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Q&A: How does Indigeneity intersect with the geosciences?

Stanford Earth transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative in 2020. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss identity, four Stanford Earth community members talk about how their Indigenous identities have informed and impacted their careers.

Rock Eagle Effigy Mound is an archaeological site in Putnam County, Georgia that is estimated to have been constructed by Indigenous people between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago.
Rock Eagle Effigy Moundis an archaeological site in Putnam County, Georgiathat isestimated to have been constructed byIndigenous peoplebetween1,000 and 3,000 years ago. The earthwork was built up of thousands of pieces of quartzitelaid in

Five of the six largest fires on modern record in California ignited in 2020 and according to recent Stanford research, as many as 20 million acres in California would benefit from vegetation thinning through prescribed burns. But long before the contemporary discussion of controlled burns, Northern California’s Yurok and Karuk tribes (as well as others) knew that fire treatments would benefit the forests and the people living near them. These “cultural burns” not only reduce the danger of uncontrolled wildfires, they also provide essential materials and spur food production. While people are still grappling with the implementation of controlled burns today, Indigenous epistemologies (how we know what we know) and Indigenous pedagogies (how knowledge is taught) about the planet precede the arrival of Western European colonization to the Americas and the development of academic institutions.

The development of “science”

The Scientific Revolution began around 1500 in Europe and is considered by many to be the emergence of mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, anatomy, and chemistry as we know them today. The subsequent Age of Enlightenment ushered in an era of colonial power, genocide, exploitation of natural resources, and the marginalization and erasure of Indigenous worldviews and knowledge in an attempt to describe and understand nature throughout time and space.

Who is considered Indigenous? Often the term is used to refer to those who have descended from pre-colonial societies, who have unique cultural knowledge especially related to their traditional land, and who often lack political representation, among other factors. Indigenous people from around the world have been profoundly impacted by the settler colonialism that arose from the Scientific Revolution. This includes the Americas, which were systematically colonized for the first time by Christopher Columbus beginning in 1492. The Indigenous people of the Americas – in particular, those who descend from pre-colonial communities in what is now the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, Canada, Central America, and South America – still grapple with the effects of expansionism today. A prime example of this is the Native American reservation system that the U.S. government established, forcing Native people to live in limited territories as white settlers took over their land. While the tribes on reservations are sovereign today, true self-determination remains an ongoing battle.

The ongoing struggle for natural resources

According to a 2018 study coauthored by Stanford Earth geoscientist Steven Gorelick, nearly half of all homes on Native American land lack adequate access to drinking water or waste disposal facilities, as compared to less than 1 percent for homes nationwide. “Indigenous communities in several countries have struggled to gain rights to their natural resources,” he said in a statement about the research.

Resource management has always been a major battleground for Indigenous people. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline highlighted this on a global level. The planned underground pipeline would transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois while running less than a mile from the northeast border of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation under the tribe’s primary water source, the Missouri River. Built on centuries-old tension between Indigenous tribes and the U.S. government, the standoff began in 2016 and resulted in years of protests, violence with law enforcement, and a global rallying cry for Indigenous sovereignty. The tribe and its supporters continue to wage legal opposition to the flow of oil in the pipeline.

The entanglement of science and colonialism has left a legacy that still pervades the pursuit of fundamental scientific knowledge today as it intersects with Indigenous self-determination. Efforts to construct the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory on the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii have continued in spite of opposition from Kanaka Maoli and supporters over the course of a decade. The status of the Thirty Meter Telescope is still pending resolution.

Examining colonialism in academia

Despite the clear connection between Indigenous welfare and the Earth, Indigenous students remain one of the most underrepresented minority groups in the Earth sciences, and academia generally. In the United States, there are 574 federally recognized Indigenous nations who make up some of the 1.7% of the U.S. population identified as American Indian/Alaska Native. At Stanford, those classified as American Indian/Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander counted for only 1% of undergraduate students in 2019-2020, and didn’t count for a significant enough portion of graduate students, postdocs, professoriate faculty or staff to be included in the data.

One step toward examining colonialism in academia requires that institutions take ownership of the violent contexts in which collections were acquired and knowledge was created. At Stanford, we recognize that the university sits on the ancestral land of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. This land was and continues to be of great importance to the Ohlone people. Consistent with our values of community and diversity, we have a responsibility to acknowledge, honor, and make visible the university’s relationship to Indigenous peoples.

One such step taken was the removal of most references to Junípero Serra from the campus. Serra was the founder of the California mission system which “devastated and scattered the native population,” which once numbered around 10,000 individuals throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. In order to continue this process, it’s important that the university recognize and support existing Native scholars like those affiliated with the Stanford Native American Cultural Center, the Stanford University Native Student Groups, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and those who hope to be associated with the university in the future. To defend ourselves against the onslaught of climate change and to better understand the planet, it is essential that academia support Indigenous scholars and broaden its stance on who holds knowledge

Stanford Earth transitioned the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) into its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative in 2020. As part of an effort to celebrate and discuss identity, four Stanford Earth community members talk about how their Indigenous identities have informed and impacted their careers. Former Stanford Earth postdoc Grace Bulltail (now an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin), postdoc Cherie L. DeVore, senior Vance Kaleohano Kahahawai Farrant, and sophomore Kanoe Makalii Aiu discuss their hopes for the future of diversity and inclusion in the geosciences.

