Indigenous Science in the Face of Climate Change

August 16, 2023


Preface narrated by Grant Reiner.

This story is to be listened to. The visuals throughout the storymap will uplift the story told through the words of the characters.

For the past couple years, I have had the privilege to learn from community members within the Santee Sioux Nation. In March of 2019 the Santee community was greatly impacted by a disastrous flood. With increased weather intensity and greater ranges of temperatures due to climate change, members of the Santee community have been working towards establishing environmental monitoring to become more resilient and self-sufficient in the face of uncertain environmental changes.

Left to right: Grant Reiner (Author) talking to Jeff Dale (TRLcam Creator) during the timelapse installation on the Santee Reservation. Photograph by Brooke Talbott.

Oral stories are the backbone of indigenous knowledge. Jamie Saunsoci and Adrianna Duarte, two of Hank’s students, take us through their time as students of Hank’s and as women of the Santee Sioux Nation. You will also meet Hank Miller is the Science and Math Division Head at Nebraska Indian Community College. Hank has created an incredible learning environment by uplifting indigenous knowledge and indigenous science. Martha Durr, the Nebraska State Climatologist, has worked collaboratively with Hank for the past decade. Martha is an expert on weather and climate. Alisha Bartling, the Director of the Tribal Environmental Protection Agency, and Justin Avery, the Water Division Head with the Tribal EPA are developing environmental monitoring practices throughout the Santee Reservation and surrounding landscapes. This work is best done in community.

Roger Trudell narrating the history of the Santee Sioux Nation.

Roger Trudell, the previous Tribal Council Chairman and current Extension director at NICC. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

The Santee were the “frontier guardians of the Sioux Nation,” that ranged from the Santee’s home in what is currently Minnesota, across the Plains and to the northern Rocky Mountains in Montana and south through the northwestern part of Nebraska. Four bands comprised the Santee division of the Sioux Nation, the Mdewakantonwan, Wahpeton, Sissetons and the Wahpekute. The Santee Tribe was basically a woodlands tribe, living in semi-permanent villages and engaging in some farming.

The Isanti originally lived in the north central part of Minnesota, but the Santee’s defeat by the Chippewas at the Battle of Kathio in the late 1700s forced us to move to the southern half of the state. The first treaty between the Santee and the government was signed in 1805, ceding one thousand acres of Santee land in exchange for $2,000. Fort Snelling, built in 1819, allowed further white settlement contrary to treaty specifications. The 1837 treaty authorized the Santee cession of all their land east of the Mississippi River. Lands west of the Mississippi were to be allotted exclusively for the Santee. Altogether, the Santee gave up 35 million acres, the “garden spot of the Mississippi Valley.”

The 1837 treaty also designated a tract of land in southwest Minnesota for the Santee’s reservation. Following the treaty negotiations, Congress failed to appropriate the money for the annuity payments due to the tribe, and the government didn’t provide the agricultural supplies and implements promised in the treaty. With the absence of game, insufficient means to raise adequate crops, and lack of annuity payments to purchase food and supplies from agency traders, the tribe faced eventual starvation. These factors contributed to the paranoia and mistrust felt by both sides as isolated outbreaks of violence occurred between the settlers and renegade bands of the tribe.

Dakota at Minnehaha Falls circa 1857-1863. Image courtesy of Minnesota State Historical Society.

These factors led to the events which triggered the Santee Uprising of 1862. An argument developed between two young Santee men over the courage to steal eggs from a white farmer. The test for courage became a dare to kill, ending in the killing of three white men and two women. Santee leaders, Little Crow, Medicine Bottle, Shakopee and Big Eagle debated whether to take the offensive against the “bluecoats.” The young men, hungry and cynical, eventually convinced their disillusioned leaders that their fate was inevitable. However, not all Santee participated in the uprising and many of those that did helped white people escape their people’s vengeance.

Dakota Indian Treaty Delegation in Washington D.C. in 1858. Images courtesy of Minnesota State Historical Society.

From left to right: Portrait of Sakpedan in 1864. Portrait of Taoyateduta (Chief Little Crow) in 1858. Portrait of Medicine Bottle (Wakan Ozanzan). 

Events following the surrender of the Santee and the release of their white captives permanently stained American history. Colonel Henry Sibley, commander of the U.S. troops in Minnesota, imprisoned 1,800 Santee. Many had surrendered believing that they would receive just and fair treatment as promised by the Colonel. However, an Army commission was formed to prosecute the Santee “conspirators,” who were denied access to legal counsel. Consequently, over three hundred Santee were sentenced to death. Protest by a handful of concerned missionaries and individuals brought the matter to President Lincoln’s attention, who reviewed the cases and commuted all but thirty-nine sentences. One additional Santee was granted a reprieve before the scheduled execution. In December of 1862, thirty-eight Santee were executed in Mankato, Minnesota which is the largest mass execution ever carried out by the US government.

Portrait of Colonel Henry Sibley. Image courtesy of Minnesota State Historical Society.

Lithograph depicting Dakota War of 1862 in Makato, Minnesota. Image courtesy of Minnesota State Historical Society. 

