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By Eric Weld   Date: 5/12/10 Bookmark and Share

Two Passions, One Career

Alison Montgomery ’10 gets the question a lot: Are you Native American?

She’s not. But her sympathies and passion align with Native American issues, particularly when it comes to the environmental viability of the lands on which many Native American people live.

When she graduates on May 16, Montgomery will be the first Smith student to complete the Five College Native American Indian Studies (5CNAIS) certificate. The 10-year-old, seven-course program focuses on the histories, cultures and contemporary issues of Native American Indian people in the Western Hemisphere.

“My favorite courses have been my courses in Native American studies,” says Montgomery. “The classes that have made me think, that have uncomfortable moments with other people in class—these courses have taught more than others I’ve taken.”

Montgomery’s interests in Native American culture didn’t begin in college. She grew up in western Montana, outside Missoula, near the Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Her mother worked as a social worker on the reservation.

“Mom brought stories home from the reservation,” she recalls. “When we watched movies, like Dances With Wolves, she’d say, ‘That’s not really how it happened.’ I always wanted to know more.”

Her passion for the environment and her love for the outdoors steered Montgomery to a major in biology. But her fondness for history and Native American issues consistently attracted her to courses such as Native South Americans, taught by Donald Joralemon, professor of anthropology, and those taught by Neal Salisbury, Barbara Richmond 1940 Professor Emeritus in the Social Sciences.

Montgomery plans to combine her two interests after leaving Smith by continuing her focus on bioremediation, the study of methods by which plants and bacteria can be used to clean toxins, such as PCBs, a widespread industrial pollutant in the United States, and uranium pollution, a major problem on some Indian reservations. She plans to enter graduate school to study environmental science and policy, at either Duke University or the University of California at Berkeley.

Montgomery saw firsthand the damage that pollutants can wreak when she worked last summer to help clean PCBs from the St. Lawrence River, near the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, N.Y. The chemicals infected the fish, a source of food for the residents.

“I want to help clean up environmental messes like that and make sure they don’t happen again,” she says. “And I can’t forget about this part of our history.”

At Smith, Montgomery chaired the student organization ISSA, Indigenous Smith Students and Allies, and helped coordinate an April symposium on “Native Americans and Environmental Health.”

Her interest in Native American issues frequently leads to inquiries about her background.

“I’m just passionate about Native American issues,” she responds. “Smith gets us pumped up for things we’re passionate about.”

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