How would you describe your identity?

BULLTAIL: My tribal identities are the Crow tribe from Montana, and three affiliated tribes from North Dakota.

FARRANT: I identify as Kanaka Maoli, my preferred term over “Native Hawaiian.”

DEVORE: I am a Diné woman. My first clan is Tł'ááshchi'í, which means Red-Bottom People. My second is Dziłt'áá' Kinyaa'áání and it means Atop the Mountain Towering House. My third clan is Ashįįhí, which means Salt People. And my fourth clan is Táneeszahníí, which means Tangle People. All of these clans are carried by the women in the family and this is how I identify myself as a five-fingered being.

AIU: I am a Hawaiian woman.

Share a formative experience related to your indigenous identity.

Kanoe Aiu
Kanoe Makalii Aiu is a sophomore in Environmental Systems Engineering who took EARTHSYS 101/Energy and the Environment in 2019. Her focus is on the interaction between humans and oceanic ecosystems. (Photo credit: Tianna Trepte)

AIU: When I was 8, I spent a week doing restoration on the Hawaiian Island Kaho’olawe. The island was once used as a testing site for explosives for several decades and was nearly barren. It had no animals, little vegetation, and one small complex with barracks and a kitchen. We had to carry metal detectors every time we left the gravel paths for fear of setting off any remaining explosives. My family had risked so much to stop the desecration of that land: They occupied the island while under threat of the live ordnance on land and continued testing from air, they dealt with arrest and imprisonment, and to this day they dedicate so much to the island’s restoration. Seeing how important land protection is to my family gave me a better understanding of how central āina (land) is to our people and culture.

DEVORE: The research that I do related to mining legacy and resources extraction is linked to some really traumatic history for Indigenous people. As a result, environmental science and health research related to these subjects are often communicated from a narrative of loss, of destruction and, oftentimes, of despair. But for me, learning about my heritage as a Diné woman, I’ve learned to view these stories from a different lens which relates to our origin narratives. We learn that each human, Navajo or not, has the hero twins inside of them. The first one we call monster slayer, who is the enemy of many things – in this context, monster slayer might be the enemy of mining practices or other things which desecrate our landscape. But to balance monster slayer, we also have the second twin, called child born of water. Child born of water begins the healing process and restores balance. As an investigator, I would like my research to come from the narratives of restorative balance, of courage, and of being empowered as a young Indigenous person in this world.

FARRANT: As a sophomore in high school, it was transformative to wear a malo for the first time in public. A malo is a man’s common attire in Hawaiʻi, essentially a long length of cloth fastened around the waist and between the legs. There are significant social and psychological barriers to being who you want to be as an Indigenous person. It was incredibly powerful for me to overcome those barriers and stand proudly as a Kanaka Maoli in that way.

Do you feel like you see representations of people like yourself in your field?

Cherie DeVore
Cherie De Vore is a postdoc in Scott Fendorf’s lab and also an assistant research professor at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Her work mixes engineering, earth science, and cultural knowledge to tackle environmental problems located near Indigenous communities. (Photo credit: Troy Ward)

DEVORE: Indigenous people are extremely underrepresented not just in the sciences, but also in other disciplines of STEM, but we have also been doing “science” since time immemorial. We developed engineering, science, math and countless inventions over millennia before the modern western world was able to do so. Mayans developed geometry 600 years ahead of the Greeks. Yet, our epistemologies, relationships and empirical data through learned, lived experience are not considered valid forms of knowledge. That said, I don’t think Indigenous knowledge needs to find a way to sit in academia. Rather, I feel that academia and western science needs to find a way to fit into our worldviews.

BULLTAIL: I’ve definitely seen more representation of Indigenous scientists as I’ve gone through my career. For example, AGU has an Indigenous group at the conference and it’s really comforting to see those spaces, especially if you’re new to such a huge conference like AGU. However, we need to be making more support available to Indigenous scholars. It was really hard to survive financially as a postdoc at Stanford, on top of trying to secure funding for research. I wasn’t eligible to access any of the funding sources that were available to me as a graduate student. Postdocs are right at the end of the pipeline and they still need funding and additional resources to get through to their next step, so I’d say if you want to keep Indigenous scholars in the pipeline, increase the resources available to these students.

How does your identity intersect with your research, your workplace, your field?