Image of Sioux prison camp at Fort Snelling in 1862. Image Courtesy of Minnesota State Historical Society. 

Following this, a reservation site in South Dakota called Crow Creek was selected for the Santee. Two thousand Santee refugees were herded on boats and shipped upstream to this new home. The tribe suffered over 300 deaths during the first months at Crow Creek, mostly due to disease and undernourishment.

Photograph of Santee Village in Knox County, Nebraska. Image courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society.

Recognizing the unfeasibility of making Crow Creek a permanent reservation site, a reserve in northeastern Nebraska along the Missouri River was finally chosen, and the Santee again moved to a new home in what is presently Knox County. The reservation originally consisted of 115,075 acres. Later, in part through the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, the land was allotted, which significantly reduced the tribe’s total acreage.

Original site of the Santee Normal Training School, circa 1909-1910. Image courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society.

Today, the Santee Sioux Reservation encompasses an area of roughly 9,449 acres. The reservation is bordered on the north by the Missouri River and stretches approximately 17 miles to the south and is 13 miles from east to west. The village of Santee is located in the northwestern area of the reservation and borders the river.

The Santee Normal Training School, established by missionaries in 1870, greatly influenced the development of the tribe during the latter decades of the 19th century. In 1936 the school closed because of insufficient funding.

Images from left to right: Students of the Santee Normal Training School. Santee celebration on Nebraska reservation lands. Images courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society. 

In spite of severe punishment from the US Government and removal from their traditional homelands in 1862, the Santee Sioux nation continues to strive toward self-determination through economic development and education. The Santee Public School District and the Nebraska Indian Community College provide education.


Voices of the Earth: The Isanti

The voices of Jamie Saunsoci and Adrianna Duarte telling their story.



My name is Jamie Saunsoci. I’m an enrolled member of the Santee Sioux Nation.


My name’s Adriana Duarte. I live here in the Santee Reservation. I identify as an Omaha, Isanti, and Chicano Woman.


We go to school together. We went to internships together and got to really spend a lot more time together and get to know each other.

Adrianna Duarte (left) and Jamie Saunsoci (Right) in the prairie restoration outside of Nebraska Indian Community College. Photograph by Grant Reiner.



Santee will always be home to me. It’s next to the river. That’s one of the main things that I feel that connects me because water is vital to all of us as human beings. I first enrolled in two classes, actually at NICC, Nebraska Indian Community College back in 2019.

The Village of Santee next to the Missouri River. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


When I decided to take classes again, I decided to enroll here at NICC. I decided to take environmental science. Last year I graduated with generals and science.

Nebraska Indian Community College Campus at Santee, Nebraska. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


NICC, it’s an opportunity for our community. It sets our community members up for whatever they choose to do and not have to leave home entirely. If they choose to leave home, they’re ready. It should be a staple in our community, it should be utilized a little more often, but I think this represents our future.


It’s like a door for everybody. We have a lot of good teachers here, and I know that we’re going to influence younger ones to come and utilize the college. Education is important and that’s the way I grew up. My parents told me, we have to live in two worlds, our way of life, our culture, our heritage, who we are and the books.

Jamie Saunsoci (left) and Adrianna Duarte (right) during their time as students at NICC. Photograph contribution by Hank Miller.



If I were to describe Santee to someone who’s never been here, I think the first thing I would talk about is how open and vast it is. Then I’d talk about the rolling hills. I’d talk about the environment and how vibrant it is to me, full of life and full of potential.

Panoramic view of the rolling hills of the Santee Reservation. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


There’s a lot of wildlife, there’s a lot of medicine, there’s a lot of things that we live off of on the land. As soon as they go over that hill they are going to see beauty because it is vibrant like Adrianna said. I think it’s beautiful.

Red columbine, photographed along the Niobrara River and Missouri River Confluence, near Santee, Nebraska. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


From my perspective, our community looks like we are going to move in a progressive way. I moved back a year after I started school because COVID hit. I noticed all the revitalization of culture in the school. That was so beautiful because our kids are our future. They’re going to be the ones to carry on our traditions and carry on our beliefs.

A rose-breasted grosbeak eating seeds off a tree near Santee, Nebraska. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


I see the revitalization. I see the growth from when I was younger growing up and I see a lot of traditional and cultural knowledge being more implemented into the school and into a lot of things. In the community, I see food sovereignty also happening and that’s something that’s very refreshing to see. Now I’m really excited to see everybody’s gardens and see what they’re growing. I’m excited to see everybody share how they can, or harvest or preserve their food. I think that is something to be very proud of.

The confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers from Niobrara State Park, near Santee, Nebraska. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


Growing up, I feel like one of our biggest challenges was access to clean water. I say that because I remember growing up, I would hear that, our grandmas are sick because of the water. It stuck with me to the point where I’m like, how can I better our community? How can I better our people?

An hour long timelapse of a riverine wetland on a cloudy spring day. Timelapse by Grant Reiner.


We deserve clean water. We know that there are healthier ways to farm and it’s probably hard for somebody just to up and change how they do things. But, I think if we influence in a good way on why our water is so important and how it affects everybody, you know, the animals, I think you’ll see a difference.

