Pioneering Navajo Hydrologist Karletta Chief Honored by American Geophysical Union

Thursday, December 10, 2020
Karletta Chief

For her pioneering engagement and partnership with Indigenous communities leading to transformative outcomes, hydrologist Karletta Chief (Diné) will be one of 36 American Geophysical Union honorees this year, receiving the AGU Ambassador Award and a conferred fellowship.

“I believe in the inclusion of Indigenous communities in Earth and space sciences using a culturally based, Indigenous led approaches.” says Chief. “In this way, we can support a pathway for more Indigenous students and co-design solutions.”

An associate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science and current principal investigator for the Indigenous Food, Energy and Water Security and Sovereignty (Indige-FEWSS) program Chief is deeply engaged in outreach efforts among Native American communities, providing and applying relevant science in a culturally sensitive manner.

Indige-FEWSS is a five-year, $3 million program funded by the National Science Foundation, an innovative collaboration between the University of Arizona and Diné College in the Navajo Nation, the oldest tribal college and university (TCU) partnership in the country.

Chief leads the Indige-FEWSS program that aims to develop a diverse workforce with intercultural awareness and Food-Energy-Water Security (FEWS) expertise to address FEWS challenges in Indigenous communities, using traditional ecological knowledge and culturally sensitive science.

Also focused on inspiring the next generation of scientists, Chief supervises and advises the research of 11 students—10 of whom are Native American working on topics related to tribal environmental issues—and serves as a faculty advisor to UArizona’s American Indian Science and Engineering Chapter. With her students, Chief developed educational modules for tribal colleges on the environmental impacts of mining.

Chief’s nomination letter states, her work has “profound and sustained positive impacts on Native American nations across the United States and has set an example for meaningful engagement between scientists and Indigenous communities worldwide, with profound societal impacts.”

Her overall research focus is on how Indigenous communities will be affected by climate change, collaborating on a project to improve hydrological models to identify and mitigate risks to these vulnerable populations. Chief works to improve our understanding, tools, and predictions of watershed hydrology, unsaturated flow in arid environments, and how natural and human disturbances affect soil hydrology through the use of physically based methods.

Chief is a member of the Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Working Group, Rising Voices, and Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup with a focus on climate impacts to tribal waters. As part of a national network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists focusing on climate change impacts to Indigenous peoples, Chief co-authored several articles in Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples in the United States: Impacts, Experiences, and Actions.

She also co-authored the “Tribes” chapter in the Southwest Climate Assessment Report and provided provisional guidelines for considering traditional knowledge in climate change initiatives.

Chief has worked with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe since 2009 focusing on collaborative water management planning under climatic and non-climatic stressors and is a member of the Groundwater, Climate and Stakeholder Engagement Project focused on adaptive water planning and management to future climate uncertainties.

AGU presents their annual awards to early career, mid-career and senior scientists in the Earth and space sciences. The Ambassador Award is given annually to one to five honorees in recognition of their outstanding contributions to one or more of the following areas: societal impact, service to the Earth and space community, scientific leadership, and promotion of talent/career pool. The Ambassador Award honors individuals whose achievements extend beyond those recognized by traditional scientific discipline awards.

“Yá’át’ééh. Thank you to AGU for the honor of receiving the 2020 AGU Ambassador Award,” Chief said. “Thank you to my AGU colleagues for nominating me. I am extremely honored that the community-based and community-driven research that I do with my team on water challenges facing Indigenous communities is recognized. Thank you for taking the time, care and dedication to submit a nomination packet on my behalf. I would like to dedicate my Ambassador Award to my late aunt Virginia Tallman who passed away this week from COVID-19. Ahe’hee.”

The 2020 honorees were recognized and celebrated at the virtual AGU Fall Meeting on December 9, 2020.

Rosemary Brandt
Media Relations Manager, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences