A Record of Change: Science and Elder Observations on the Navajo N.

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Detailed Description

A Record of Change—Science and Elder Observations on the Navajo Nation is a 25-minute documentary about collaborative studies using conventional physical sciences, combined with tribal elder observations to show that local knowledge and conventional science partnerships can effectively document ecosystem change and determine the resulting challenges to livelihoods. 

Sparse historic data on tribal lands make the assessment of changes to ecosystem services difficult. This video reveals how a team of scientists, anthropologists, and translators combined the rich local knowledge of Navajo elders with recent scientific investigations to effectively document environmental change, and find ways to adapt. Increasing aridity and declining snowfall in this poorly monitored region of the Southwest are accompanied by declining river flow and migrating sand dunes. The observations of Navajo elders verify and supplement this record of change by informing how shifting weather patterns are reflected in Navajo cultural practices and living conditions.


Date Taken:

Length: 00:25:01

Location Taken: Window Rock, AZ, US

Video Credits

Executive producers: Margaret Hiza Redsteer and Monique Fordham, USGS Office of Tribal Relations
Produced by Stephen M. Wessells, USGS Office of Communications and Publishing
Written by Donna Matrazzo
Filmed and edited by Stephen M. Wessells and Haydon Lane, HL Filmworks
Narrator (English) Cissy Jones, Narrator (Navajo) Dee Yazzie
On camera: Nicholas Ashley, Leanna Begay, Charlotte Jane Begaye, Ailema Benally, Valerie Biakeddy, Levi Biggambler, Vince Chapo, Kern Collymore, Harris Francis, Shannon James, Klara Kelley, Virgil D. Nez, Margaret Hiza Redsteer, Wilhelmina Rodriquez, Step
Graphics: Google Earth and Jennifer Weible
Music: Pond5
Additional Photos and Video: Pond5, iStock, and Videoblocks
Collaborators: Hubbell Trading Post, Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife, Navajo Nation, Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Office, USGS Office of Tribal Relations, and USGS Flagstaff Science Campus
Special thanks: Clarenda Begay, Stewart Begay, Carrie Dallas, Monique Fordham, KTNN Radio, Michael Littleowl, Lloyd Masayumptewa, James Yazzie, Hubbell Trading Post, Native Americans for Community Action, NACA Youth Powwow 2016, Flagstaff Youth Powwow Dan



Virgil D. Nez:  My Nali, my grandfather, was born 2 years after his family returned from the long walk, Fort Sumner 1870, and lived to be 102 years old.


Virgil D. Nez:  He had a garden that was watered by rainfall, and it was his life. He grew lots of fruits and vegetables and never had to go to the store to buy food.


Virgil D. Nez:  When he felt it was needed, he went out to make offerings for rain, and it would rain.


Virgil D. Nez:  In this way, he lived a long and healthy life, as many people in his generation did. 


Pete Watchman:  You know back in the olden days, Mother Earth was first created, we had a lot of vegetation, a lot of water, and there was life. And then, as we multiply, us five-fingered people, we messed up our own air, we’re living under smoke. We can’t see, but it’s there. Those are the things causing the global warming, the climate change. 


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  Impacts to indigenous people from climate change are really well documented in the Arctic where climate change has gotten considerable attention from the scientific community, but we wanted to know if some of the many changes on the Navajo Nation could be attributable to climate change, so we focused our studies there.


Narrator: In the southwestern U.S., near four corners, is the Navajo Nation.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  What we found is people with homelands in arid environments are especially vulnerable because of declining snowfall and increasing temperature. 


Narrator:  The Navajo people today still practice a lifestyle deeply connected to their natural surroundings. Continuing drought threatens the very existence of Navajo culture and the survival of traditional Navajo communities. Yet there has not been a lot of scientific research on tribal lands. 


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  USGS is working to address this lack of data and to help the Navajo Nation adapt to climate-change trends, which are expected to continue.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  My work includes a combination of both local and traditional knowledge along with conventional scientific investigation. And I also wanted to encourage and inspire young people to develop an interest in science and to combine that interest with a concern for the land to help the Navajo Nation in the challenges that they face today.


Narrator:  Since the 1990s, the western Navajo Nation has had prolonged drought with very low rainfall; 2009 had less than 3 inches of rain the entire year. Weather patterns have changed drastically. Summer monsoon rains are less frequent but more severe in intensity. This is causing a lot of changes to the landscape and the whole ecosystem.