The Tribal Council Chambers in the village of Santee, Nebraska. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


We come from the environment. Whether you’re getting out for some sun or if you’re walking, getting some fresh air or gardening, you’re growing your food, you know that there’s not anything that might be harmful to your body being intentionally put on to the food. Seeing the biodiversity of insects and animals, I think that it’s good for the body, the soul.

A dickcissel singing from grass in the prairie behind NICC. Photograph by Grant Reiner.



Traditionally, we live from the land and the original knowledge is still here. Hunting season, I’m always excited for my relatives to share our food because we do eat it. You know, we eat deer here, we eat buffalo here, and medicines, there’s so much in these lands that it’s amazing because like I said, it’s original knowledge. I wouldn’t have known if it wouldn’t have been passed down, through oral tradition. The foods that are here, they’re healing. It’s traditional food. It’s food sovereignty. There are a lot of things that you can do every season to help prepare you for the next year to come. The way we preserve things will last a long time. There’s just so much that is really beyond important. It doesn’t have to be this extravagant significance to the land. It’s our way of life.

A panoramic view of Howe Creek within the Santee Reservation. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

Seasonal Wheel

Jamie Saunsoci and Adrianna Duarte explain what went into the creation of the Santee seasonal wheel.


When it comes to a seasonal wheel, it’s really all traditional knowledge. It was brought for other people to understand. The way the wheel changes and shifts is designed to our traditional knowledge in the seasons. Not only do we have one, other tribes have one because it also goes with their stories and their way of life and how they take care of their environment, their regions, where they’re from. What I implemented and shared on the medicine wheel was knowledge from people around here and people that are from the same tribe as me that are Dakota. On the wheels, when the seasons change, there are certain animals that come out. If we were to have a calendar for certain months, the names of the months share a big expression of what’s changing in the environment. Did you notice when all the raccoons come out, we call it raccoon month. Big things that are happening and changing that’s how we came up with the calendar. Everything’s all connected and shifts in a way where they help one another out.


The Santee Sioux seasonal wheel, created by Jamie Saunsoci.


I feel like that’s the interconnectedness of the environment and our knowledge of the environment. That what she’s promoting here with the seasonal wheel, paying attention and seeing what is happening and how that affects us.

Soapwort scattered across a pasture on the Santee Reservation. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


We all have similarities. It just depends where we’re located and I believe climate change is affecting some of the months because of the longer winters or the warmer months, even drought affects a lot of the plants, like damaging wise and growing wise.

Drone timelapse of the main channel of the Missouri River, February 2023 to July 2023. Timelapse by Grant Reiner.

The Next Generation of Indigenous Science

Jamie Saunsoci and Adrianna’s story continued told through their voices.


Indigenous science to me is original knowledge going back from our ancestors and them showing us how to take care of Mother Earth and be a part of that cycle in a healthy way. Our creation story also shows how and who taught us all to live with the land. That’s what traditional knowledge will always mean to me. Our way of life.

Panoramic view of the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


I feel like traditional knowledge is a way of life. It’s a way of thinking. Traditional knowledge is believing that you’re one with the ecosystem opposed to above or in control of it. Traditional knowledge is implementing that knowledge into a lifestyle where you are taking care of the environment because the environment essentially takes care of you.

A wetland along the Bazille Creek, surrounded by hay fields on the Santee Reservation. The hay is used to feed the Santee Sioux Nations livestock. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

The difference between indigenous science and western science is western science is very straightforward and sticks to the facts, sticks to the data. Whereas I feel like Indigenous science is old. It’s almost innate knowledge. Not that you’re born with it, but it comes to you naturally. In this way that we utilized it, we were using oral traditions. The belief that everything around us is a living entity and that we have to take care of it, we have to utilize both in order to get the information out the way that we want it to. Our research is an integration of both.

The moon rises above the dormant invasive phragmites on the Missouri River near Santee, Nebraska. Phragmites has outcompeted native species for space and resources throughout a lot of the Missouri River system. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

Hank is our teacher, our mentor. He’s cool. He’s going down in my book as one of the most profound environmental ecologists. I should say, he’s an ecologist. He definitely helps guide us.

Hank Miller pointing out a depression in the native praire behind NICC to Adrianna Duarte. Photograph by Brooke Talbott.


He gives us just the amount of push that we need. He just makes everything seem like it’s possible you can do it. He’s a very important person in my books too.

Santee was not the only community impacted by the flooding of 2019. Other communities in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa were greatly impacted as well. Photo contribution by Hank Miller.

Verdigre Bridge underwater along Verdigre Creek. Photograph contributed by Santee Sioux Tribal EPA. 


And to our community. I didn’t realize how Hank wants to expand our relationships with our community and to help give our community a better understanding of how to take care of our environment. He’s trying to do right by the indigenous voice. What happened in march of 2019 was the Missouri River flood. 2019 was life changing for a lot of people.


On that day, it was early in the morning and I was going to work. I work at the casino. I noticed that the water was all the way up and when I went to work, it only got worse and worse. What had happened was from the temperatures the ice had melted, broke the dams and flooded.

