People Power - On the Trail With the Rock "Doc": Bringing Natural Science to Reservation Children

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By Miriam Raftery


October 1, 2008 (Mesa Grande reservation) - Bouncing down a dusty dirt road with hairpin turns so narrow that we have to
honk our horn to warn oncoming drivers, we descend past Lake Sutherland into
a deep gorge.   We emerge in a hidden valley—home of the
lower Mesa Grande Indian reservation.  The most remote tribal village
in East County, Mesa Grande’s American Indians survived 19th century
attacks that decimated more accessible tribes. 

We park in front of the tribal tutoring center, which doubles as a fire station.   A
throng of smiling children quickly surrounds us, eager to greet Eleanora “Norrie” Robbins,
PhD—better known as “Doc.”

“This is the plate boundary during the Cretaceous Era, the time of the
dinosaurs,” says Robbins, pointing to a fracture in a vertical rock face
rising behind the tutoring center.  In other words, we are gazing up at
the collision site of two ancient tectonic plates—similar to the better-known
San Andreas earthquake fault.  

Robbins is here to lead a Science Explorer’s Club class as part of a
program that she founded several years ago.  Today, she teaches natural
science skills to youngsters at nine of the 19 Indian reservations in San Diego
County, also bringing other scientists to serve as role models for the children.

“Our pipeline here is really working. It’s mind-boggling,” she
reveals.  One of her former students recently became the first student
from the Mesa Grande band to be accepted at the University of California, San
Diego.  Three more have graduated from Explorers’ Club to Young
Native Scholars, a program that points reservation teens towards college.  Four
more now have science-related jobs with their tribal Environmental Protection
Agencies.

Robbins’ fascination with Indian culture and a love of the outdoors
began as a child, when Robbins read books by Ben Hunt on how to make arrowheads,
canoes, and other replicas of Native American artifacts.  “So I
decided when I was ten that I wanted to become an Ojibway Indian,” she
recalls.  “That eventually morphed into wanting to be a geologist.”

After serving in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, Robbins joined the U.S. Geological
Survey, where she worked as a geologist for 34 years.  While living in
the Washington D.C. area, she became a “Point of Light” under the
first Bush administration, founding a program for children along Oxon Run Creek
in Anacostia.  Calling this `What’s under your Feet?,’ she
led these inner city urban youths of Washington, D.C., into the creek of her
childhood.  “This was the first integrated neighborhood in D.C.,” she
says. “My parents raised me to believe in diversity.” Later, under
the Clinton administration, she drew inspiration from Vice President Al Gore
to foster support for protecting the earth and its resources.

When her husband, an avid golfer, suggested moving to San Diego, Robbins seized
the opportunity to fulfill a dream of her own. 
“I had been asking why are there no Indian geologists,” she recalls.   When
a social worker with the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed Robbins that the
reason was a lack of role models on reservations, Robbins made a resolution.  “I
said fine, when I retire I’m going to be a geologist role model on the
reservations.”

Robbins teamed up with Eric and Dawn Riggs, a geologist and historian couple,
to create an outdoor science experience for children on local tribal reservations.  After
becoming an adjunct faculty member at SDSU, Robbins began her first program
at the La Jolla Indian reservation.

“Elder Henry Rodriguez at La Jolla said, `Turn these Indian children
into hydrologists,’ she observes, adding that La Jolla is one of the
only Indian bands in San Diego County that owns water.  “Henry fought
for their water rights all the way to the Supreme Court.” 

With his support, Robbins was soon able to expand her program and win funding
through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to cover her mileage and
equipment, which is shared with the tribes.  Her program also helps fund
Young Native Scholars and provides money for Indian youths to work for the
tribal EPA offices and take courses in science, technology, engineering and
math.

“In this culture, you do not move away and leave your mom’s,” she
notes.  “There are science jobs on the reservations, so moms are
excited and the tribes are pleased.”  Thanks to funds from Hewlett
Packard, UCSD, and NSF, all reservations in San Diego County now have high-speed
Internet at tutoring centers, tribal offices and even some homes, creating
a virtual tribal digital village to foster learning.

Doc captures
children’s attention with lessons that include panning for gold and crystals,
digging for water, discovering where rocks come from, bugs and butterflies,
and the `great lizard hunt.’  “Sometimes it’s so exciting,
we keep going after dark and use our cell phones to see,” Robbins says. 

One of her biggest challenges arose after the 2003 Cedar Fire, which destroyed
homes of some of her students and their families.  Robbins and her teacher
friend, Maria Catalina, an Apache Indian, created a class called “Amazing
Ash,” encouraging children to study the colors of ashes, collect and
display salvaged objects and create posters as part of a “Spirit of the
Land” conference sponsored by Viejas.

At lower Mesa Grande, Cindy Rivera heads up the tutoring center.  “There
are about 90 people living down here, and another 30 or 40 up top,” she
says.

Rivera joins us for this month’s Explorers’ Club outing.  Norrie
outfits 11 eager children, ages 6-11, with gear including backpacks, magnifying
glasses, shovels, and water.  “If we see mountain lions, remember,
hands up and get big!” she exclaimed, leading the children in an exercise
on how to ward off predators.

This is no idle drill.  The big cats have been spotted recently in this
valley.

After a brief training, Robbins informs Thunder Lopez, age seven, “You
are now authorized to use this $250 camera.”  The announcement elicits
a broad grin.

At the children’s suggestion, we embark on a berry-picking excursion.  Robbins
teaches the youngsters how to tell edible berries from non-edible ones.  “Black
is beautiful, white is dead, and you never know about red berries,” she
explains.  Soon after, the hungry crew dives into a blackberry bramble,
plopping handfuls of ripe, juicy blackberries into their mouths.  Robbins
plucks leaves and later helps the children identify different plant species.

We spot a flock of wild turkeys, pausing to gather feathers from turkeys and
hawks along the trail, with permission.

We
hike over boulders and fragrant wild mint along a creek bed filled with the
tribe’s most precious commodity: water. 

“Look—crawdads!” a boy exclaims.  Several of the children
try without success to capture the non-native crawdads (also known as crayfish),
some up to 10 inches long. 

Robbins observes, “See what they do?  They breathe! Look—there
are bubbles.”

Asked his favorite activity, nine-year-old Jacob “Bubba” Duro
responds, “Trying to catch crawdads!”

For next month’s activity, Robbins pledges, “We’ll bring
tongs and other tools, and a big pot, and have a crawdad feast.” 

The kids cheer and we head home, promising to come back soon.  On the
drive out, passing ancient Indian grindstones, I have the distinctive feeling
that we’d traveled back in time.

Robbins predicts that two of the children we met today will someday become
geologists.  Another aspires to be a writer and several more have expressed
interest in science careers.

“These are happy kids,” she concludes as the valley vanishes
behind us.  “They have this amazing freedom so far from the city.”

Hoping to expand her successful program, Robbins seeks biologists with
free time during after-school hours.  If you would like to volunteer,
contact Robbins at nrobbins@geology.sdsu.edu.