Shace Anagali Duncan—self-described Indigenous advocate and Keetoowah brother, uncle, and son—received a new title during the 2023 United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) annual conference: Earth Ambassador, an honor recognizing his contributions to environmental stewardship. In June, Mr. Duncan addressed 2,000 of his Native peers at the UNITY conference in Washington, DC, speaking about living in reciprocity with the land and water, and drawing a link between pollution and poor mental health—especially among Indigenous people. “They all understood,” he says.
Mr. Duncan spent his summer researching invasive plant species in Harvard Forest, part of the Nipmuc Nation’s ancestral land. Nipnet—“fresh water place”— encompasses parts of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and central Massachusetts—including Harvard Forest. Today, Harvard University calls the forest its “4,000 acre laboratory and classroom,” devoted to research and education into forest biology, ecology, and conservation. Mr. Duncan hopes his research will take Harvard’s mission a step further. By studying the effects of invasive species on traditional medicinal species, he aims to “amplify Indigenous voices in the Harvard Forest.”
The forest’s tree canopy includes thousands of red oak, red maple, black birch, white pine, and Eastern hemlock trees—much of it second-growth forest covering land that was claimed and stripped by European colonists, beginning in the 17th century. Invasive species ("insects, animals, plants, and pathogens”) have also arisen, threatening native ecosystems—such as black elderberry, a plant long valued for its medicinal properties.
“We come from strength and power and resilience.”
Mr. Duncan’s research took him beyond the forest to a Nipmuc Reservation, Hassanamisco, where he helped local Tribal organizations plant corn. “We were talking the whole time, building community,” he says. He also spent time with visiting youth from Tribes across the country, moving firewood together, seeking to “make connection on a deeper level.” It takes time to build rapport, but Mr. Duncan considers these efforts integral to meaningful research and usable outcomes. “We want to do what’s best for [the Nipmuc]—and their voices—over every other voice,” he says.
Mr. Duncan’s embrace of Native values and traditions is rooted in family. The middle child of 14 siblings, he grew up on the Cherokee Reservation in Stillwell, OK.
“I love my family so much,” he says. “They’re so cool. I always say they’re cooler than I am.” Mr. Duncan speaks with reverence about his parents and their efforts to spend time with their children. He calls one brother “a bright soul,” and says he looks up to his little sisters and their “caring hearts.” Mr. Duncan’s oldest siblings “role modeled what it means to be a hard worker,” he says, and he trusts their wisdom. From an older brother—“a really dope person”—Mr. Duncan became interested in “reclaiming” Giduwa, the Keetoowah language. “Once you integrate the language, you integrate the values,” he says.
Mr. Duncan found his family’s values challenged during middle school, when some of his classmates and teachers belittled his heritage. Taunted for wearing his hair long and ridiculed for speaking Giduwa, “I hated being Native for the longest time,” he says. “It’s kind of emotional to talk about” that time, but important to acknowledge “that these [sorts of] places are still existing,” he says.
At 15, Mr. Duncan enrolled in a residential magnet school expressly for Native students. There, he saw himself reflected in his peers; teachers nurtured his intellect and respected Indigenous principles. He discovered, “You can be authentically Indigenous and you can be a scientist, writer, actor—without having to censor who you are,” he says now. “It really showed me my possibilities.”
At 16, Mr. Duncan began training for “Remember the Removal,” a month-long, 950-mile cycling event that retraces a portion of the Trail of Tears—the route Native people were forced to walk when driven from their ancestral lands in the 1830s. COVID-19 postponed the ride for a year, but Mr. Duncan continued training, cycling throughout Oklahoma with his father following by car. When pandemic restrictions lifted, nine Cherokee cyclists set off from Georgia. Mr. Duncan was 18, the group’s youngest rider.
He speaks thoughtfully about the trip, recalling not the exhaustion or sore muscles but the abuses and anguish Cherokee ancestors endured. Thousands died. Yet the survivors “still found reasons to laugh and sing,” he says. “We’ve gone through all of that, and we’re still thriving.” Mr. Duncan calls the ride “my wakeup call.”
A sophomore at Stanford University, Mr. Duncan is majoring in Native American Studies and Environmental Biology. When asked about the future, he says he is committed to creating communities where Native youth can live authentically.
“I want to make a place where we can be ourselves,” he says. “I just want to live in a place where we can be Indigenous.”