Stanford-based program trains indigenous leaders

The First Nations' Futures Institute celebrates 10 years of preparing young trailblazers to tackle environmental, economic, social and cultural challenges in their indigenous communities.

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Video by Rob Jordan

The Stanford-based First Nations’ Futures Institute is a two-week program that prepares young indigenous leaders to tackle social, economic, environmental and cultural challenges in their communities.

When roads were first built in remote Alaska, many caribou were too skittish to cross them.

“Caribou only cross roads if leaders do it first,” said Warren Maaguk Jones, a 2013 fellow at Stanford’s First Nations’ Futures Institute (FNFI), noting similarities to his community’s social dynamics. “When [one of our leaders] crosses the road, people will say, ‘Wow, he’s really doing something that’s true to who we are.'”

Jones, a Yup’ik native Alaskan, recounted the story during a recent symposium to celebrate the 10th anniversary of FNFI, a two-week program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment that supports young indigenous leaders in developing values-based skills to tackle environmental, economic, social and cultural challenges in their communities.

The analogy was greeted with knowing nods from current and former FNFI fellows who came from Alaska, Hawaii and New Zealand to reflect on how the program changed them and informed their work to better their communities.

In addition to presentations and workshops on issues such as innovation, communication and strategic management, FNFI fellows partake in unique learning experiences such as kayaking excursions and outdoor leadership training with horses. A key component is finding innovative ways to solve natural resource management challenges in indigenous organizations and communities.

The annual institute is part of the First Nations’ Futures Program, a one-year fellowship program intended to develop well-balanced First Nations leaders. Peter Vitousek, the Clifford G. Morrison Professor in Population and Resource Studies, co-directs the program, which is a partnership among the Stanford Woods Institute, Kamehameha Schools of Hawaii, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu (Māori tribal council) of New Zealand and the University of Hawaii Mānoa.

“We designed the program for First Nations Fellows, but it has also had enormous effects on all of the Stanford people who have come into contact with it,” said Vitousek, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute. “The fellows are a remarkable group, with remarkable stories and contributions.”

“It’s about reclaiming our stories, being critical and analytical,” said former fellow Paulette Tamati-Eliffe of New Zealand.

Former FNFI fellows are working on projects ranging from promoting small-scale agriculture for community wellness and developing a suicide prevention program to resurrecting a traditional gathering and learning place and running a community energy microgrid. Current fellows have ambitious plans too, such as training indigenous teachers and developing places where indigenous knowledge can be shared across generations.

“FNFI was a time of igniting the fire,” said Mahealani Kauahi, a former fellow promoting small-scale agriculture for community health in Hawaii.