The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, Wonderfully Wild. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, Wonderfully Wild.

Enhancing Native American Conservation Skills

July 27, 2022

By Sienna Thomas and Katie Shaw,  Conservation Department

The Living Desert, in collaboration with the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe and Outward Bound Adventures, has launched the Torres Martinez Youth Environmental Ambassador program (TM-YEA) for 13-26 year-old Tribal members. This 10-12 month program aims to create conservation champions among underserved Tribal youth by reconnecting participants with their traditional homelands, developing conservation career opportunities for native youth, and introducing them to the traditional and western methods of land management and stewardship.

Participants will engage in biweekly activities, such as content workshops and outdoor excursions. Content workshops will cover a range of topics, including Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and western conservation science, habitat restoration, professional development skills, and how to cultivate a healthier lifestyle using traditional foods. Participants will also have the opportunity to connect with various environmental partners and agencies. Participants will engage in routine evaluations to monitor their progress towards achieving several personal goals over the course of the program. In addition to the content workshops, participants will take part in multi-day outdoor excursions to increase their comfort and confidence in nature and teach additional skills such as navigation and map reading.

We have already successfully held the orientation meeting and first content workshop. The twenty-one participants were introduced to staff members and received a general overview of the program, including expectations and rewards, as participants will have the opportunity to earn a monthly stipend. During the first content workshop, participants discussed and sampled traditional healthy foods, including nopales (cactus) salad, tepary bean stew, grasshoppers, and mesquite cookies. Participants engaged in a discussion about various traditional ingredients, resources on where to obtain them, and why it is important to incorporate these ingredients into their diet to promote a healthy lifestyle and continue cultural traditions. Future culinary content workshops will focus on harvesting ingredients in the wild using traditional methods (when ingredients are seasonally available.)

Over the course of the first two meetings, participants developed five personal goals for the program. Participants commonly expressed a desire to learn about cultural knowledge, the local landscape, environmental protection, and how to lead a healthier lifestyle. Participants will monitor their progress towards achieving these goals, which will both track participants’ personal development and shape the structure and content of the program in future years. Current participants will also help lead the program’s second year participants by sharing their acquired skills and knowledge.

The long-term goal of the TM-YEA program is to increase Indigenous representation in the field of conservation. We will connect program graduates with potential employment opportunities with our partner agencies and organizations with whom they will have been introduced and collaborated with during the program. Through the opportunities and skills obtained in this program, we hope to inspire the next generation of Indigenous conservation leaders.

Search the Living Desert WebsiteMagnifying glass icon