Dr. Karletta Chief – Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Sciences, University of Arizona, Tucson
Dr. Karletta Chief integrates her research and scholarly achievements with her background as a member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation in broadening the understanding of climate change, mining, and water management and policy challenges facing indigenous communities. Dr. Chief is an Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She describes her research goal as “improving our understanding, tools, and predictions of watershed hydrology, unsaturated flow in arid environments, and how natural and human disturbances affect soil hydrology, using physically based methods.” She brings a valuable perspective to the water resources community through her work to identify, study, problem solve, and communicate science regarding water resources challenges, facing Native American communities.
Chief grew up in Black Mesa, AZ, located on the Navajo Nation, and was the first of her family to attend college. “My goals were shaped by my past. I was motivated by my love for the sciences and a desire to give back to my community.” At first, her goal was to be an engineer: “I was attracted to the rigorous math and science, and the emphasis on problem solving. It was this aspect of engineering that led me toward the environmental application of the sciences.” She received her undergraduate degree at Stanford University in Civil and Environmental Engineering, followed by a Master of Science degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering, also from Stanford. Chief, unsure about further study, was encouraged to pursue her PhD by her peer mentors and to apply for a doctoral fellowship. She received affirmation upon being selected as a National Science Foundation Doctoral Fellow. She received her Ph.D. in Hydrology and Water Resources in the School of Engineering at the University of Arizona in 2007. She did her post-doctorate work at the Desert Research Institute, working with the Scaling Environmental Processes in Heterogeneous Arid Soils (SEPHAS) Project in Boulder City, NV. Since her appointment as faculty at the University of Arizona, Karletta has received numerous awards, among them are the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) 2011 Most Promising Scientist or Scholar, Stanford University 2013 Distinguished Alumni Scholar Award, 2015 Native American 40 Under 40 Award, AISES 2016 Professional of the Year, Phoenix Indian Center 2016 Woman of the Year, and Stanford University 2017 Multi-Cultural Hall of Fame Inductee.
Being a first generation college student held its challenges, and coming directly from the Navajo Nation added to the complexity of adjusting to university life, says Karletta. “As a first generation college student, my parents were supportive but they couldn’t necessarily give me college advice. And as a Native American from a reservation, my cultural upbringing collided with Western culture. Problem solving approaches are different. As a child, I was taught to listen to the older people in order to learn. In Western culture, people learn to debate and argue their point of view,” Chief says. “I had to learn to be more vocal.” Another aspect of student life that took some adjustment was frequent encounters with people unaware of the realities of her culture. “As a minority student, I had to often deal with stereotypes and “mascot” mentality about Native Americans. People lack education or are ignorant of Native American culture. I had to explain, educate a lot.”
Dr. Chief has consistently found ways to serve her family and community throughout her career. In her extension work, she aims to bring her research and experience in hydrology to tribal communities in a culturally sensitive manner. Above all, she wants her work with Native Americans to be respectful of cultural settings, and emphasizes mutual transfer of knowledge, applied science interventions and projects, and sharing information through relatable language and context. “Science terms sometimes don’t translate. I relate concepts to different cultures – there is an art to science translation,” she says. Dr. Chief also gives back to her community through her work with 10 graduate students, 9 of whom are Native American. Although more scholars are currently rising through the university ranks, currently she is one of only three or four academicians in water research from tribal communities.
How can others in water resources research and extension improve their communication with tribal communities? Karletta offers this advice: “Be inclusive of indigenous perspectives, and the challenges faced by the indigenous community. The best communication requires a cultural and decolonized approach.”
A UCOWR delegate since 2014, Dr. Chief is the currently serving as the special editor of the April 2018 issue of UCOWR’s Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, focusing on tribal water topics. Additionally, she will facilitate a two-part webinar for the UCOWR community, featuring her journal authors discussing water issues in the context of indigenous communities. The two webinars are slated for the end of April and early May, dates TBA.
Read more about Dr. Chief, her research, and her work with tribal communities: