Zelma Smith slides her cane into the gun rack of her 1972 GMC truck. She grips the steering wheel and hoists her 83-year-old body onto the bench seat. She has cows to feed on her ranch on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. She guns the mustard-yellow rig through mud holes. Her kerchief-covered silver hair and weathered face shine back in the rearview mirror. Bouncing on a bent tailgate behind bales of hay, Fara Brummer holds on.
Brummer is along for the ride to check out Smith’s cows and provide her with a nutritional analysis of her hay. Brummer is an educator in agriculture and natural resources with the Oregon State University Extension Service. She works with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and is one of only 28 Extension educators across the country funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program. She’s part of a team of OSU Extension faculty at Warm Springs, who also teach nutrition classes and deliver educational 4-H activities for youth on the reservation. It’s the only Extension office on tribal land in Oregon.
“The scope of Extension’s work is so huge here,” Brummer says. “There are many things to work on in agriculture and natural resources. Partnering with tribal groups and natural resource agencies is vital.”
One of those partnerships is with the tribal Range and Agriculture Department. OSU graduate Jason Smith, a tribal member and Zelma’s nephew, manages the department. One of their collaborations is a project to supplement livestock on the reservation with the appropriate mix of minerals, including selenium. The soil on the reservation, and thus the plants cows eat, are low in selenium. The deficiency can lead to a deadly paralysis in young calves and retained placentas. Brummer earned her master’s degree at OSU studying the effects of low selenium on two reservation cattle herds and found a significant improvement with supplements. Since then, two mobile mineral feeders have been constructed for range use.
About 10 families raise nearly 1,700 cattle on the reservation. Edison Yazzie and his two daughters are among them. He’s a regular customer in Brummer’s office, which she shares with a tribal nurse. It’s a hard-working office, where a table piled high with children’s car seats shares space with posters about healthy cows. Yazzie, dressed in a Seattle Seahawks baseball cap and work boots, stops in to ask Brummer to look up the cost of a hay chopper on the Web. He has an Internet connection at home but he’s not comfortable with technology. “She always comes through,” Yazzie says. “She’s never said, ‘I can’t help you.’ ” And, he adds, she never says anything bad about anyone, not even cows.
When she runs into ranchers she asks about their cows as if inquiring about their families. Brummer likes all animals and has ever since she was a little girl in India. She remembers a fairytale childhood by the ocean with tropical weather, mangos, coconuts, and beautiful open spaces. But in India she also saw poverty, starvation, leprosy, and corpses on the side of the road. When she was 10, Brummer and her family moved to New York, where she earned her degree in biology and environmental science. She spent time at a ranch in Oregon, caring for thousands of cattle, and she was hooked. Now here she is, an Indian from the country where cows are sacred, working with cows on an American Indian reservation.
Part of Brummer’s job is to bring university-based research to the Warm Springs community. And much of that research is conducted on the reservation. OSU agronomist Marvin Butler is studying how to restore native bunchgrass where weedy annual grasses like medusahead and cheatgrass have set up housekeeping and destroyed the natural cohesiveness of the soil. Brummer and Jason Smith have demonstrated how grazing land can be improved inexpensively. For example, cattle can work grass seed into the ground with their hooves and prune old willows and dried-up bunchgrass as they graze, so the plants grow back healthier in the spring.
Meanwhile, Brummer’s colleagues at OSU Extension are addressing another challenge facing the Warm Springs reservation: proper nutrition. As in many rural communities and low-income urban neighborhoods, the Warm Springs community has a limited supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. The aisles at the local grocery store are lined with chips, soda pop, cookies, and frozen pizzas. Only a couple of shelves in a corner are set aside for produce.
“If people in this community ate the way their ancestors did, their diet would be mainly roots, deer, and elk meat,” says Shawn Morford, OSU Extension’s staff chair and 4-H director in Warm Springs. “When sugar and white flour were brought in, the long journey began to the diet that people have now.” Efforts to reverse the rate of obesity and diabetes in the community rely primarily on traditional culture and values. “Our message is that the closer the food can be to the way it comes out of the earth, the healthier it is for you,” Morford says.
The lessons begin in grade school. One Tuesday morning finds fifth graders learning the importance of a healthy breakfast. The kitchen is hopping. The air smells of toasty granola. Twenty apron-clad bodies gather around tables and electric skillets, measuring vegetable oil, slicing strawberries, and pouring pancake batter into animated shapes. For some students, it is the first time they have made pancakes. They set the tables and dig in.
“When we asked the students to draw pictures of agriculture for an annual calendar contest, they drew pictures of their cultural foods,” Brummer says. “We realized that there was a missing component: cultural plants.” Since then, field trips every April teach how to dig traditional wild roots, and how to preserve and cook them.
Neon yellow signs point out one more problem the tribal government is addressing: wild horses. They’re a problem when unmanaged because they destroy habitat for fish and ground-nesting birds and overgraze the roots and berries that are traditional foods. Smith and Brummer teamed up in 2003 to organize a tribal horse auction, which has become an annual event. As a result, nearly 1,200 horses have been sold.
Three tribes—Warm Springs, Wasco, and Paiute—make up the Warm Springs community, which has been an honored partner with OSU since 1955. A key moment in the relationship between OSU and the tribes came in 1960, when the university completed a five-volume study with recommendations to develop human and natural resources on the reservation. Out of that study came suggestions for the tribes to build a tourist resort, purchase a lumber mill, divide the range into livestock management areas, and reduce the number of wild horses. Today OSU Extension at Warm Springs is a department within the tribes’ education branch. That means it reports not only to OSU but also to the tribal government. Last year, representatives from OSU and the tribes signed a revised memorandum of understanding. They agreed to increase tribal members’ access to degree programs at OSU and recognize indigenous knowledge as a respected resource for education and research.
Back at Zelma Smith’s ranch, the overcast sky is bluish-gray as Brummer tosses the last flake of hay out of the truck and sweeps the bed clean. The coyotes are singing. “I feel privileged to work in a job that makes a difference,” Brummer says.