Virgil D. Nez:  The streams are all gone. We used to have water seeping out of the rocks.  Springs that used to have water all the time are all gone. The last few years the ground has been dry. We’ve had nothing but sandstorms around planting season. The winds just kill the plants. The corn, the squash, the watermelons, the winds just kills it. 


Roland Tso:  Many Farms lake is one of the largest lakes on the Navajo Nation here, and right now at top level it should be holding 16,000 acre feet. Right now, the depth is 3 feet. Most of it is silt at the bottom, and how climate change has changed that, we’re getting less and less water flowing into this lake.


Virgil D. Nez:  Right now we have four main wells that people use all of the time. You have to be there at three o’clock in the morning; by eight the water’s all gone. People have to drive 20 to 25 miles just to get water, and the roads out here are really bad.


Narrator:  Drying conditions here result from less rain, less snow, increased winds, and warming temperatures.


Charlotte Jane Begaye:  The big snow, as I remember, was 1968. It was about 3 feet of snow out where I live, and that was wet snow. And then the last snow that was deep was 1981, about 1981. Since then, we haven’t had any snow that deep. It’s usually not more than 2 inches.


Narrator:  Since the 1930s, average snow depth has dropped by two thirds, from almost a foot to just under 4 inches. Before 1982, there had not been a recorded year with almost no accumulated snow depth. Between 2002 and 2011, there were 8 years with no or almost no snow.


Narrator:  The lack of snowfall has a dramatic effect on desert rivers like the Little Colorado. In the stretch between Winslow and Loop Arizona, USGS scientists have found that the average width has decreased 90 percent from 1,250 feet to 100 feet.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  This is Moenkopi Wash that flows through Tuba City here. That was a major agricultural area not just for the Navajo’s but also for the Hopis, and a lot of their cornfields, for the Hopi, were also grown in that area and irrigated by Moenkopi Wash, and it hasn’t been flowing all year long since the 1980s.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  The same is true for Chinle Wash, the last time this reach of Chinle wash was flowing all year long was in the 1980s. So over time, fewer and fewer reaches of these streams have flowed all year long. And now we have just this one area of one of the major tributaries to the Colorado River is the only place less where we have water flowing all year.


Narrator:  Extensive drought has brought another dramatic change to the landscape. Migrating sand dunes.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  Migrating sand dunes are a constant threat now with climate change and are burying houses and roads. USGS is conducting research to better understand sand dune movement on the Navajo Nation.


Narrator:  The reservations land has loose sandy soil. It’s easily picked up by wind and shaped into sand dunes and sand sheets. Now sand covers nearly one third of the Navajo Nation.


Narrator:  The USGS chose to study the Grand Falls dune field, because it was accessible, and it is one of many that was down wind of the Little Colorado River. So it’s similar to areas where thousands of Navajo People live.


Narrator:  The Grand Falls dune field was formed between 1935 and 1953. USGS research included multiple field surveys from 2009 thru 2012. Data collection included meteorological monitoring, vegetation transects, surface mapping, aerial and satellite imagery, and GPS.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  Results show that some dunes are moving at the rate of about 130 feet per year. Dunes in the region can move more than 3 feet in a single windstorm. The Grand Falls dune field has grown by 70 percent between 1992 and 2007, a period of only 15 years. 


Narrator:  Weather stations are one of the important meteorological tools used to monitor changing climate conditions near the dunes and around the Navajo Nation.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  This is a USGS weather station. This is the data logger that records what all of the instruments are seeing. We have instruments that record wind speed and direction, temperature. And over here, we have soil moisture probes at different depths that give us the amount of moisture in the ground, and a tipping bucket that measures the amount of rainfall and snowfall.


Narrator:  Across the Navajo Nation, migrating sand dunes are threatening homes, smothering native plants, farmlands, rangelands, and roads. And some entire communities may need to relocate.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  Today we’re standing here on the north side of Tiesto Wash.


Levi Biggambler:  This land was all kind of rocky though at that time; now it’s all sand.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  As things have gotten dryer and windier, many sand dunes are blowing out of the wash and are threatening the houses here. When I first came to visit the family here, I drove in on a road that’s underneath of these sand dunes. There were no sand dunes in sight of the houses.


Levi Biggambler:  There used to be a road here too.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  The dunes began to appear behind the houses in 2008. Now the dune is about 100 maybe 120 feet behind the house and heading towards it.


Narrator:  The scientists have found that dune mobility on the Navajo Nation depends on soil moisture conditions. When it is dry, either because there is less snow or rain, or because temperatures increase, there are fewer plants growing on sand dune deposits.


