Graduate student profile: Morales facilitates exchange among Indigenous peoples

By Meghan Chua


The way Reynaldo A. Morales tells it, his research is the story of knowledge, and the peoples who have preserved complex ways of knowing how to communicate with Earth.

A joint PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Morales explores Indigenous knowledge systems, and how their exchange is essential to sustainability around the world.

Through his work, Morales has sought to create spaces for global Indigenous communities to exchange knowledge. He previously worked with the Department of Biochemistry at UW–Madison in a large science education project, facilitating knowledge exchange among tribal educators and youth around science curriculum design, digital storytelling, and environmental filmmaking.

Reynaldo Morales and Menominee representatives at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
Graduate student Reynaldo Morales is pictured with colleagues at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Shown here (left to right): Chris Caldwell, Director of the Sustainable Development Institute, College of Menominee Nation; Reynaldo Morales; Sherry LaShappele, Menominee Language Teacher; and Jennifer Gauthier, Menominee County/Nation Community, Natural Resources, and Economic Development Educator, UW Extension. (Photo courtesy of Reynaldo Morales)

He has participated in the last three editions of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and is active in educational networks around genetic resources, biological diversity, intellectual property, food sovereignty, global health, and sustainable development.

“Indigenous peoples all around the world were – and still are – physically displaced from their environment and marginalized to a point of fighting for their survival,” Morales said. “Once these communities were displaced, they lost their biological diversity base.”

Recent research shows lower biological diversity correlates genetic inequality to social inequality, public and global health inequality, poverty, malnutrition, and other problems, Morales noted.

His research explores the processes of preservation, protection, repatriation, and exchange of cultural and genetic resources. Global exchange, both cultural and direct, among Indigenous peoples can help to restore that biological diversity.

“The restoration of biological diversity and ancestral, cultural practices of sustainability and environmental stewardship are powerful keys to transform our world,” Morales said.

In 2016, Morales traveled to Hawaii to attend the Rising Voices 4 Conference. The conference reconnected him to a network of academics around the world who study Indigenous knowledge systems.

Morales will return to Hawaii this summer, invited by the Olohana Foundation. The group plans to build an international school on the island of Maui.

Reynaldo Morales at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
Doctoral candidate Reynaldo Morales (shown here, second from left, at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues) seeks to create spaces for Indigenous peoples to exchange knowledge, especially among topics of biodiversity, genetic diversity, and sustainability. (Photo courtesy of Reynaldo Morales)

“We need these academic spaces so Indigenous leaders, researchers, scientists, and educators can represent their communities in international law arenas and be the voices, minds, and hearts of their communities,” Morales said.

His upcoming travels continue to focus on exchange and genetic diversity. In July, Morales plans to visit the International Potato Center in Mozambique to study a project that brought the orange-fleshed sweet potato, high in beta-carotene, from Peru to Africa to combat vitamin A deficiency, earning the 2016 World Food Prize. He will also travel to India in August to visit Bija Vidyapeeth – Earth University and study agroecology and seeds management with international faculty and researchers, as well as implement an agroecology project in the mountainous desert region of Ladakh.

In Wisconsin, Morales is in discussion with tribal leaders from the state, creating a plan to visit the Andes and Amazon regions to connect with sustainable agriculture, agroecology, and seed management projects in the heart of Indigenous communities with vast cultural and genetic heritage.

“We have responsibilities with Indigenous peoples at many different levels,” Morales said. “Supporting their emergence, their sustainability, is one of the most important responsibilities of the developed world at a very critical time for our planet.”