A youth waits his turn before entering the dance floor during Friday night's Grand Entry at the annual Montana State University American Indian Council Pow Wow in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.

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As a child growing up on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota, Larry Gross was surrounded by storytellers.

In the Anishinaabe culture, storytelling provides a way of conveying knowledge about the natural world, said Gross, a professor of Montana State University's Native American Studies graduate department. It also gives American Indians a unique perspective on the environment.

Take, for instance, the skunk. A non-Indian might wrinkle the nose or grimace at the pungent aroma of a skunk. But Gross said that he grew up listening to stories about how the skunk's odor was "good medicine," and was taught to inhale deeply whenever he came upon one.

These stories, Gross said, were "spiritual food"; they taught the Anishinaabe to be "strong, effective spokesmen for the Earth."

This intimate, inherited knowledge of the land helped tribal members prevent proposed genetic modification of wild rice on Anishinaabe land, he said.

Having talked about, eaten and harvested wild rice for hundreds of years, they could "speak for it," he said.

"In the olden days, there was the time and space for children to get all the stories they wanted," before the technological innovations of the television and computer, he said. "What kind of spiritual food are we filling our children up with today?"

Gross presented his studies on the role of storytelling in the Anishinaabe culture as part of the two-day Earth Rights Conference at MSU Thursday and Friday. The second annual conference featured students, scholars, specialists and tribal leaders from the state and nation who presented perspectives on the role of American Indians in environmental sustainability.

The conference, put on by the Native American Studies graduate department, coincided with Native American Awareness Week at MSU.

Linda Different Cloud, a graduate student in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences Department and enrolled member of the Lakota tribe, said that indigenous populations perhaps have the most to lose if climate change advocates are right about the threats to the planet posed by man.

Environmental degradation already negatively impacts the health of native people, she said. Every year, three million indigenous children die of diseases caused by lack of access to clean water and poor sanitation, according to a recent study published by the World Bank and the UN Development program.

"Indigenous health and wellness is connected to the land," she said.

Different Cloud acknowledged that the problem is daunting, but that she is doing her part by working to restore the mouse bean plant, which used to flourish on the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota.

To develop water resources in the Missouri River Basin, the federal government built a series of dams along the Missouri River in the 1940s. Ensuing floods essentially wiped out the plant, a native legume that both meadow voles and Lakota people depended on for nourishment, she said.

In harvesting the bean, the women sought out vole caches, but left "reciprocal gifts" of corn or fruit, she said. The mouse bean illustrates how an entire culture can revolve around a single species, she said. Protecting and restoring this one plant species can produce "a positive, palpable change," in the lives of the Lakota people and the surrounding environment.

"(In part), ecological restoration can improve health by returning people to more traditional and less costly diets and force government agencies to recognize the fact that native peoples need healthy lands to be healthy people," she said.

Lauren Russell can be reached at lrussell@dailychronicle.com or 582-2635.

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