Narrator:  Without this plant growth, the sandy soil is not protected from the wind, and the sand and dust just blows around. Adding to this, when streams dry out, they are an additional source of dry sediment for dunes, making dunes more common on the downwind side of dunes like at the Biggambler property.


Leanna Begay:  I chose to study sand dunes because of the impact it’s having on my family, and primarily my grandparents. And I wanted to know more about what makes the sand dune move and also to look at the plant communities that cover the sand dunes.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  Well I met Leanna when she was an undergraduate student at Northern Arizona University, and she was working on a degree on applied indigenous studies. I hired her as an intern, and she said well I’m not a scientist; I really am just studying indigenous studies. And I said well if you’re interested in applied indigenous studies, you really should be interested in Earth sciences because they’re so closely connected. And then she went on to study at Purdue and get a master’s degree in dune ecology.


Leanna Begay:  Studying the sand dunes became a bigger interest when I saw that there’s a direct link between the mobility of sand dunes, drought, and precipitation. And so I wanted to learn more about that, and so that’s where I began my interest in the sciences.


Narrator:  Warming temperatures and winds cause fine grained sand and silt to whip up into dust storms. Everyone in their path is affected.


Roland Tso:  We have dust blowing down the valley, blowing up top soil. We also have people who have respiratory problems, and with all this dust blowing, dust pneumonia is one of our biggest worries here in the community. And we try to protect our elders and our young ones from dust pneumonia.


Narrator:  Adding to the consequences of drying conditions, the windblown dust later settles on Rocky Mountain snow, causing it to absorb more heat and making it melt more quickly.


Narrator:  How can we know what changes have taken place over time. There are few formal scientific records for Navajo lands.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  We conducted an elder study where more than 100 tribal elders, ages 62 to 87, were interviewed through a Navajo translator.


Harris Francis:  We did a project with Dr. Margaret Hiza consulting elders regarding climate change.


Klara Kelley:  We asked what kind of experience have they had over their lifetime with changes in the weather and other kinds of changes such as plants and animals, water sources, grazing conditions, farming conditions, and how they would explain them. And we really got an earful from them, mainly why are you trying to study climate change when we already know that we have climate change.


Charlotte Jane Begaye:  In the 30s, it snowed more and deeper and kept the ground moist down to 5 feet.


Virgil D. Nez:  In 1934, there were heavy rains and good crops.


Charlotte Jane Begaye:  We don’t have that many animals no more, because there’s no grass. In the 40s it snowed big every year, chest high on the horses.


Virgil D. Nez:  In the 1940s, it rained every day. Good soaked summer rains and snow knee deep. 


Charlotte Jane Begaye:  I see more sand dunes where you never saw sand dunes, and you saw water levels that’s not there. And then you don’t see the windmills, and you don’t see the water flowing like I did.


Narrator:  The elder’s observations included important detail on how the drying affected things like living conditions, water availability, and plant medicines. This information supplements the science, providing a clear idea of how weather changes translate into ecosystem changes.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  Our scientific research aligns with the observations of Navajo elders; for example, all of the Navajo elders discussed less rain and snow occurring today and that the climate began to shift from wet to dry in the 1940’s and that the climate has gotten dryer since 1944. And since the 1990s, there’s more drought and heat. And when you look at the meteorological records, what you see is a big change in 1944 from having periodic very very wet years to much dryer years. And since the 1990s, here we have the current drought where you don’t get any years with really high precipitation.


Narrator:  This kind of two-track research, incorporating local knowledge with conventional scientific data provides ground truthing of scientific analysis. It provides compelling information about changes that are under weigh due to climate change. Many of these changes are leading to cultural losses for the Navajo Nation.


Virgil D. Nez:  There is a shortage of some of the herbs; the medicines for certain plants we now have to go past Flagstaff, a 3-hour drive one way. The plants are disappearing; they are no longer there. We are losing our tradition our culture. We’re losing a lot of the stuff we used to do traditionally; some of the ceremonies have gone extinct.  


Roland Tso:  Throughout the years Navajos have really depended on livestock and farming as a way of life. We see changes drastically; depletion of rangelands, water sources, the quantity of water, as well as the quality has gone down. We have nonnative plants that are coming in taking up the rangelands, and there’s less forage for livestock.


Narrator:  Depleted range and increasingly scarce plants used for dyes for wool is negatively impacting Navajo weaving and the creation of Navajo rugs and blankets.


Ailema Benally:  In the 1880s to the 1930s, Navajo people had a lot of sheep. There was so much sheep on the reservation, they made huge rugs, they were bringing into all the trading posts millions of pounds of wool, and so the economy ran on sheep.