Satellite imagery comparing the before and after of the 2019 flood and normal conditions of the lower Platte River and the Missouri River near Omaha and Fremont, Nebraska in 2018 (left), and on March 14th, 2019 (right). Satellite imagery Google Earth. 

2019 flood along the Platte River on Camp Ashland property near Ashland, Nebraska. This is an example of an ice jam breaking and flooding a river. This is the same flood that impacted the Santee Sioux Nation in a different part of the state. Timelapse by Platte Basin Timelapse.


I was asked to be part of a rematriate of the river. In that time I learned how the river has its own spirit. Any living entity here has its own spirit. That’s why it’s important to give back and to reciprocate the nurturing that it gives us. It’s just literally living you know, the river is and that was just so important to me to know that, to learn that, and to hear it from native women, and older native women. They talk about how they want our youth to understand the importance of taking care of this river and the plants and the food and the animals along the river because it’s vital to us.

We’re trying to give mother earth a voice. We looked into the changes it brings to our environment and how we can monitor them. I think people have had a paradigm shift where they are paying more attention to the environment and how environmental changes and climate change affect our everyday life.

Timelapse of a sunset over the Missouri River from Niobrara State Park. Timelapse by Grant Reiner.

Geographic Information System (GIS) image of the prairie plots behind NICC for their prairie restoration project. GIS is a computer sytem that stores , displays, analyzes data for geographic positions on Earth’s surface. Image provided by Hank Miller.


I think when they say climate change, I feel like it’s a door to help us to prepare ourselves because it’s going to change regardless. When I first heard about the NASA Space Grant Scholarship and AHEIC (American Indian Higher Education Consortium) Scholarship, I decided to sign up and I got my acceptance letter. I was pretty nervous. Learning along with other fellowships and students was pretty amazing because they shared all their original traditional knowledge. We had to come up with projects and one of the projects that was happening here is the prairie restoration of the college. 

The plant communities found within Plot 2 from Fall of 2017 to Fall of 2021. Graphs by Jamie Saunsoci and Adrianna Duarte.

Left, the seasonal average temperatures from 2017 to 2021. Right, the seasonal precipitation totals from 2017 to 2021. These graphs are examples of the data that was collected by Adrianna and Jamie to better understand how weather impacts their monitoring locations. Graphs by Jamie Saunsoci and Adrianna Duarte.

We were looking further into ancient growing techniques. One of the projects we did for that was growing a three sisters garden. It’s three plants that help each other from seed to when they go to sleep. They continue to help each other and it’s healthy for the soil. Monitoring the three sisters’ garden, we had four plots. We had three monocultures and one that grew together.

Watching for the past couple of years. Food sovereignty and being self-sufficient, that’s what I got from it, and that’s what I learned from it. Being able to do a project where knowledge was shared to me from my grandpa and how to preserve and take care of plants. It’s amazing because our traditional knowledge is real. It’s not something that needs to be proven. It’s real. That’s how we used to grow things and harvest things because everything helps one another.

Left, Plot 2 of the prairie restoration on June 12, 2022. Right, the three sisters garden (corn, beans, and squash) planted by Jamie and Adrianna. Photographs provided by Hank Miller.

Left, the summary of Jamie and Adriannas soil tests from September 28th, 2021. Right, the summary of Jamie and Adriannas soil tests from July 28th, 2022. These are a graphical representation of the data that was being collected by Jamie and Adrianna. This data contains important information about the prairie restoration impacting soil health. In October of 2021 the soil health on average was low. After a year of tending to the three sisters garden, by August 2022 the overall soil health was high, showing great improvement in soil health. Graphs by Jamie Saunsoci and Adrianna Duarte.

We influenced others along our journey as well. We worked along with other students and were able to share that same connectedness, and being proud of who we are, and also learning and sharing with each other about our future plans to further our education and helping our community and helping one another.

It’s the place where I didn’t think I would be able to be at. I didn’t see myself going to college. I didn’t think it was possible. I’m going to get emotional. There are just some things that I have faced in life that I didn’t think I was able to overcome. Starting all over and remembering who I am and where I came from and being a drug and alcohol free person and trying to further my education is just something I didn’t think was possible at one time. Being here and doing this, I’m just really happy and grateful and that just touched a really sensitive spot.

Image of NICC environmental research fellows and mentors speaking to University of South Dakota sustainability program students mentored by Dr.Meghann Jarchow-Akeley about the Missouri River. This was a great way for students to get together to share experiences and their research to other higher education students. Photo provided by Hank Miller.


The interconnectedness of all of it is truly amazing. That’s what blows my mind is how everything connects together. Another thing that we focused on with the river was the invasive species that came with the flood and how it destroyed some of the native species here. The most formative thing for me was understanding that we’re giving the environment a voice and that we’re putting a face to our surroundings. The face of our surroundings is us, the Isanti people.

Image of a red-winged blackbird flying off its perch in the invasive phragmites along the Missouri River, near Santee, Nebraska. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

Together we interviewed Roger Trudell, who at the time was the chairman. He was very environmentally concerned and knew that we had to have something in place in order for us to be prepared if something were to happen.

