Q&A with Dr. Karletta Chief: Principal Investigator of Indige-FEWSS at the University of Arizona
The Indigenous Food Energy Water Security Sovereignty Training Program, or Indige-FEWSS, is a U.S. National Science Foundation Research Traineeship initiative grounded in the Diné/Navajo concept of "hózhó", which speaks to striving for balance and harmony in all things.
Dr. Karletta Chief, Indige-FEWSS's founding faculty member, has focused much of her career on addressing the devastating impact that climate change has had on Indigenous communities, on the Navajo Nation and beyond. Through Indige-FEWSS, she is helping to train a new generation of scientists prepared with the knowledge, skills, and cultural understanding to work with — and within — Indigenous communities to address critical food, energy, and water-related challenges.
NSF spoke with Dr. Chief about the impact that Indige-FEWSS has had since its beginning and her future vision for this work.
How did you first learn about the NSF Research Traineeship Program, and what led you to want to apply and create Indige-FEWSS?
I actually learned about the NRT through a senior faculty member in engineering. I'd never collaborated with her before, but she reached out to me and she thought that this would be a great opportunity for me to lead this kind of effort. I met with her, and ultimately she mentored me through the process — from determining what I needed to apply and the writing of the letter of intent, to connecting me with other faculty members who would be strong team members, to the writing of the actual proposal.
I think if I were to have approached the process alone, as a junior faculty member, I probably would have had a much longer process of understanding how to do all the components of the proposal. But I had built partnerships with Indigenous communities before and was able to really highlight that work and experience — thanks to the mentoring I received. So, I really give credit to her for that mentoring, which really opened the door for me to pursue an NRT.
After five years, what’s been the greatest impact of Indige-FEWSS?
I think the impact is the creation of permanent programs on campus, which was only possible through the success we’ve had in developing the training program through the NRT. For example, we now have a PhD minor in Indigenous food, energy, and water systems that will carry the work of the NRT forward by preparing graduates to work in partnership with Indigenous communities to address food, energy, and water challenges with a systems approach and a collaborative process.
We have a professional seminar series called Native Voices in STEM, which invites Native scientists, engineers, activists, community members and leaders to share their personal and professional journeys, providing inspiration to the next generation of change makers. The series has now been institutionalized by the University’s Office of Societal Impact, and it is sponsored by diverse departments across campus to highlight critical research in Indigenous communities.
Finally, I think the establishment of the university’s Indigenous Resilience Center is a powerful legacy, because it will support future research on supporting resilience in Indigenous communities and continue to develop a robust community of Indigenous STEM scholars and students through strong faculty support, scholarships, and more. I think our work with the NRT has led the university to make an even deeper commitment to partnering with Indigenous nations and supporting Indigenous scholars and students.
How do you offer opportunities for cultural immersion in your NRT program?
It’s one of the most important components of the traineeship, because when we’re talking about working with Indigenous communities in a way that honors and respects their place as a sovereign nation, a key part of it is having those actual in-person experiences and learning about the community first-hand. Our trainees are focused on developing sustainable systems that are driven by the needs, priorities, and values of Indigenous communities — and so the NRT was developed so that they all engage in cultural immersion and take part in a pilot on the Navajo Nation.
Over the last two and a half years, the pandemic was a barrier to some cultural immersion experiences for our trainees. But it also presented trainees with a unique opportunity to understand the urgent challenges that faced the Navajo Nation as the pandemic took hold, particularly when it comes to food, energy, and water systems. Nearly 30% of Diné (Navajo) homes lack running water, 40% lack electricity, and there are only 13 grocery stores for nearly 200,000 tribal citizens living across 27,000 square miles. Developing high-impact, sustainable solutions to these challenges demands an understanding of Indigenous societies, governance, and culture.
As part of the pandemic response, we were honored to be invited to join the Water Access Coordination Group, which brought together Navajo tribal, state, federal, non-profit, and university partners working collaboratively to construct water points using CARES [Act] COVID-19 relief funding. Our trainees and faculty were involved in strengthening university-tribal partnerships, and in piloting off-grid solar-powered water treatment units with the goal of making clean water accessible at the Navajo household level. In fact, we were really excited that our team was featured in an award-winning video called "Rising to the Call: Indige-FEWSS Navajo COVID-19 Response" highlighting this work.
And in the last year we've been able to return to more in-person trainings, which have ranged from meeting with individual community members who are using and interacting with the food and water systems our trainees are exploring, to meeting with tribal government leaders on policy issues and the impact of new systems across communities. These kinds of experiences bring all the readings and in-classroom learning and theory to life and prepare our trainees to build strong and lasting partnerships with Indigenous community members.
It’s exciting that Indige-FEWSS' legacy will extend well beyond the NRT award itself. What has enabled you and your team to achieve that kind of sustainability?
What's been really helpful for us is to share our stories on different platforms and focusing on the outreach, and specifically media outreach, that we've done. That has really elevated the impact of our trainings and helped us reach administrators, potential collaborators, and more prospective trainees. I think focusing on that early in our process was important, because it helped us build connections across campus and institutional support within the university and with communities.
Also, it was taking time to think through how to keep our work going. I would say that even early in the NRT we were talking about sustainability. We had already planned to launch the PhD minor. And while the Native Voices in STEM series was grant specific, it’s evolved into a campus wide initiative. And midway we started thinking about writing new grants to continue the work and involving other collaborators to get involved in our proposals. I think collectively, through all those efforts, the University appreciated what we were doing and the impact we were having–and they wanted to support the program long-term.
What’s your future vision for Indige-FEWSS?
I think my vision would be that, through the Indigenous Resilience Center, we are sustaining all the components of the NRT, and creating new components for both students and faculty. It's incredibly important to have a collaborative place where those types of efforts can be pursued, that ensures that both faculty and students are trained on how to work in partnership with Indigenous communities. I'm excited that the NRT has played a role in making that happen.