Water Wisdom: The Indigenous Scientists Walking In Two Worlds


Every year, on one day in October, generations of the Washoe Tribe gather on the shores of Lake Tahoe for a day of fishing using handmade spears, harpoons, and nets made from willow, dogbane, and other traditional materials.

The Washoe have centered their lives around Lake Tahoe for thousands of years, catching and drying fish in the summers to sustain them through the winters. But in the colonialist world, the tribe of roughly 1,400 members has little access to the lake. Now, only once a year, through a partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Washoe hold a ceremonial day of fishing when they use traditional techniques to reduce overpopulation of nonnative kokanee salmon.

“Everybody looks forward to this day because they are not only revitalizing our traditional practices, but they are also doing something that’s important for our homelands,” said Washoe Tribal Council member Helen Fillmore. Fillmore is also a researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she is investigating the climate resiliency of water resources on reservation lands of the Great Basin and southwestern United States, and is interning with the aquatics research team at the University of California, Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. One of just a handful of remaining speakers of the Washoe language, in 2017 she published a commentary on how the language can help inform hydrologic and environmental models.

“I wanted to study hydrology because I knew that it was going to be so important for my community as a whole, my family, and the ecosystems that we’re a part of,” Fillmore said. Fillmore’s commitment to giving back to her community and working with other Indigenous communities is one shared by many Indigenous scientists and students across the world.

Helen Fillmore conducts water quality monitoring in Hope Valley, Calif., in February 2020. Credit: Mo Loden, Alpine Watershed Group, 2020

Like it is for Fillmore, the commitment is a dual one for Troy Brockbank of Te Rarawa, Ngāti Hine, Ngpuhi (Māori), a stormwater engineer and a board member of Taumata Arowai, New Zealand’s new drinking water regulator. Brockbank grew up next to Tāngonge, his tribe’s ancestral wetland in the far north of Aotearoa (New Zealand), and developed a keen desire to protect waterways and the environment. The mission to give more than you take is ingrained in Māori culture, Brockbank said, and his work involves empowering the water industry to incorporate and normalize Māori values and perspectives for the protection of water.

“As people, we see ourselves as not only part of the environment but one and the same: Ko ahau te awa, ko te awa ko ahau—I am the river, the river is me,” Brockbank said. “We’ve got an obligation to give back and look after what we have now; otherwise, it’s lost forever.”

Water Is Life

The Māori view water as a taonga, a gift, that has been passed down from the higher powers, and consequently, Māori people treasure and respect it, Brockbank said. Māori communities are among many Indigenous communities around the world who view water as sacred and life-sustaining and their own health as directly related to water quality.

In Finland, a land of 188,000 lakes, the traditional perspective saw lakes as sentient beings, said Tero Mustonen of the Snowchange Cooperative in Finland.

Tero Mustonen skis on a fieldwork assignment in Sarek National Park in Sweden. Credit: Tero Mustonen collection

Mustonen, an adjunct professor at the University of Eastern Finland and an ethnic Karelian, is head of the small Finnish village of Selkie, and in 2016 he won an Emerging River Professional Award for his work incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge to monitor and restore watersheds in North Karelia, where Selkie is located. In addition to his multiple other roles—he is also a lead author of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—Mustonen is a winter seiner, a professional fisherman who uses seine nets to catch fish under ice.

In Karelia, the lakes and rivers are traditionally seen as providers, even as mothers, and the fish catches are seen as gifts, Mustonen said. “Traditionally, you don’t just go to a lake or river to use the resources—you ask for a fish,” Mustonen said.

Like the Māori, the Indigenous People of the Hawaiian Islands view water as more than just a natural resource. For these people, the Kānaka Maoli, the word for water is wai. “Traditionally, many of us viewed wealth as being integrated with ecology,” said Vance Kaleohano Kahahawai Farrant, a Kānaka Maoli who is studying for a master’s degree in natural resources management at the University of Hawai’i.

For the Washoe, water is quite simply seen as life—not only does it sustain life, but also it is a life force itself. Honoring that perspective is essential to building a more sustainable relationship with freshwater resources, according to Rhiana Jones, an environmental specialist with the Washoe Tribe. Jones, a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community who grew up on a Washoe reservation, is currently involved in the Mayala Wata Restoration project, which seeks to restore hydrological and ecological function to 300 acres (121 hectares) of montane meadow, which was originally a summer campsite for the Washoe people.