Roger Trudell watching the installation of the timelapse camera. Photograph by Brooke Talbott.


He shared with us how you had to think fast. He pretty much had to think fast for everyone and be a voice for everyone and direct people how to help one another.

The mobile medical unit parked in the casino parking lot during the 2019 flood. Photograph provided by the Santee Sioux Tribal EPA.


We were on the same page when it came to how to be prepared and how the community has changed and what he would like to see for the community. We were all on the same page with food sovereignty and preparation and being self-sufficient.

The interviews that I did on my own, the majority of them were immediate family, but they were different experiences and perspectives. I did interview my grandmother, so she was an elder. I interviewed my brother, who was BIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and he talked from the perspective of being in the field and how he had to help the community with environmental preparedness. I also interviewed my mother, which was a mother’s perspective, and she really talked about the impacts on mental health, that was a really nice piece on how a mother has to keep it cool, calm, and collected for her children so they’re not scared, because it was a very scary situation for a lot of the community members.

Relief supplies during the 2019 flood. Photograph provided by the Santee Sioux Tribal EPA.

Then, when I interviewed at the time they were teenagers. One was a very young teenager and the other one was graduating. You see their perspective on the flood, it was more on the lifestyle. Oh, I had to drive all the way around you know the town to get to school. I had to drive an hour and a half whereas before it was 15 minutes. When I think about all of these collectively, I think about how their perspective was, our lives are changing, this is scary, how do I prepare for next time? So I think that’s important in gathering the community’s perspective and input for situations as such to help decision makers be prepared and make plans and be there for our community.

A vehicle destroyed by the 2019 flood, sitting next to a block of ice larger than the vehicle. Photograph provided by the Santee Sioux Tribal EPA.

Image of the emergency response crew and others helping with the 2019 flood. Photograph provided by the Santee Sioux Tribal EPA.


I interviewed random community members. The first one I interviewed was Rodger, and then my mother. My mother actually does not live here. She lives in Macy, Nebraska, and that’s also a part that was affected by the flood. A part that she mentioned was, she’s a community member and all she thought about was her main immediate family here and how she could help and how she could get here. How could she check on us? It would be nice to see a mental health part be a part of the plan. Others felt like they weren’t affected but the more questions I asked kind of brought out “oh I was affected”. A lot of them realized at the end that “could this happen again?” They realized that they need to be prepared. None of us were prepared. They were scared. Every tribal community member that I interviewed, they would like to see a plan put in place, whether it’d be for extra backup for electricity or water, and preparedness.

An ice jam along the main road into Santee, Nebraska. Photograph provided by the Santee Sioux Tribal EPA.


We were both here for the Platte Basin Timelapse installation. It was neat to see. One place right over here in the prairie restoration and then the other one, it’s off to the right of the basin, right off the river. It’s cool because it’s big for our community. There’s so many things it’s going to capture. Well one, the biodiversity of both the animals and the environment, the plants, you know. The one that’s closest to the river is going to really show how the weather affects our water.

Timelapse of the installation of the timelapse camera watching the prairie restoration behind NICC. Timelapse by Brooke Talbott.

The inside of the weather proof housing, showing the camera setup for the prairie restoration timelapse camera. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


I’m also excited to see what’s going to migrate through the seasons, what’s coming through that’s normally not here and I’m hoping we get to check it out next year, then see what it all captured.


Yeah, definitely. I feel like this is going to give the environment a voice and tell a story that we may not be able to see on a regular basis. That’s what’s so cool about seeing the installation of everything.

The frame of the timelapse camera on the prairie restoration behind NICC. Photograph by Platte Basin Timelapse.


I think the timelapse cameras are going to keep track of important data to our tribe.

Timelapse of the timelapse camera being installed along the Missouri River in the village of Santee, Nebraska. Timelapse by Grant Reiner.

Drone image of everybody helping with the timelapse camera installation along the Missouri River. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


I have no doubt that what we do is beneficial for the community. As we learn more on how to monitor or even capture observations or whatever the case may be, I feel like the community is going to gain awareness on environmental concerns and environmental crisis on how to better our community environmentally.

Frame of the timelapse camera along the Missouri River on the Santee Reservation. Photograph by Platte Basin Timelapse.


Yeah, I feel like awareness is key.

The crew that helped with the installation of NICC’s timelapse cameras. Left to right; Hank Miller, Roger Trudell, Adrianna Duarte, Shelley Kosola, Jeff Dale, Ben Eigbert, Martha Durr, Stonie Cooper, Anthony Warrior, Mike Forsberg. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

Collaborating with Like Minded Individuals

Martha Durr, Hank Miller, Alisha Bartling, and Justin Avery tell their stories throughout this chapter.


I am Martha Durr, I serve as the state climatologist of Nebraska. As a state climatologist, I talk about and I’m asked questions about all things related to climate, past, present, and future.

Martha Durr getting measurements for the potential site of a weather station within the Santee Reservation. Photograph by Brooke Talbott. 

