By Rob Jordan

There is one college class Ke’opu Reelitz can’t forget. In it, she was the only student to defend a range of restrictions on beachfront private property, arguing that the coast is common property – a belief central to her values. “I got pigeonholed into being the native Hawaiian,” she recalled recently at the First Nations' Futures Institute, a two-week program at the Stanford Woods Institute that prepares young indigenous leaders to tackle social, economic, environmental and cultural challenges in their communities.

Reelitz was one of 16 fellows from Hawaii, Alaska and New Zealand eager to learn how to develop values-based leadership and integrate resource management solutions. Together, they attended and discussed various lectures and presentations on issues such as innovation, agricultural history, colonial impacts, strategic management and communications. They also had time for unique learning experiences ranging from a kayaking excursion to outdoor leadership training with horses.

The annual institute is part of the First Nations' Futures Program (FNFP), a one-year fellowship program co-directed by Stanford Woods Senior Fellow Peter Vitousek that is intended to develop well-balanced First Nations leaders.

For Reelitz, the institute was an opportunity to meet and brainstorm with indigenous leaders who share a love for their communities’ natural resources and a desire to care for them. The experience was the seed of an empowering values-based connection. “If you put it in the right places with the right people, you start to have better control of decisions that are being made.”

A session on water law and policies provided a window into the experience. During the session, Buzz Thompson, Woods co-director, traced water issues and the Public Trust Doctrine – the protection of natural resources for the use of all – from ancient Roman law through modern debates over beachfront access in Malibu. One fellow’s question – “So, if there was no conquest, the public trust exists?” – elicited laughs. Thompson acknowledged that colonial history often displaced the doctrine, but added that traditional native notions embody similar concepts and emphasize holding resources such as water in trust for future generations. Tools to achieve this goal include government mandates, financial incentives and persuasion, Thompson told the fellows.

Following Thompson, ­­­­Ka`eo Duarte, a hydrologist at Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii, asked the fellows to imagine various water use scenarios. How, Duarte asked, would they prioritize water use between ecosystem needs and human needs such as agriculture and drinking? Does it matter if the agriculture is traditional or modern or if native Hawaiians are in charge? What about transporting water elsewhere? Debate ensued after each question.

Parsing difficult resource-related questions is part of the institute’s larger value, said participant Anthony Lindoff, a Tlingit from Alaska. Gaining access to “executive-level boardroom decisions” is the major goal, he said. “It’s about being a conduit between the people we represent and policymakers – federal, state, tribal and nonprofits.” To take a more proactive stance, Lindoff said, young leaders like him need to learn how to identify their communities’ core values and act on them consistently. They need to learn how to deal with conflict between tradition and innovation. “Even though we’re quite different in some ways, we have similar challenges and opportunities,” Lindoff said.


Photo by William Awa