Austin Peay’s Southeastern Grasslands Institute hires first tribal liaisons

Corlee Thomas-Hill, a tribal liaison for Austin Peay State University’s Southeastern Grasslands Institute, is filmed in the Catoosa Savanna in the Cumberland Plateau.

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (May 29, 2024) — The Southeastern Grasslands Institute (SGI), based out of Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, recently hired two tribal liaisons to advance its partnership with Native American tribes on regional grassland conservation and incorporate Native American ecological and botanical knowledge into its work.

Corlee Thomas-Hill, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), and Gabrielle Patterson (Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb), a historian with a focus on Native American and early American history, have been tasked with building relationships and trust between SGI and Native American tribes. SGI will also hire a third liaison in the coming weeks, enabling the institute to have tribal liaisons in three locations across its 24-state focal region.

These positions were made possible through funding from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife Program. The three liaisons will develop and oversee SGI’s tribal program and eventually hire six to 12 interns to help meet the following goals:

  • Bringing indigenous land management back to the southeastern U.S.
  • Understanding tribal priorities on current tribal lands
  • Pursuing meaningful collaborative projects on ancestral lands
  • Supporting the compilation of cultural resource information
  • Facilitating tribal access to culturally significant populations of plants and animals

By hiring tribal interns, SGI aims to help develop transmittable skills that will positively benefit indigenous communities.

“Building trust with the tribes is important, and we want to ensure we are doing the things we say we are going to do and continue to foster the relationships we are building,” Thomas-Hill said. “SGI understands that some of the information that tribes share about culturally significant plants is not to be released as public information; tribes are already working on conserving their current and historical homelands so we want to make sure we are listening to what they want and not steamrolling what they are already doing.”

Both Patterson and Thomas-Hill are keenly aware of the logistical challenges involved in working with different tribes, some of which have been displaced from their ancestral lands for more than 200 years. SGI’s liaisons will work closely with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division as well as Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPO).

Patterson said being reachable and involved with every tribe that SGI partners with is especially important, and she is excited to begin making and strengthening those connections.

“It is critical to stay in contact with tribes,” she said. “If a tribe that SGI works with is having an event, it is essential for one of the liaisons to be in attendance.”

SGI’s tribal liaisons will also navigate the complex landscape of working with diverse tribes, each with unique histories, cultures and challenges.

“People tend to view native people as a monolith, but there are so many tribes in the southeast with different perspectives and viewpoints, [and] it’s important to help elevate voices and ensure we are doing things the right way and incorporating as much knowledge as possible,” Thomas Smith-said. “Tribal liaisons are not here to speak for tribes, but to make connections so our organization can listen to tribal citizens and understand their perspectives and needs.”

There remains a fine line between balancing each tribe’s needs with the desires of organizations like SGI not to overstep any boundaries. As the tribal liaison program develops, SGI remains committed to balancing scientific knowledge with cultural and social history as well as traditional ecological knowledge.

Thomas-Hill, Patterson and their future teammates will serve as vital bridges between SGI and Native American communities as they work together to build and maintain trust, facilitate the exchange of ecological knowledge and create meaningful impacts in grassland conservation across the Southeast.
“SGI is excited to launch its first tribally-led grassland conservation project at the 63-acre Old Town Farm near Franklin, Tennessee,” said Dr. Dwayne Estes, SGI’s executive director and a professor of biology at Austin Peay State University.

Old Town is home to one of the largest prehistoric Native American villages in central Tennessee. From about 1000-1450 AD, Old Town was a heavily fortified Mississippian culture village centered on two large pyramidal, earthen temple mounds surrounded by extensive Native American burial grounds. SGI’s tribal liaisons will work with present-day owners, Tracy and former Sen. Bill Frist, to restore and manage native meadows and woodlands.

“At Old Town, Corlee, Gabrielle and future tribal interns will build skills in meadow design and planting, prescribed fire, invasive species control, seed collection and species rewilding,” Sen. Frist said. “There are a number of significant plants at Old Town and nearby that the SGI team will help to conserve, including river cane (Arundinaria gigantea), hortulan plum (Prunus hortulana), leafy prairie clover (Dalea foliosa), Duck River Bladderpod (Paysonia densipila), and Price’s potato-bean (Apios priceana).”

Tracy Frist emphasized her family’s desire to reach well beyond the farm with this initiative, adding that “through skills uniquely developed at Old Town, SGI can help uplift tribally-connected projects and tribally-defined conservation priorities across the southeast.”