The state climate office, we operate a realtime weather network across the state of Nebraska. Right now we have about 55 stations all across the state, and they observe things like air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, precipitation, soil temperature and soil moisture.

Drone image of the fence that will protect the weather station from cattle. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

Observing weather conditions in a consistent place over a long period of time, that will constitute our climate. Climate change in Nebraska is really nuanced in that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It takes time and a conversation and understanding local issues to provide that local perspective of climate change.

The flood outlook after the flood of 2019, issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This shows the areas impacted by floods in March, 2019.

Martha Durr and Roger Trudel exchanging words during the timelapse camera installation. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

A mutual friend of Hank Miller and I introduced us virtually and Hank and I hit it off, so to speak from the beginning. We have the shared interest in giving our environment a voice and lifting up Indigenous communities and trying to improve environmental monitoring and our understanding of environmental issues specifically on tribal lands.

Winter drone image of the edge of the sedimentation on the Missouri River near the village of Santee, Nebraska. Photograph by Brooke Talbott.

The flood of March 2019, was such a large scale and impactful flood. The winter of 2018, 2019, 45 inches of snow had occurred by the time the storm did come through, there was about a foot of snow roughly on the ground. At that time of year, a foot of snow probably has several inches of water sitting in that foot of snow, it’s compacted over the course of the winter.

The daily temperature data leading up to and afterwards of the 2019 flood in Tyndall, South Dakota 20 miles due North of Santee, Nebraska. Provided by Martha Durr.

Left, the snow water equivalent map of the U.S. to show how much water is on the landscape on March 11th, 2019, two days before the flood. Right, the soil moisture levels of the U.S on February 19th, 2019, a month before the March 2019 flood. Provided by Martha Durr.

It was cold the month leading up to the storm. The cold temperatures allowed for the soils to freeze deeply, it allowed for a lot of river ice to establish in the area. We had this bomb cyclone, is what it was called and the reason it was called a bomb cyclone was that it strengthened in intensity by 24 millibars over the course of 24 hours, which is a number that probably doesn’t mean a whole lot, but it’s basically saying that it intensified really quickly.

Satellite view of the storm that triggered the flooding event of 2019. Provided by Martha Durr.

Over a two-day period, there was three inches of rain and the temperatures warmed up well above freezing and stayed above freezing. You’ve got frozen soil, you’ve got about several inches of water sitting in that snowpack, and you’ve got thick river ice. That 12 inch snow pack melted, then there was nowhere for this water to go except to flood.

Graphic showing the accumulation of precipitation in Tyndall, SD 20 miles due north of the village of Santee, Nebraska. Provided by Martha Durr.

The statewide precipitation rank from March 2019. It shows that Nebraska was much above average.

The 2-day precipitation on the days of the flooding. Santee was 2.0 to 3.0 inches. Provided by Martha Durr.

Then to complicate the issue, on the 15th, I believe it was, that’s when Spencer Dam failed . It was these different aspects that came together to produce this really significant event.

The Spencer dam destroyed after the 2019 flood on the Niobrara River. Photograph provided by Santee Sioux Tribal EPA.

Aerial images of the 2019 flood at the confluence of the Niobrara River and the Missouri River near Santee, Nebraska. Photograph provided by Santee Sioux Tribal EPA.

These various tribal nations, there’s a common theme which is, “We need localized monitoring. We need a way to access the data ourselves. We need a way to talk about and communicate this data and turn it into information for managing our own resources.” Making that connection all the way through is something that I really want to help with across Indian country.

I think Indigenous communities should be the gatekeeper for the Indigenous science that is put forward. I’m hopeful that Indigenous science and climate data and information should be blended, it’s different ways of hopefully telling the same story. I only see more of that happening, and hopefully more physical scientists, climate scientists and others are willing to embrace and accept Indigenous knowledge for what it is, which is science.­­

Drone image of everybody helping with the timelapse camera installation along the Missouri River. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


My name’s Hank Miller. I’m the math/science division head at Nebraska Indian Community College. I’ve been here for about 20 years.

Discussion between (left to right) Adrianna Duarte, Shelly Kosola, Hank Miller, and Jamie Saunsoci. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

We want to educate our public, want to offer good programing, and good degrees that will help our students and our community advance.

Drone image of the NICC campus in Santee, Nebraska. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

In 2019 with that flood, the Santee community got shut off, no roads, no electricity, no running water for just under two weeks. That was a big wakeup call on how ready we were to handle those emergencies. The community did well, but obviously we could do better.

We’re expanding through the help of Martha Durr, who’s the state climatologist. Through this project, we’ve been able to expand our environmental monitoring. The bulk of the work was done with my NASA research fellow students. We had Jamie Saunsoci who’s been here the whole time of the project and one of our student research leads. Andrea Duarte would be another one that’s helped immensely.

Highway 12 destroyed after the 2019 flood, near Santee, Nebraska. Photograph provided by Santee Sioux Tribal EPA.

We thought that if we could capture this event and we could actually study it, then it’s our hope that we can continue providing information for our Santee community so they have information to make decisions on how to help mitigate future floods or droughts or whatever. We’d have a much better idea on what’s going on in our own environment.