Vance Farrant
Vance Kaleohano Kahahawai Farrant is an Earth Systems student who studies the restoration of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) biocultural systems in Hawaiʻi, his home and ancestral homelands. He is also a part of Hui o Nā Moku, the Pacific Islander coalition on campus, and the Stanford Roots group, which is centered at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm. (Photo credit: Jonathan Ahsing)

FARRANT: There is a lot of potential value in incorporating Indigenous epistemologies into Earth science curriculums, but it can’t be treated as a simple task. As a Kanaka Maoli student, it’s difficult for me to figure out how and when to best share about Kanaka Maoli ways of knowing and doing with others. So much of Indigenous epistemologies focus on the “who” of the person sharing knowledge. What are the credentials of the person sharing, in relation to the knowledge they are sharing? The most important factor in how I feel about Indigenous knowledge being incorporated into western-dominant academic settings is the intentions that I hear and feel from the person sharing. We also must be mindful that we uplift Indigenous peoples and their voices in these processes, or else it becomes another form of extraction.

BULLTAIL: My work explores how tribes manage their water, how development threatens those resources, and how that ultimately impacts communities. Sometimes tribes have the authority to manage their environment and oftentimes they do not. I do research in the arid West, where water resources are very scarce. I’m also from Southeastern Montana, where we had to haul our drinking water because the water running in our home wasn’t of suitable quality for drinking. That’s really common on tribal lands, and so water is an incredibly precious commodity. I’ve made an effort to ground my work on water in engineering and science but you can’t talk about water without bringing in policy, and health, and environmental justice.

DEVORE: My experiences as an Indigenous woman help me to identify important elements for asking questions that respond to a specific community need. For example, I frame my mechanistic research around exposure scenarios to mine wastes from the perspective of Indigenous communities, which are different from scenarios for the average American. Our relationships to the landscape cannot be overlooked. Finally, I don’t consider my identity to be “scientist” or “engineer.” Rather, my expertise in these disciplines are tools that I am working to master to collaboratively build healthy, thriving Native communities.

AIU: Earth scientists have a responsibility to recognize the relationship between Indigenous people and the land, the groundwork that Indigenous people laid in sustainable living, and the ways in which their practices are used or appropriated today. We should be introducing Indigenous practices in academia as long as that land based-knowledge is credited to the Indigenous people who made them, and members of the Native group are both consulted and compensated for their contribution. It would be even better if the curriculum was taught by Indigenous scholars.

Why do we need to make space to discuss Indigenous identities in the workplace?

Grace Bulltail
Grace Bulltail is an assistant professor of Native American Environment, Health, and Community at University of Wisconsin, Madison. While at Stanford, she was a postdoc in the Rob Jackson lab where she studied the effects from oil and gas extraction on water quality and watershed management with a focus on tribal and federal lands in the arid west of the United States. Throughout her career, her work has focused on land use is tied to water management. (Photo credit: Todd Brown, Media Solutions, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

BULLTAIL: This work belongs to everyone, not just scholars of marginalized backgrounds. I see a lot of Native American students that find themselves being pushed into research areas where they are expected to be. Many of my Native colleagues are expected to do work in traditional ecological knowledge, which is fine if they choose to, but that knowledge is also very sacred and maybe it shouldn’t be scrutinized and defended in academia. Our lives and careers shouldn’t have to serve other people’s concepts of what we should be doing. However, the inclusion of Indigenous epistemologies in curriculum would make a lot of emerging scholars feel more represented and would legitimize the work they’re doing. If Indigenous knowledge is going to be included into academia, it needs to be done in a responsible way with the university putting resources to support it by hiring faculty members and postdocs who do research from an Indigenous lens.

FARRANT: There are a number of ways that Earth scientists can and should be involved in decolonization processes. Everything happens somewhere, and that somewhere has a history. Getting to know a genuine history of the places where you research/work/live is a critical first step toward supporting decolonization. The next step is sitting deep in the discomfort, considering what that means in terms of your own positionality, and then looking to good sources on how to effectively address ongoing issues of injustice. Lastly, take action. These discussions should not become a means to feel good about oneself but rather a means of creating real ways of addressing injustice in the workplace and beyond.

DEVORE: For Earth scientists that are curious about how we confront colonization in research, I welcome you to take a step back and understand that we aren’t entitled to information or space. If you’re participating in field research in the U.S., most likely you’re entering unceded or occupied land that belongs to an Indigenous community. As scientists and researchers, it is not our right to be in certain spaces or to collect data. The public domain and commons movement, even well intentioned, has to be careful to not infringe on the rights of Indigenous communities. That said, I want to remind everyone that no matter what role you have or what experiences you come from, you bring something important to the table. 

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This story is part of the #StanfordEarthCelebrates series hosted by Stanford Earth Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Continue to read the rest of the collection here. 

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Stanford Earth Postdoctoral Fellowship Program 

Introduced in 2020, this fellowship will support two outstanding scholars in the fields of Earth, energy, and environmental sciences. We deeply appreciate the value of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community, and we define diversity broadly to include diversity of genders, races and ethnicities, cultures, physical and learning differences, sexual orientations and identities, veteran status, and work and life experiences.

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SURGE provides undergraduates from U.S. institutions the opportunity to gain mentored research experience at Stanford University in the geosciences and engineering during an eight-week period. We especially encourage students who are seeking a formal research experience for the first time to participate. The underlying philosophy of SURGE is to train students by creating a supportive and rigorous work environment.

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