Ailema Benally:  It’s believed by the Navajo people that the sheep were a gift to the Navajo people from the holey ones.


Ailema Benally:  The weaving is a long process. The shearing of the sheep, carting the wool, cleaning the wool, spinning it into yarn, and then go out and search for plants for that special color that you want. You’ve already planned in your mind the colors and possibly the patterns you want to develop to bring in for trade. And you have to go out and pick the parts of these plants when they are most potent at the best time of the season. The plants will move where the climate is ideal for them to grow, so that means the people will have to travel further out.


Narrator:  The southern Navajo Nation has been continually occupied since A.D. 660.


Narrator:  The recent aridity and drought here are trends that scientists expect to continue.


Klara Kelley:  If we want to cope with climate change, we need to revive our relationship with the holey people and the land, and we can’t revive the relationship to reproduce the way it used to be 50 years ago, but we do need to reestablish a more constructive relationship with the land. And the technical studies can help us do that. But we also need to see that traditional prayers and ways of doing things are incorporated, along with the techniques that the technical studies point to.


Narrator:  Where are solutions to be found?  Around the Navajo Nation, projects are starting on the ground.


Roland Tso:  We have been trying to implement several ways to try to rehabilitate our rangelands, about 4,000 acres just south of Many Farms. These farmers and ranchers, they’re aware of the climate change. They’re wanting to rehabilitate the rangeland so we can keep the soil in place.


Roland Tso:  And what we’re trying to do is rest that land in that area so native plants can start coming back. We believe that seeds are there; they’re hibernating. As long as we can rest the land, we can bring those native plants back.


Roland Tso:   We’re also working on a water system there to see if we can do a drip-line system and start looking at wind breaks so we can hold the soil in place and see how we can bring that back.


Leanna Begay:  And so with the youth interns, they’re developing techniques that are low cost and very beneficial for communities for any community member to complete and initiate on their own. And so with the help of the interns, they’re able to demonstrate to the community how to provide a water-harvesting catchment container to hook up to their homes and also what could be the uses of using that water that’s been harvested.


Leanna Begay:  Another technique is also for particular families being able to grow their own little fruits and vegetables at home, rather than doing a full acreage or even larger for farming activities.


Roland Tso:  As a conservationist and working with the soil and water conservation districts across the Navajo Nation, our goal is to go into the schools and educate young people about invasive plants, about water conservation, and soil conservation. Hopefully, we get funding to set up some weather stations here throughout the valley, as well as across the Navajo Nation. I think it’s very important that we get our youth involved in monitoring our weather and understanding what climate change really is.


Harris Francis:  Our young people need to make that connection between college and tradition and put them together. And in order to do this, you have to understand both worlds to make it come together.


Narrator:  USGS research will provide critical data to aid the Navajo Nation in their response to the changing environment. Local knowledge is teamed with the latest science. Sensor networks and analysis can lead to techniques for mitigating sand and dune hazards. New weather stations are expanding the drought-monitoring program. And experimental plots are examining new treatments to improve vegetation.


Narrator:  Science can help the Navajo Nation to find answers to the problems posed by climate change. USGS research works in concert with tribal efforts to adapt to continuing drought.


Pete Watchman:  What we’re trying to do is not only for us now, this is for our people, for our children. And then for many years to go, for the children and their children. A lot of generations that we have left that we want those kids to have joined Mother Earth like we are now.


Harris Francis:  Culture, tradition, our spiritual way of life. That is what keeps use going and will continue to keep us going.


Charlotte Jane Begaye:  I feel that the spiritual part of us, the native traditional way of life, has to be brought back out to connect with Mother Earth and to connect with all the natural elements of life like the wind, like the water, like the fire, and like the land.


Ailema Benally:  It would be to the Navajo peoples advantage to learn about climate change and take it to a personal level; how will it affect me, how will it affect my family, how will it affect our community?


Pete Watchman:  If we can start doing some education out there about the planting, maybe it has to give it a little bit about history about the Mother Earth and then the water and then the air and how important it is to maintain our health, so we can take care of ourselves, so we can have a longer life.


Harris Francis:  Maybe it would be a first-nations young person that will go out into this world and get all indigenous peoples together—their ideas, their ways of dealing with climate change. They might be the ones to save this world.


Margaret Hiza Redsteer:  It’s very likely we will see more sand and dust storms and increased water shortages, and frankly I think we’ll be able to learn a lot from tribes because tribes are on the front lines of these changes, but eventually we’re all going to be facing them.