Rhianna Jones engages with the Mayala Wata Restoration Project in California. Credit: John Peltier

The meadow is currently filled with invasive conifers, which crowd out native plants that have medicinal and cultural value. The first stage of the project involves thinning densely packed lodgepole pines. The Washoe environmental team has been collecting groundwater information before the conifer removal and will continue to do so post-thinning, with the goal of quantifying how much water the invasive trees “suck up like a straw.”

“Just growing up and seeing how things could be done differently from an environmental aspect, it was al-ways important for me to come back and work for Indigenous communities.”

“Just growing up and seeing how things could be done differently from an environmental aspect, it was always important for me to come back and work for Indigenous communities,” Jones said.

The short-term goal of the project is to increase the availability of water for plants that are used for medicine and food, and a long-term objective is to rehabilitate the creek that runs through the meadow, allowing for the native Lahontan cutthroat trout to spawn there once more. If all goes as planned, water will breathe life into the meadow again, Jones said.

Protecting Water Quality

The Oglala Sioux Tribe, whose home is now the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, similarly sees water as life-giving and sacred, according to tribal member Otakuye Conroy-Ben, an assistant professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at Arizona State University. “So any type of pollution or activity that can impact water is very concerning,” Conroy-Ben said.

Given her strong connection to the land, Conroy-Ben pursued a Ph.D. in environmental engineering and went on to specialize in wastewater pollution. Her research has involved working with tribes to assess the environmental impacts of wastewater on their water supply, and she has also used wastewater to assess coronavirus prevalence in communities. “If you’ve been exposed to a pesticide or herbicide through your fruit consumption or if there are water contaminants, we can detect that through wastewater,” Conroy-Ben said.

Conroy-Ben believes that her own perspective is bit more Western than traditional, but she stresses that learning from tribes how they’ve managed their natural resources is very important, especially in the light of climate change, water scarcity, and increased pollution. “I grew up with this idea you have to come back and help the community with technical expertise,” Conroy-Ben said. “And now I am really excited to see how these technical fields can be merged with Traditional Knowledge.”

Farming Using Minimal Water

In the United States, agriculture is a major user of groundwater and surface water, with the industry accounting for approximately 80% of the nation’s water use. But the Native American Hopi Tribe in northern Arizona has learned how to grow a diverse array of crops without irrigation and with less than 25 centimeters of rain per year.

Michael Kotutwa Johnson, a Hopi tribal member, learned how to farm from his grandfather. He studied conventional agriculture and earned a Ph.D. in natural resource management at the University of Arizona. He now lives back on the Hopi Reservation, farming, working on his traditional stone home, and conducting Indigenous agriculture conservation–related research. His mission is to promote the sustainability and viability of Native American agriculture and, as a 128th-generation Hopi farmer, to bring more Hopi back to farming.

“It is really our intimate relationship that we’ve had with our environment that has allowed us to survive.”

“To be a Hopi farmer, you have to almost be what they call an agronomist, a hydrologist, and an engineer,” Johnson said. All the techniques that the Hopi use are designed to conserve soil moisture, and over time, tribal farmers have developed drought-tolerant varieties of lima beans, tepary beans, and string beans, and more than 21 varieties of corn. “We raised corn to fit the environment and didn’t manipulate the environment to fit the corn,” Johnson said. “It is really our intimate relationship that we’ve had with our environment that has allowed us to survive.”

Johnson sees his value as bringing recognition to Indigenous techniques and conservation agriculture, and in July 2021 he published a paper in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation on how to enhance the integration of Indigenous Knowledge about agriculture into natural resource conservation.

Johnson feels blessed to have an education, and he credits his Ph.D. with getting him a place at the table where policy decisions are made. He feels even more blessed to have grown up learning traditional farming techniques. “Indigenous agriculture uses the environment to its full potential, and it gives us all these gifts back,” Johnson said. “My position is to show that we can still practice this way.”

Bridging the Divide

Giving voice to Indigenous Knowledge is also a focus of Bradley Moggridge, a hydrogeologist and associate professor of Indigenous water science at the University of Canberra in Australia. Moggridge, a Murri from the Kamilaroi Nation 800 kilometers northwest of Sydney, is working directly with Indigenous Knowledge holders, and his long-term mission is to promote Aboriginal Traditional Ecological Knowledge to the point that it can inform water management policy decisions in Australia.