We devised a plan on how we could start working on some type of environmental project. That’s where the prairie restoration comes in here at Santee. We put up weather stations so we’re collecting weather data and then we have been focusing on soil and plant computation.

Weather station at NICC. Photograph provided by Hank Miller.

GIS imagery of the sedimentation of the Missouri River from 1985 (left) to 2022 (right). Sedimentation is the process of sediment being moved by the waters current and settling up against a structure. This process is the result of Gavin’s Point Dam downstream from the Santee Reservation. Satellite imagery by Google Earth. 

That’s what led up to this project for the 2019 flood pre and post conditions. How can we, as a tribal college and our students help get information where we can make better decisions?

Another thing we’re working on right now is creating a sovereign data platform called Ramada from UCAR, from the University of Colorado. We’re in the process of establishing that for NICC. We collect our data, other tribal colleges collect their data. We can share it, but we own it. So there is sovereignty to it.

March 2023 issue of the Northeast Nebraska Tribal Climate Summaries. Each month the State Climate Office releases a monthly climate summary that summarizes all of the data that was collected during that time. It is a great resource for those interested in their regions climate. 

The first step is developing the relationships and the collaborations with our own community and Council.

Tribal EPA, Justin, Alisha and those folks, they’re the environmental folks for the tribe. We have to work with them. Redundancy sometimes is our worst enemy, right? We’re doing this, they’re doing the same thing or they’re doing this, we’re doing the same thing. We need to collaborate so we can get the most information we can. When you find those people that are like minded with kind hearts, honest folks that legitimately really care about the environment and the indigenous way, the indigenous science, and the indigenous methodology, then you hold on to them and you find ways to partner. That’s what it comes down to. You find ways to partner.

Common milkweed blowing in the wind along the Missouri River on the Santee Reservation. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


I’m Alisha Bartley. I currently work for the Santee Sioux Nation Office of Environmental Protection, and I serve as the Environmental Director.


My name is Justin Avery, and I am with the Santee Sioux Nation Office of Environmental Protection as the Water Quality Manager.

Alisha Bartling (left) and Justin Avery (right) walking along a sandbar on the Bazille Creek, getting ready to electroshock fish for their environmental monitoring. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


I know that Hank has a lot of ideas on collaboration and a lot of work and a lot of grant activities that he’s doing through the Nebraska Indian Community College in Santee and that Martha is very interested in collaborating on behalf of UNL in regards to NICC, their grants, and some of their climate work that they are doing in this area.

Folks from NICC, UNL, and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) conducting a plant survey on the Santee Reservation. Photo by Grant Reiner.

The overall goal is how can we collect data here within the reservation boundaries and get it out to the public?

The data that we’re collecting on behalf of our office for the tribe, I would like at some point to incorporate that into her (Martha Durr) graphs, her charts, her data that she’s putting out there through monthly newsletters. I’m also curious, before I jump in and add our data collection to what NICC is collecting, I want to know how they’re collecting it, who’s collecting it, where they’re getting it from.

I want a clear, clean cut representation of the Santee Sioux Nation.

A channel catfish caught in Justin’s net during electroshock fishing. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


Our monitoring is set up from a couple of different approaches. So we go after water chemistry data and we go out with handheld instruments. We also then come at it from a habitat viewpoint where we’re looking at the surrounding areas around streams and wetlands.

Long nose dace, red shiner, sand shiner, creek chubs, and emerald shiners caught during the electrofishing conducted by Alisha Bartling and Justin Avery. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

We look at the wildlife, we look at hydrology, we look at plant communities. And then from a third aspect, we come at it from a climate change point.

What we do with climate change is we take all the data that we’re already collecting and we look at how weather patterns and everything are going to affect that. How do the plants and the animals, how are they responding to weather changes?

Body condition data being collected on a red horse sucker caught during the electrofishing. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

At the end of the day, we take all that information. I look at how does all that stuff affect the water resources in general and we provide that information to our council and higher ups or other departments to see how we can make a difference or what we need to do or whatever it takes to make it better, or if it’s good, we leave it alone and try to protect it.

A panoramic shot of a Tribal EPA monitoring site. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


As a general assistance program that I oversee and then overseeing all of these various programs, I think my biggest aspect is we collect data in, in all facets.

It is collecting the air quality. What are we seeing in ozone levels as we get warmer, the ozone levels go up. Why? How dangerous can that be? What kind of levels of mercury are we seeing in the air? Then correlating that to the water quality chemistry that Justin is taking and wrapping all that up into a story.

Camera trap image of a woodchuck overlooking a wetland along the Bazille Creek. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

Everybody relates to things differently, but they just want to know if it’s safe. If the land is safe, the water is safe, the air is safe. That’s our biggest goal is to try to help make that safe.

Spike rush along the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


The 2019 flood was unique in the sense that it was a perfect compilation of events to make a horrible thing happen. I mean, nobody was ready for it.

The pedestrian bridge at Niobrara State Park destroyed by the 2019 flood in May of 2023. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


There’s a reason after the flooding of 2019, water has changed. Being able to tell that story. These guys collect the data and collect the numbers and are able to tell the story that way. I know overall our goal is to install a couple of weather stations around the reservation.


