When it comes to environmental science, the Four Corners region serves as a “living classroom” for dealing with challenges such as drought. The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, a research institute and “living classroom” in Cortez, has received several grants that will support research, education and partnership opportunities primarily for the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe.
The center received $55,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to support Native farmers with water data, soil data and other vital research.
The institute also received more than $5,000 in CARES Act support from Colorado Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities for its weekly webinar series, which is free and open to the public. The series focuses on Southwest archaeology, arts and culture and environmental science.
“Education has taken a larger role,” said Meghan Collins, education program manager for the Native Waters on Arid Lands project and assistant research scientist at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada.
AgricultureNative Waters on Arid Lands partners scientific researchers with tribal communities to collectively understand the impacts of climate change on water resources and agriculture.
“It’s all about improving the sustainability and resilience of tribal agriculture,” said Kyle Bocinsky, director of the Research Institute at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.
Tribes in the Southwest have been “dealing with these issues for millennia,” Bocinsky said. “We are providing the science context.”
Tribal agriculture extension agents use the data from the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center to work with tribal producers, a process that has been strained by the pandemic.
With funding from the USDA, tribal agents will receive a tablet with information on water and soil quality downloaded on it, so they can bring the tablet to the field to work with producers who often don’t have internet access.
If social distancing restrictions don’t allow for agents to visit producers, paper digests will be provided to producers with information on how to determine water levels, water and soil quality and other information vital to farming in the Southwest.
“Now tribal agents can do the work remotely,” Bocinsky said.
COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge for everyone, but the Navajo Nation in particular has faced a high number of cases. As of Wednesday, there were more than 9,000 positive cases on the reservation, prompting a weekend lockdown and daily curfew at 5 p.m.
The Southwest has experienced drought for decades, but this year was especially bad.
“We’ll see the impacts when it comes time to harvest,” Bocinsky said.
Simultaneously, the closing of the Kayenta mine on the Navajo Nation, operated by Peabody Western Coal Co., created a lack of energy and economic resources for the tribe. Previously, it provided 8 million tons of coal annually to the Navajo Generating Station.
EducationFunding from the USDA also will support Diné and Hopi teachers in developing science lesson plans that are directly relevant and applicable to the Southwest and their tribal locations. It also creates a support network during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as materials Native teachers can use for remote education.
Bocinsky said the center is talking with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe about how they can partner on education initiatives.
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is developing its own charter school, which would give Native students the opportunity to explore the land around them and apply tribal teachings as well as environmental science and data from the center.
“We hope to partner with more schools in the future,” Bocinsky said.
Funding from the USDA allows the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center to build a model for immersive experiences that teachers can implement in their own tribal communities, Bocinsky said.
But the free webinars the center publishes every Thursday at 4 p.m. are a good place to start. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center was going to host a hybrid education experience of webinars and in-person workshops. The grant from Colorado Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities will help the center continue the program completely online.
But school for many students does not just mean education – it also means community.
“There are many wraparound services, like food and social services,” Collins said. As the Native Waters on Arid Lands project works with the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center to support teachers, Collins said they are also “thinking about how to best support the whole community.”
Generic national or even statewide environmental science materials might not be relevant to the location of the tribes or the students they are serving, Collins said. Developing materials that are based in culture and place makes them more engaging for students, she said, and creates an outlet for teachers to network and support each other.
Teachers also have access to a “substantial body of knowledge” from STEM experts in their surrounding area through Crow Canyon, Collins said.
“It’s developing into a long-term initiative that incorporates actionable science and culture in Four Corners schools,” Bocinsky said.