“As I progressed, career-wise, I could see that there was a huge gap where science and Knowledge were not connecting with each other,” Moggridge said. Aboriginal Knowledge is perceived as inferior to Euro/Western science, and yet there are thousands of generations of wisdom and experience encoded in Traditional Ecological Knowledge, he explained. In particular, this Knowledge might provide vital insights into building resilience in the face of climate change. “Aboriginal people have adapted and mitigated and evolved to the driest inhabited continent on Earth, and without that evolution, they would have died out thousands of years ago,” Moggridge said.

One approach Moggridge has taken to bridge the divide between Western science and Indigenous Knowledge has been to try to influence the academies to change. Moggridge is on the editorial team for the Australasian Journal of Water Resources, and in June 2021 the journal ran a special issue for which Moggridge prepared an editorial and a paper: “Indigenous Water Knowledge and Values in an Australasian Context”. The special issue had the goal of raising the profile of Indigenous water science and highlighting successes in water research by or with Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous authors led or coauthored all of the papers for the special issue, and the lead author of one paper was not a scientist but the Martuwarra Fitzroy River. Coauthor Anne Poelina, a Nyikina woman who is Yimardoowarra (of the river), proposed the river for lead authorship in recognition of its relational being and its role as “the holder of knowledge.”

The paper illustrates that many Indigenous communities view knowledge not as something owned by individuals but as a resource for everyone concerned. Given the value of Indigenous Knowledge, one of Moggridge’s missions is to encourage Western scientists to recognize, accept, and consider such knowledge. “Hopefully, special editions like this one will make a difference,” Moggridge said.

Creating Community

Being an Indigenous scientist can be lonely in Australia, as it is a big continent, Moggridge said. Consequently, another of his missions is to create an Indigenous science network. “so we can talk, share, mentor, value each other’s endeavors, and celebrate our domains,” Moggridge said.

Building a community was one of the key goals of an Indigenous symposium on water research, education, and engagement held in the United States in August 2018. The symposium brought together 36 Indigenous scientists, community activists, elders, and allies to discuss strategies for improving Indigenous participation in hydrology and how to address water-related challenges in Indigenous communities. “We thought it was a good idea to convene as a group, to share our ideas, to support up and coming hydrologists, and to really get a grasp on the state of the future as it affects tribal nations,” said Conroy-Ben, a colead of the project, which was led by Karletta Chief of the University of Arizona.

Ryan Emanuel works on an atmospheric monitoring station on the campus of Appalachian State University in North Carolina, where he was a faculty member from 2007 until 2010. Credit: Ryan Emanuel

Since the symposium, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, Conroy-Ben believes there has been more collaboration and support between researchers. “Without these spaces, and without the funding, we don’t have the luxury to ever sit down together in a venue and talk in a focused and deliberate way about these issues,” said Ryan Emanuel, an ecohydrologist at North Carolina State University who was one of the four Indigenous coleads of the symposium.

Emanuel, an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, said that in recent years, professional societies in the United States have been very supportive in giving Indigenous scientists sandboxes or incubation areas to discuss water issues. “These are places where we feel comfortable exploring what it means to walk in two worlds,” Emanuel said.

From Science to Policy

Growing up, Emanuel spent a lot of time on traditional Lumbee territory—lush, green lands of forests and row crops, full of swamps and wetlands, which run alongside the Lumbee River. It took time for him to settle on a career as a hydrologist, and it was unclear how doing so would help him give back to his community.

“In my community, you were urged to get an education, so that you can help your people,” Emanuel said. “But I didn’t know what it would look like for a scientist to bend that expertise back to the community.” Emanuel originally focused on being a good hydrologist, role model, and mentor for Indigenous students, but in the past few years, he found his way to “bend back” by using his science skills to collaborate with Native American tribes and solve problems related to justice and equity.

Using geospatial analysis, Emanuel was able to demonstrate that the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would disproportionately affect Native Americans in North Carolina, despite claims to the contrary. Eventually, plans for the pipeline were canceled, but Emanuel’s environmental justice work had just started.

“If you’re an Indigenous scholar working with your community, you may be a hydrologist, but sometimes you may be called on to write a policy paper.”

