The Meaning of Place
As a sociologist, University of Idaho professor Leontina Hormel has made a career out of observing rural cultures and communities. From Ukraine and the Russian Federation to interdisciplinary research in Idaho, she has focused on how communities deal with social, technological and political change. However, through these studies Hormel understands that observing a culture is not the same as understanding it from within, so her current research takes a different approach.
Currently, she has organized a research team that includes Nez Perce tribal researchers Lucinda Simpson and Diane Mallickan and Nez Perce students Chantel Greene, Cato Vallandra and current UI student Lewonne Teasley. Hormel is helping tribal members collect input about the cultural consequences of changing uses of Idaho Highway 12 and the lands of the Clearwater Basin – significant parts of the Nez Perce treaty lands and heritage.
“The Highway 12 route is becoming part of the state’s planning to grow the economy by enhancing commercial transportation of equipment and commodities between major energy extraction sites,” she said. “So, the research question is asking how technological modernization is affecting how rural populations — in this case, the Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu as they call themselves — perceive these shifts.”
These changes concerned many tribal members because the Nez Perce’s input regarding Highway 12 was considered inadequate or non-existent.
“The research is trying to help Nez Perce people communicate more clearly orally/visually how they are connected culturally and environmentally to the Clearwater Watershed,” Hormel said. “So, it is less about modes of communication and more about the meaning of place to Nez Perce people, most especially the role of environmental health to community resilience.”
The Nez Perce researchers work in pairs, with older tribal researchers working with younger members. These pairings enable generational knowledge sharing, one of the project’s primary goals. Each professionally grounded Nimiipuu senior works with student-researchers to refine interview questions and then conduct interviews using photovoice, a technique where participants supplement verbal interviews with photographs they feel capture their experiences with the region’s environment. In addition, those being interviewed are encouraged to share meaningful artifacts, craftwork, creative writings or traditional food items that are rooted in Nez Perce culture.
“I think it is important to feature the collaborative spirit of this project, since several Nez Perce people have guided me and are doing the work of the project with me – it is envisioned as a project for and by Nez Perce members,” Hormel said.
The project’s aim is a result of collaboration with a variety of Nez Perce tribal activists, including Paulette Smith, Elliott Moffett, Renee Holt, and UI alumni Julian Matthews and James Holt. This collaboration has also involved inter-institutional partnering with Lewis-Clark State College professor Chris Norden.
“Technological changes affecting how we communicate and feel informed about science or environment affects people’s perceptions of fairness of the current system, it affects their trust. In this way, these different people and places are similar,” Hormel said.
Funded by the Sociological Initiatives Foundations, the UI Office of Research and Economic development and the UI College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, the study’s contents including the photovoice interviews, artifacts, photos and other materials will be complied, archived and stored in the Nez Perce Tribe’s Cultural Resources division so the Nez Perce Tribe will own and be able to access them for years to come.