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Ancestral voices shape climate-change strategies

Researchers blending modern science, traditional knowledge to support tribal communities

The “Native Waters on Arid Lands” project team includes, left, Maureen McCarthy, executive director for the Academy for the Environment, back-middle, Staci Emm, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension educator, and right, Loretta Singletary, Cooperative Extension professor and interdisciplinary outreach coordinator. Photo by Theresa Danna-Douglas.


6/23/2015 | By: John Seelmeyer  |

Ancient tribal stories, the wisdom shared from one generation to the next, may help today's tribal communities become more resilient as they prepare for climate change.

A research project spearheaded by a team at the University of Nevada, Reno, that was launched this month seeks to understand the ways that tribal communities in the Great Basin and the Southwest met the challenges of drought and climate change through the centuries.  

Among the keys to the success of that program will be "two-world walkers," researchers whose personal roots in tribal culture allow them to blend tribal knowledge with cutting-edge scientific and social research.  

"The tribes have developed a culture of resiliency over thousands of years," Maureen McCarthy, director of the program, said. McCarthy is interim director of the University's Academy for the Environment. "We hope to learn from that traditional ecological knowledge."  

Dubbed "Native Waters on Arid Lands," the five-year, $4.5 million program funded by a competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture will provide tribes with analytical tools to understand the actions they can take to meet drought-related challenges in today's complex political and social environment.  

Traditional ecological knowledge may include stories of an epic drought in North America in the 1500s, said Beverley Ramsey, executive director of Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences with Desert Research Institute, who is part of the research team.  

Ramsey, one of the "two-world walkers" in the project's leadership team, is a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.  

Ramsey said the stories told across generations may reflect the important strategies that resilient tribal cultures employed to meet the challenges of past droughts and other events of large-scale climate change.  

Combining that traditional knowledge with the data created by paleoclimatologists -experts who study climate before historic records were maintained - researchers hope to help tribal communities in the Great Basin and Southwest region develop plans for sustainable management of water supplies and practice of agriculture.  

Staci Emm, who leads the project's outreach and coordination of the tribal advisory council and annual tribal summits, explains that the study will help tribes understand the possible effects of various scenarios for climate change. It also will take a close look at the water-related infrastructure - both physical and legal - that supports tribes' agricultural practices.  

"It's a huge project," Emm, an associate professor and Extension educator with University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, said. She is a member of the Yerington Paiute Tribe.  

Emm notes that the study area covers a wide swath of the West and involves more than two dozen tribal units. An additional challenge, she said, is the wide variety among tribes in agricultural practices, existing infrastructure and financial resources to build new infrastructure to deal with changing climate.  

McCarthy says tribal agriculture across the Southwest and Great Basin meets a variety of needs - trade agriculture in which crops are sold for cash and subsistence agriculture to support individual families as well as farming to meet spiritual and ceremonial requirements.  

All of the agricultural systems, however, are under pressure from climate change and declining water supplies as well as urbanization through the region.  

Leaders of the research project say its success will depend on respect for tribal cultures, both among those who seek out traditional ecological knowledge as well as those who work with tribal communities to build resiliency.  

The University has decades of experience in building relationships with tribal communities in the Great Basin. Emm, for instance, has joined in recent years with Loretta Singletary, a professor and interdisciplinary outreach liaison with Cooperative Extension, to undertake research and analysis of tribal agricultural practices. Singletary leads collaborative research and Extension outreach in the "Native Waters on Arid Lands" project.  

Decisions about water use, Singletary emphasizes, will remain in the hands of the tribes.  

"They are driving the train," she said. "This work will provide them with the information they need."  

Leadership for "Native Waters on Arid Lands" is provided by faculty and students from three of the nation's 1862 land-grant institutions - the University of Nevada, Reno; University of Arizona and Utah State University - the First Americans (1994) Land-Grant Consortium; Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program instructors in Nevada and Arizona; Desert Research Institute; U.S. Geological Survey; and Ohio University.  

The program team includes tribal members from Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.    Along with Emm, Ramsey and Singletary, senior members of the Native Waters integrated program team include Michael Dettinger, senior hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who leads climate research; Bonnie Colby, professor with the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics with University of Arizona, who leads water-market economics research; Trent Teegerstrom, Arizona Federally Recognized Tribal Director and Extension specialist, who coordinates tribal education and outreach in Arizona; Kynda Curtis, associate professor in the Department of Applied Economics at Utah State University, who leads agricultural production economics research; Eric Edwards, assistant professor in the Department of Applied Economics at Utah State University, who leads property-rights economic research; Derek Kauneckis, associate professor with Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and affiliate faculty member with the Desert Research Institute, who leads water-rights policy research.

Tribal members of the Native Waters on Arid Lands program team along with Emm and Ramsey include Curtis, who is a Cherokee descendant; Gerald Moore (Navajo) and Arizona Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program for Arizona educator, who coordinates tribal engagement with Navajo and Hopi tribes; Reggie Premo (Duck Valley Shoshone Paiute), coordinating tribal engagement with Nevada tribes; Vicki Hebb (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota) organizing and facilitating the tribal summits; administrators, faculty, staff and students from the 1994 tribal land-grant colleges and universities; and American Indian water specialists, cultural advisors, agriculturalists and educators from the region. 

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