Emanuel was the lead author of a paper published in June 2021, that demonstrated that the 320,000 miles (514,990 kilometers) of major natural gas pipelines crisscrossing the country are disproportionately concentrated in vulnerable counties, those considered more likely to be affected by hazards and disasters.

Previously, regional case studies had shown that the oil and gas industries had disproportionate impacts on socially vulnerable populations who live where the resources are extracted and where they are refined or consumed. “Individual studies seemed to point to this infrastructure regularly affecting poor or minoritized populations,” Emanual said. “We wanted to see if this was a national trend.” It was, they found.

The scientific quantification of such environmental injustices has to move beyond publishing pure science and into the realm of policy, supporters say. In 2020, Emanuel coauthored a paper on how to address the barriers to Indigenous participation in water governance. “If you’re an Indigenous scholar working with your community, you may be a hydrologist, but sometimes you may be called on to write a policy paper,” Emanuel said. “And if nobody else is going to do it, sometimes you have to do it.”

Playing the Long Game

Being an Indigenous scientist who works with Indigenous communities is more than a full-time job, according to Emanuel and Moggridge. Emanuel admitted that the added dimension of balancing obligations to his community with those to his institute can be tricky because the expectations of each don’t align perfectly.

“People in my community are suffering from pollution and from the impacts of climate change, and that weighs on me—I have a commitment to respond to those needs,” Emanuel said. “But because I’m one person and not a clone, that means I have to figure out how to judiciously divide my limited time between these different things I love doing.”

For Moggridge, it is important to protect Indigenous researchers from “cultural loading,” whereby every Indigenous inquiry, request, project, or complaint automatically gets forwarded to the only Indigenous staff member in an organization. “But our other challenge is saying no,” Moggridge said. “If we say no, it is left to non-Indigenous people to tell our science story.” (Emanuel, too, prefers the term “cultural loading” over “added labor” or “cultural taxation.” He stresses that he chooses, and is honored, to serve through his various commitments but also recognizes that sometimes the toll on his time and energy can feel unsustainable.)

The answer to more effective time management may lie in encouraging more Indigenous students to enter careers in the Earth sciences, Emanuel said. “That is the long game—building capacity in the next generation of scholars.”

Emanuel, like many Indigenous academics, acts as an adviser and mentor for Indigenous students who might want to pursue a career in the geosciences. When Jocelyn Painter, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, first met Emanuel, she was an undergraduate engineering student. Inspired by the type of work he does, she is now a graduate student in his group at North Carolina State University.

As part of her graduate work, Painter works with tribal communities to gain an understanding of their connection to nearby water resources and the concerns they have about climate change. She also searches through tribal-led climate adaptation plans and the science literature and has compiled her collected data into reports that will be given to the state government, with the goal of bringing the voices of Native American tribes to the policymaking table in North Carolina. “Long term, my dream would be working with tribal communities and doing the research that they are interested in me doing—the research that is important to them,” Painter said.

“I want to show Indigenous people that they can do science, and if you have an interest in car-ing for your country and having a say in how it’s managed, you can do that by taking this career pathway.”

Other students have found their own paths to working with their communities. Farrant wrote his senior thesis for his Earth science degree at Stanford University on his work on wetland taro patches with a Native Hawaiian organization, Hoʻokuaʻāina. He is also involved in the restoration of a wetland in Waiale‘e, a place on O’ahu near where he grew up. Farrant’s interests in Traditional Ecological Knowledge were sparked in high school, where Indigenous students and teachers discussed culturally informed ecological practices and principles. “The cultural aspect is pretty key in my interest in the Earth sciences and helps influence how I think about my connection to the land and ocean,” Farrant said.

Emanuel is encouraged that more Indigenous students are entering the Earth sciences and integrating collaborations with communities at an earlier stage in their careers. He hopes that his is the last generation of Indigenous scientists who have gone through the Western science education process only to have to figure out how to give back to their communities on their own.

Moggridge concurs. Traditionally, Indigenous People in Australia have trained in education, law, or health care so that they can contribute to their communities, he said. “I want to show Indigenous People that they can enjoy, and do, science.”

“And if you have an interest in caring for your country and having a say in how it’s managed, you can do that by taking this career pathway.”

Author Information

Jane Palmer(@JanePalmerComms), Science Writer

Citation: Palmer, J. (2021), Water wisdom: The Indigenous scientists walking in two worlds, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO210597. Published on 22 November 2021.
Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.





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