received a Rockefeller Foundation Next Generation Fellowship and a Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship. She was featured in the 2005 documentary, “Homeland.”

Small joined the MSU faculty in 2013. She said the Native American Studies Department embraced her knowledge and made her feel welcome.

“It is time for me to help grow the discipline, time to give back and to build a new cadre of student leaders,” she said of her decision to launch her “encore career.” She said MSU interested her also because it now has the largest number of Indian students in Montana, and Bozeman is “the hub” for Indian students.

“Our students like Bozeman for all the good reasons, and it is centrally located so they can maintain important cultural ties to their tribes and families,” Small said.

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