Sarah Swanz, Student Sustainability Profile

Rebecca Lerner
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Photo of Stephanie DooperStudents and Sustainability Profile Series

“Coming back to school is a second career for me,” said Sarah Swanz, a student in the School of Information and a Dow Sustainability Fellow. “I was a lawyer in D.C. first, and have not done anything in the environment space before this.”

Swanz is interested in cultural heritage protection. She plans to use digital tools to impact the preservation of history.

“That’s how I ended up at the School of Information,” Swanz explained. “I started studying cultural heritage protection and learning about how development and environmental changes, like climate change is wreaking havoc on indigenous communities.”

More frequent and severe storms, flooding and an increase in temperature threatens public health and also our cultural heritage. Swanz is working with four other students as part of a Dow Fellows team project focusing on the protection of cultural heritage. They spent six weeks in Wisconsin collecting oral history interviews from the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe. Her research focused on the way a changing climate is influencing the indigenous community’s food supply and their culture.

“Maple trees are in their Southernmost range because it keeps getting warmer and warmer. If you’re an indigenous tribe in Wisconsin who harvests maple syrup, it’s important to make food, and it’s critical to preserve your culture and pass along your traditions.”

When tribal members of the Bad River Band tap maple trees, they’re also teaching cultural lessons to their children. If maple trees cannot adapt to the projected increase in temperature, both the trees and the cultural traditions of the community may be lost.

Tribal communities use maple syrup for gifts. So Sarah and the Dow Fellows team are evaluating non-economic factors (e.g., the cultural impact) of this loss. The Bad River Band is part of a large tribal community, known as Anishinaabek that migrated to the Great Lakes region, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ontario and other states and provinces in search of food.

“Some tribal communities migrated from the East Coast and ended up [in the Great Lakes] because the creator told them where the food grows on water,” Swanz explained. “Wild rice grows in rivers and lakes and does kind of look like it’s growing on water. So if something happened to the wild rice, it would be devastating. Tribal communities would lose this whole aspect of their identity.”

This aspect of cultural heritage protection is about preserving traditions when climate change impacts the plants, and animals central to a community. Swanz is working to ensure stories and beliefs can be shared and cherished for years to come.

“I want future generations to have what I’ve had and to know their heritage. So whether that’s a landscape or an artifactual heritage, I want it to be there for them.”

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