I know that the first towers that they were proposing, I think we’re going to provide the ability to do a lot of predicting. Everybody was a little bit traumatized after the flood we had in 19. I know that every spring it always kind of gets brought up at council meetings or community gatherings where people if we ask them if they have any questions for us, they’ll be like, are we going to flood again?

I mean, that’s kind of a question that gets asked quite frequently. The towers that they were going to put up did have some unique features, I think, that were going to give us some pretty good predicting abilities.

Martha Durr checking the fence stability for the weather station. Photograph by Brooke Talbott.

Timelapse of the weather station fence installation on the Santee Reservation. Timelapse by Brooke Talbott.


Justin is right, that is a huge concern. A, are we going to flood or B, are we going to go into a drought and we’re not going to have any water access period?

It’s just a freak crazy Mother Nature at her best, showing that she has all the power and we have none. It happened, there’s a lot of learning, there’s a lot of reactive versus proactive approach. Now it is planning for the worst scenario in the future. But actually being able to, attack that in a different way.

Real time data would be perfect because like we said, you get landlocked. We get to the point where we can’t get to them. You know, it’s going to be really hard to collect data unless. We have the real time aspect.


I think we’ll be able to do better. Like how I was talking about before, it’s called mitigation. When you’re enhancing, protecting, fixing a place because it will be able to give us more information, more detailed information on what’s happening.

A Nebraska State Trooper standing next to an ice jam near the village of Santee. Photograph provided by Santee Sioux Tribal EPA.

Drone image from the aftermath of the 2019 flood near Niobrara, Nebraska. Photograph provided by Santee Sioux Tribal EPA.


Yeah, I would agree with that. The collaboration of everyone working together enhances those abilities to, you know, look outside funding sources. The collaboration of say, UNL and NICC and our office opens up additional opportunities and funding avenues. It opens up that potential to bring in those experts so to speak that we wouldn’t necessarily have access to you know. Climatologists, you know people that Martha works with, it opens up a huge realm for us outside of our normal activities.

Top down video of the confluence of Bazille creek (dark brown), flowing into the Missouri River (lighter colored water). Bazille Creek headwaters are located in the Santee Reservation, draining the runoff of agriculture fields and teh village of Santee. Video by Grant Reiner.

The Future of the Santee Sioux Nation

The conclusion to the story told through the voices of Jamie Saunsoci and Adrianna Duarte.


I feel like collaborating with these different entities is important for our tribe. For one, EPA, they’re capable of helping us with clean water and monitoring our wells. Hank works here at the college, and is going to influence tribal members or whoever attends this college here. It’s going to spread awareness and just working together I know we’re gonna make it better here.

Drone image of the Village of Santee, Nebraska along the Missouri River. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


I think when the community is aware that’s when the community feels they have power, they don’t feel powerless. You know what I mean? In that they have a say in decision making. I feel like that’s why it’s important for all of us to communicate and to share knowledge with each other.

The rolling hills of the Santee Reservation in June of 2023. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

What I would like to accomplish during my time here, Earth is at least to spark some kind of change, for the environment, for ourselves. I always had a passion for healing ourselves and feeling our best. The best way to understand yourself is to understand the environment. When we understand that there’s a connectedness or interconnectedness, then I feel like that’s when we’ll have a life, not to sound cliche but happy.

Wild rose blooming on the Santee Reservation. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

As human beings I feel like we’re overstimulated sometimes. The environment calms us down, brings us back to a balanced state. That could be just as simple as walking outside with bare feet and smelling the rain coming in. I just think as a society, western society too, we’re very hurt in ways. I just think that during my time here, I hope that I can create an environment that is sustainable for future generations, and to create an environment that my kids will take care of. I have faith that we can restore our environment to the place where it feels okay and that it can give back the nurturing aspect.

Blue vervain in bloom on the Santee Reservation. Photograph by Grant Reiner.

As a tribe, the implementation of the timelapse would be important. Creating networks is important and hopefully we have everything steady and we create that preparation for future possible climate catastrophes.

Drone image of the cliff that the Missouri River timelapse camera is located on. Photograph by Grant Reiner.


All the data and the technology is going to help us monitor climate change. The traditional knowledge, more of us need to be more in that same state of mind and know that climate change is very real and being prepared and self-sufficient is important. I hope to be either a science teacher or maybe even working at EPA to see what I could do there. I want to take the knowledge that I gained, the traditional knowledge, I see it within the school now, but you know, I want more for us there at our own school here. I’ve seen it started in other places, they have kids growing and having gardens and they check on their own gardens there at the school. I just thought that was so beautiful, seeing children already knowing and getting their hands in the soil and being able to eat food that they grow themselves while being at school. There’s just so much that I want here. Like Adrianna said, you know, that peace feeling or that happy feeling, I know it’s reachable. I know I know it’s going to happen and that’s where I see myself in the future.


PBT team photo. Summer 2023

About PBT

We are a group of storytellers using timelapse photography and multimedia storytelling to explore watersheds. PBT has been in motion since 2011.

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