Peacocks! Squirrels! The dangers of introducing non-native species.

Once upon a time there was this peacock who came to Buddhaland…becoming a tourist attraction but wrecking havoc on the local ecosystem.

After studying about food webs, ecological balance, and invasive species, my students made a film about what happens when peacocks are introduced to Northern California.

During our last week of the AP Environmental Science class at the Developing Virtue High School (City of Ten Thousand Buddhas), we dreamed up a two minute tale – original chalk drawings!! great sound effects!!– and brought it to life.

Invasive species are now among the top three threats to biological diversity (the other two are climate change and habitat destruction). Just because we think a fish, a bird, or a plant is pretty doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to bring it home with us – many introduced species become invasive when they compete with natives for food, water, and shelter.

Do your part by learning the difference between native species (living beings who evolved and adapted to a specific place) and non-native species (beings who were introduced to a new location, and did not evolve to live harmoniously with the existing residents). Be respectful of wild species and wild places, and help keep our planet in balance.




Student video revives ancient language

Animated videos posted on YouTube are helping to revive ancient languages, nowadays spoken mostly by tribal elders. Hupa, Pomo, Miwok, and Wukchumni are among hundreds of languages native to tribes and tribal communities throughout California. According to criteria set by the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), every tribal language in California is considered threatened or endangered.

One such video, “Animal Gamblers,” a story from the northern coastal tribe of Kashaya Pomo, involves over a dozen different mammal, bird, and insects playing a traditional hand game, one still played among tribes using bones or shells. The Native language spoken in the video and the native species featured in the story exemplify biocultural diversity: the combination of biological and cultural variation. California, with its hundreds of tribes, tribal communities, and ecosystems is a biocultural diversity hotspot.

Students Lisa Crane, Shifa Molla, and Anna Shein co-produced the video, based on a traditional Kashaya story told and sung by elder Herman James and recorded by ethnographer Robert Oswalt in 1958. Each animal featured in the film – grizzly bear, skunk, coyote, kingfisher, hawk, blowfly and others – is portrayed by a shadow puppet accurately representing a carefully researched native Californian species. “We figured our professor would know the difference, so we had to be on our game!” laughs Lisa.

The elegant design of the video allows viewers to experience the film in three different ways: watching the story performed through shadow puppetry, hearing the animal voices and the story line spoken in Kashaya Pomo, and reading the translation in English accompanying each scene.

The students came up with the idea of using an ancient storytelling technique – shadow puppetry – to honor the ancient roots of the Kashaya language and to inspire viewers. “We really wanted people to feel immersed in the language,” says Lisa, “the repetition in the story really helps people [become] familiar with the language, by feeling it and being a part of it.”

“One of the main audiences for our film is children, since they are the key to restoring lost languages in the future,” explains Shifa. According to UNESCO, the primary criterion determining whether a language will persist is intergenerational language transfer: from grandparents to parents to children. In California, many tribes and tribal communities are working year-round to provide language classes: by offering Native languages online, in evening classes, through apprenticeship programs, and in the case of the Yurok and Tolowa (Smith River Rancheria) tribes, in high school curricula.

The student filmmakers produced the video while enrolled in a general education course offered at San José State University entitled “Nature and World Cultures,” taught by ethnoecologist Dr. Jeanine Pfeiffer. The course educates students on the threats to biocultural diversity – such as cultural assimilation, climate change, and invasive species – and requires students to contribute to solutions to overcome those threats.

Hundreds of Dr. Pfeiffer’s students, working with tribal representatives, have produced micro-documentaries, Wikipedia articles, and bilingual animated videos that directly contribute to conserving biocultural diversity. “After watching our video, we hope people will be interested in learning more about the Kashaya. These are people who are part of our history too,” notes Anna.

Al Jazeera news cites our video!

Little Brother StoryStory-films helping to conserve Native Californian languages produced each semester by students in my Nature and World Cultures class are making international waves.

A Feburary 2016 Al Jazeera story by reporter Rob Reynolds on the Hupa (Hoopa) tribe’s efforts to keep their language alive – “Hupa: A language that refuses to die“– contained a shout-out to one of the bilingual animated story films made by our San Jose State University students (read below).

Tribal official Gordon Bussell (who is also featured in one of our student films on YouTube, How the Coyote Stole Daylight) is quoted in the article, which reads:

“This is what keeps the world together, is our languages. This language doesn’t just exist because of us. It actually exists in the air in the land, and it’s part of everything.

