Last spring, anthropology professor Rebecca Dobkins got an unexpected call.
The federal government wanted to better understand the barriers Native American tribal members of the Pacific Northwest — Oregon, Washington and Alaska — experience when they attempt to access plant resources on federal lands for use in traditional tribal arts.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was able to fund $30,000 toward the project, so the United States Forest Service asked if Dobkins knew of a student interested in researching the topic.
Dobkins immediately thought of Ceara Lewis ’13.
In addition to majoring in anthropology while at Willamette, Lewis had interned at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. While there, she conducted an inventory of the museum’s historic Native American basketry collection alongside Dobkins and Margaret Mathewson, an anthropologist and ethno-botanist associated with Oregon State University.
Because of these experiences, Dobkins says Lewis was the perfect person for the research project.
“I hope she has a remarkable experience and that it gives her an opportunity to grow in her skills as a researcher and anthropologist,” says Dobkins, adding requests such as these are almost always directed to large, research-based universities.
“They thought we at Willamette could work on the cultural context. They came to us for a reason.”
Lewis is charged with conducting a literature review, facilitating conversations at weaving conventions, and documenting issues encountered by tribal members seeking to harvest beargrass and other plants on federal lands.
She will also develop guidelines to help federal land managers make the land more accessible. Dobkins will oversee her work.
The goals of the project are to create a stronger dialogue between the federal government and Pacific Northwest tribes and to change existing practices that have had the effect of limiting Native Americans’ access to federal land.
“This will hopefully create a better understanding of what the weavers want and what the government can provide,” says Lewis, adding that her own heritage as an Aleut, a Native Alaskan people, gives her a unique perspective on the issue.
“I am native, and want to make sure that the way of life and native arts and traditions are being protected,” she says.
Lewis says she’s happy to continue working alongside her former professor and advisor.
“I feel very blessed to work with such an amazing woman who has done substantial work,” Lewis says. “Professor Dobkins is very supportive and creates a healthy and productive environment for success.”
She and Dobkins agree this project could bring about positive change in the working relationship between tribes and the federal government.
“I am very excited to start this journey,” Lewis says.