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Shinnecock trailblazer returns to help

Kelsey Leonard, the first American Indian female graduate

Kelsey Leonard, the first American Indian female graduate of Oxford University, last fall, wants to help protect tribal resources. (Sept. 22, 2012) Credit: Handout

For a woman in her early 20s, Kelsey Leonard has a lot on her mind. But not the economy, student loan repayments, a job search or the other topics that usually occupy the thoughts of those her age.

What weighs heavily on the shoulders of Leonard, 24, a Shinnecock Indian, are rising seas, eroding coastlines, red tides, beached whales and crab kills that have surfaced on the Shinnecock Reservation near Southampton where she spent part of her youth and still returns to visit.

But Leonard is not one to watch from the sidelines or stand idly by. Instead, she is dedicating her life to addressing the environmental problems that threaten her tribe and others like it.

In September, Leonard graduated from the University of Oxford, becoming the first American Indian woman to receive a degree from the prestigious academic institution in England. Newly equipped with a master's degree in water science, policy and management, Leonard plans to pursue a career as an advocate for just environmental policies and fair management of natural resources on American Indian lands.

"I've been very blessed with the opportunities put before me in my life," Leonard said. "But along with the privileges I've had comes great responsibility. The responsibility to come back, and be a leader that indigenous people can count on."

Leonard traces her Shinnecock heritage through her mother, Michele, and her roots on the Long Island reservation go back multiple generations. Her great-great-grandfather was a tribal trustee, and her great-grandmother was a healer and midwife. Leonard herself was born in Hawaii, where her father, Ronald, was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. Although the family lived a nomadic life because of his military career, Leonard returned to her grandparents' home on the reservation for countless weekends, holidays and summers. And she never missed ceremonial events like the tribe's annual powwow in September.

"There's just something about being on the Rez," she said, referring to the 800-acre reservation. "You feel at peace, and you feel at home. To know your ancestors are in that ground, and that they've walked where you're now walking -- it's a really powerful place, it's a spiritual place."

From a young age Leonard was active in tribal affairs. As a member of the Shinnecock Youth Council, she participated in tribal meetings and was involved in the tribe's battle for federal recognition, which was granted in 2010 by the Obama administration. Later, Leonard became a leader in a national organization called United National Indian Tribal Youth.


Busy in high school years

Leonard's mother enjoyed watching her daughter follow in her footsteps. As a young girl, she too was active in Shinnecock youth organizations. "I remember riding my bike to meetings on the Rez," Michele Leonard said. "Back then we didn't have the traffic jams in Southampton that you do now."

Leonard attended high school at a private boarding school, The Knox School in St. James. While there she served as student council president, started the school's first Model United Nations Club and was stage manager for theater productions. She also took college courses at Stony Brook University and wrote an essay on human rights that won second place at a United Nations Association-USA contest.

"Kelsey knew what she wanted to do and how she wanted to go back to help her community," said Eudora Claw, a Navajo Indian and Leonard's best friend at Knox. "She was one of those people that put words into action."

On weekends, Leonard returned to the reservation to live with her older sister, Courtney. "There's nothing like the smell of being on Shinnecock," Leonard said. "Having the saltwater mist hit you . . . it's a unique moment."

It was during Leonard's senior year of high school that a large finback whale carcass washed ashore near the reservation. It was a moving experience for Leonard, whose Indian ancestors were whalers before -- and after -- European settlers arrived on Long Island in the early 17th century.

"We are very connected to whales," Leonard said. "Their beaching is often a warning sign that a great change is on the horizon. It is a sign that the balance in the environment is very unstable."

In 2006, a few months after the whale sighting, Leonard graduated from Knox at the top of her class. From there she went on to Harvard, where she earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology and sociology, with a secondary field in ethnic studies. During her senior year in college, Leonard helped build a traditional Wampanoag home, called a wetu, on Harvard's campus.

Months after graduating from college in 2010, Leonard landed overseas, immersed in a new country and a very different culture.

"I was the only Native-American at Oxford," she said. "At first, it was a difficult transition. There were a lot of Skype calls." In particular, Leonard missed her niece, Néepa Wotáhomon Hyde, who had been born just two days after she left for England. Skyping with Néepa and her mother (Leonard's sister, Courtney) helped Leonard bridge the miles.

Although she'd never been to England before, Leonard had studied in several developing countries during college. She figured if she could make it in the island nations of Samoa and Dominica, surely she could survive in the United Kingdom.

"But developing countries were similar to Rez life," she said. "I was already exposed to that lifestyle. In England I was lost in translation for a few weeks, figuring out 'queue' versus 'line' and 'lift' versus 'elevator.' "

But by the winter, Leonard said, she noticed herself referring to the pulp in her orange juice as "bits." "I had officially acclimated," she said.

Leonard's decision to pursue a master's degree in water science was inspired in large part by her life on the reservation. Shinnecock Indians are connected to the water in myriad ways, she said: geographically, economically and spiritually. But now climate change is threatening their marine environment. As sea levels rise and banks erode, water is creeping ever closer to the tribe's cemetery. Changes in the ocean are also affecting shellfish populations for the worse.

At Oxford Leonard took classes in water economics and law, social policy, geology, hydrology, climate modeling and hydrobiology. Her master's thesis examined the Clean Water Act, the United States' primary federal law governing water pollution and the ways it does -- and doesn't -- apply to tribal waters. In particular, she surveyed the recent efforts of tribes, states and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to collaborate on efforts to restore and maintain water quality on tribal land.

Throughout the course of her research, Leonard interviewed dozens of EPA staff, state environmentalists and tribal water-quality specialists from more than 50 Indian nations around the country. Determining who controls a waterway and how can be tricky no matter where you are, but Southampton is a particularly unique sociopolitical community, Leonard noted. Its diverse groups -- residents, fishermen and Shinnecock Indians -- have different, and sometimes competing, interests in the local waters. Although tribal regulations governing protection and management of the tribe's waterways are not new, Leonard added, federal recognition has heightened the responsibility of town, state and federal officials to work with the Shinnecock Nation to co-manage natural resources and enforce the laws of its jurisdiction.


Eye on the far future

Leonard's mother speaks with pride about her daughter's work. "Kelsey always has her mind on the Seventh Generation," she said, referring to a Shinnecock phrase used to remind tribe members of the long-term consequences of their actions. "If we destroy the water today, what will the children of our children's children's children have?"

Since graduating from Oxford, Leonard has been working as an independent consultant for nonprofit organizations in western Pennsylvania that are trying to protect the state's land and water from hydraulic fracturing and the natural gas boom afoot there.

"Much of the world's remaining natural resources are beneath tribal lands," she said. "I hope what I learn here will apply to other regions, other tribal nations who are developing -- or not developing -- their resources."

Ultimately, said Leonard, she would like to hold an advisory position in the Shinnecock tribal government or work for the EPA's Office of International and Tribal Affairs.

"Hopefully I can be an advocate for the concerns of tribes and push American environmental policy forward," she said. "I think it means something for everyone to have a seat at the table. That way, at least your voice was heard."

On the other hand, said Leonard, "I'm open to seeing where life takes me."

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