“So when I talk the language, the land knows me. To lose your language is like losing the fingers on your hand. Then, your body is sick. And so now, the world is sick.”

Outsiders are helping too. Students at the San Jose State University, under the direction of Professor Jeanine Pfeiffer, made an animated film of a Hupa legend, narrated by Hupa elder Verdena Parker and posted on YouTube.

Roundtable on Environmental Writing

“An environment of hate – whether it is subliminal or overt, directed towards nature or cultures – perpetuates a polluted atmosphere.

This pollution comes at a tremendous cost: a social cost, a medical cost, an ecological cost, an economic cost. And the pollution, in the form of racism, atmospheric particulate matter, and greenhouse gases, circulates and infiltrates everyone’s lives.

Right now in the United States, because of high-profile cases of police brutality, people are wearing T-shirts that say “Black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe.”

I believe that all lives matter, and if one of us is having trouble breathing, then we all are suffocating, in one way or another.”

(My words, part of a Spring 2015 roundtable.)

Bellevue Roundtable 2015

Two years ago, my essay entitled “All Our Relations” was published, along with the work of other fine writers, in a special issue of the Bellevue Literary Review. The essay was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and inspired an invitation for me to participate in a writer’s roundtable with Ben Goldfarb and Martha Serpas.

The transcript from the roundtable, compiled by associate editor Monica Wendel, can be found here, and also is also available as a PDF. I’d be interested in your reactions.



Last year a committee of San José State University students hosted a mix of impressive people on our TEDxSJSU 2015 stage where they shared a diverse set of viewpoints.

We’re excited to announce all eight talks can be freely accessed through the DrPfeiffer YouTube channel, on the TEDxSJSU 2015 playlist.

Christina Ngo, a fluid engineer at NASA, articulates the challenges of creating more LGBT-friendly workplaces. Pomo healer MarTan Martinez describes how to own one’s cultural identity. Nina G, “the world’s only female stuttering comedian,” teaches us how to be allies for the disabled. Business entreprenuer James Kao encourages collaborative approaches to dealing with e[electronic]-waste. Cultural activist Nathan Kiwere advocates for more protection of the animal totems of Uganda.

Joining our live speakers were TED talks by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminding us of the power of more than one story, Gaza photojournalist Eman Mohammed bravely telling untold stories in war zones, and filmmaker Lord David Puttman on how understanding the history of slavery can alter how we address climate change.

We encourage you to join the millions of others who have viewed these talks. Prepare to be inspired!

Highway Bypass = Cultural Bypass

The construction of a Highway 101 bypass in Northern California is destroying cultural landscapes. Village sites, ancestral gathering, hunting, and fishing grounds, and culturally significant species  (salmon, elk, oaks, tule) for Pomo tribes in and around the town of Willits (Mendocino County) have been irreparably damaged. At present, mitigation plans for lost wetlands do not include cultural restoration.

It didn’t have to be this way: CalTrans (the California Department of Transportation) should have consulted with more local tribes earlier in the process and in greater depth. All agencies involved – CalTrans, US Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife – should have cultural specialists, advisors, and representatives on board during every phase of planning and implementation.

Identifying and protecting cultural landscapes should never happen in hindsight. Because by then, it’s too late.

Prezi on Willits Bypass Fall2015

The story of the “Willits Bypass” is lengthy and complex. During our Fall 2015 semester, two San José State University students, Shawn Kathka and Jose Munguia, worked to synthesize the cultural issues associated with the Highway 101 bypass.

The students’ Prezi entitled “California Tribes Sue Transportation Agencies Over Destruction of Sacred Sites” is a one-stop multimedia presentation to help bring newcomers up to speed on the issue. I encourage everyone to read it, weep, and take action.

Cultural renewal: Ohlone microdocumentaries

Students from my Fall 2015 San José State University class produced two micro-documentaries on different aspects of Bay Area Ohlone culture.

The first film features Kanyon Sayers-Roods, a Mutson (Coastanoan) Ohlone artist, activist, poet, crafter and Native representative. She speaks of her language, her life’s work, and a recently published book on Ohlone culture she produced and illustrated.

The second film depicts the annual Black Friday Protest at the Emeryville Shopping Mall; a protest of several hundred people with a 16+-year history. Every year, the day after Thanksgiving, descendants of Ohlone villages desecrated by the Mall’s construction educate the public through song, story, and marches.

These student-produced films are part of a growing collection of collaborative projects on biocultural diversity with Native California tribes and tribal communities. Stay tuned for more!