USGS and the Navajo Nation: Building stronger relationships by supporting Earth observation science, while respecting Navajo culture
Just as storytelling is integral to the preservation of traditions of Indigenous culture, so is the importance of sharing of Earth observation data to monitor, document and analyze the dynamic transformations happening on our planet.
So USGS scientists from the Fort Collins Science Center and National Land Imaging Program sought a better way to co-develop the program’s Earth science data and tools with Tribal Nations to the often-overlooked Indigenous populations.
Since July 23, 1972, USGS and NASA have partnered on the Landsat program, which uses Earth observation satellites to capture a comprehensive and continuous look at the changing Earth from space. Data from the Landsat program have provided critical information for the management and use of natural resources, agriculture, weather, disaster assessments, ecological changes and more.
Nikki Tulley, a member of the Navajo Nation, Ph.D. candidate and assistant research scientist with NASA, said during her case study that Indigenous communities, like the Navajo, are traditionally among the underserved with little to no support in place for their use of Earth observation applications.
Recognizing the importance of relationships and how Earth observation data has the potential to provide collaborative tools for communities, the USGS and partners reached out to the Navajo Nation as a starting point.
With a population of approximately 400,000, the Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the United States. Their lands are approximately the size of West Virginia, consisting of approximately 27,000 square miles (18 million acres) in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. For thousands of years, the Navajo people and other Indigenous communities have been stewards of the Earth, utilizing knowledge passed down for generations heavily influencing their identities and culture.
With respect to both Navajo knowledge and Western science, USGS worked with partners to hold the Nihima Nahasdzáán−The Art of Mother Earth Gallery Event and workshop in the Navajo Nation’s capital city of Window Rock, AZ in April 2023.
Scientists hoped the event would create a respectful, equitable way to share Earth observation information through communal conversations that also reflect Navajo views on Earth observations.
"When collaborating on the initial Earth observation community event at the Navajo Nation, we learned the importance of prioritizing relationships, trust, active listening and thinking about Earth observation imagery in different ways,” said Crista Straub, Ph.D., a Social Scientist with the USGS National Land Imaging Program.
The evening event, held at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, was a family affair bringing together multiple generations. The interactive Earth observation activities were provided in both Navajo and English languages, and in many cases, younger generations engaged their parents and grandparents in how to explore the Earth observation technology at the various stations.
At one popular station, participants used a station to access a custom app, developed in collaboration with the Google Earth partner, to create their own “Earth as Art” image of the Navajo Nation and surrounding areas. App users selected a desired area to print the image and take as a keepsake, many chose the location of their home.
Other stations included “Earth as Art” Landsat satellite imagery of the Navajo Nation, a large 12 x12 foot interactive floor puzzle made from satellite imagery of Navajo Nation and a Landsat collage station.
Well attended by community members, the event was considered a success based on participant feedback.
On the second day USGS participated in a listening session with the Navajo Nation Department of Natural Resources (NNDNR). A result of the conversations, USGS scientists and NNDNR decided to work together on a series of case studies incorporating Earth observations – such as Landsat – into natural resource management and decision-making tools for the Navajo Nation.
The spring event served as an important first step in fostering relationships and conversations between the groups on how USGS earth observations science can be leveraged to benefit this community. In September, the scientists took the next step in the collaborative journey when they traveled back to the Navajo Nation to begin working with NNDNR on the recommended Earth observation case studies suggested at the spring event.
“We hope Earth observation imagery – such as Landsat – can be a decision-support tool to help support complex environmental issues," said Straub. "One crucial lesson learned from the listening session was the potential benefit of an Earth observation case study centered on a specific area of concern within the Navajo Nation such as drought, so this is where our team is headed next. "
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