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Major project to bring together Indigenous knowledge-holders with university-trained scientists

Haskell Indian Nations University to lead coastal research hub in partnership with NCAR

Aug 3, 2022 - by Laura Snider

Haskell Indian Nations University has received $20 million in funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to lead a new research hub where Indigenous knowledge-holders will work with university-trained scientists to address the impacts of a changing climate on their coastal communities. The five-year grant to fund the Rising Voices, Changing Coasts (RVCC) Hub is the largest NSF-funded research award in tribal college and university history.

Haskell, established in 1884 and based in Lawrence, Kansas, is a post-secondary tribal college operated by the Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Education that serves members of all federally recognized tribal nations in the United States. Haskell has been a leader among tribal colleges and universities in climate change research and education for decades.

The RVCC Hub will rely on partnerships built over more than a decade. These partnerships include Haskell; Indigenous organizations, such as the Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Working Group; and internationally known research organizations, including the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). 

At the heart of the partnerships is NCAR’s Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences, which has worked for over a decade to build relationships of trust, respect, and reciprocity among Indigenous knowledge-holders and Earth system scientists at NCAR and beyond. The hub also includes community partners in the four coastal regions where the project will focus: Alaska, Louisiana, Hawai’i, and Puerto Rico.

“This award is a testimony to the power of relationships,” said Daniel Wildcat, a professor of Indigenous and American Indian Studies at Haskell and the lead investigator for the RVCC Hub. “We have spent many years building networks between researchers and Indigenous communities that became the foundation for this successful proposal.”

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said in a news release announcing the award: “The Rising Voices, Changing Coasts hub to be located at Haskell Indian Nations University is a tremendous step forward in supporting tribal communities as they address challenges from a rapidly changing climate. This is an exciting and much-needed opportunity for scientists and Indigenous knowledge keepers to collaborate on how Indigenous people in coastal areas can build resiliency to the dynamic forces resulting from climate change.”

Co-developing solutions

Indigenous coastal communities are experiencing severe impacts from climate change that threaten their traditional ways of life, including coastal flooding, shoreline erosion, intensifying hurricanes and other extreme weather, and changes to the local ecosystems. Indigenous community members hold a deep understanding of these shifts in their local environments that has developed over generations. 

“Indigenous people have a lot of knowledge about the places they call home — the land, the air, the water, the plants, the animals,” Wildcat said. “Too often this knowledge is ignored because it’s not held by people who have a Ph.D. Indigenous communities have been asking for a long time to have a seat at the table where climate change issues are being discussed. With this hub, Indigenous people are building the table and inviting university-trained scientists to sit.”

The RVCC Hub will bring together Indigenous knowledge-holders with social, ecosystem, and physical Earth system scientists with the goal of co-developing ways to address coastal hazards and create more resilient communities. Critically, the knowledge-sharing among participants in the hub is designed to flow both ways, with university-trained scientists benefiting from the deep understanding held by Indigenous people of the places being studied, and Indigenous people benefiting from the regionally specific information that can be generated by computer modeling and other research techniques to help inform difficult adaptation and mitigation decisions. Ultimately, the hub will interweave Indigenous knowledge, modeling capabilities, archeological records, GIS techniques, socio-economic analysis, and hazards research.

An emphasis on convergence research

The RVCC Hub serves as a trailblazing example of undertaking convergence research, a means of solving the most challenging and complex issues that face society by bringing together people from across disciplines, each of whom bring their own methodologies, techniques, and expertise to contribute to the solution. A shift to convergence research — and the resulting actionable science that provides communities with the information they need — is a priority for NSF and for NCAR.

“I am deeply appreciative of the many years of trust and relationship-building that have allowed NCAR to apply our expertise in support of this effort,” said NCAR Director Everette Joseph. “This hub is exactly the kind of work that should be enabled by a national center — place-based, focused research that is justice-oriented and provides communities what they need. I look forward to supporting this effort and using it as a model for how NCAR can continue to engage with communities to undertake actionable Earth system science.” NCAR is sponsored by NSF.

The hub is being funded through NSF’s Coastlines and People Hubs for Research and Broadening Participation (CoPe) program. 

“This large-scale CoPe hub will focus on Indigenous communities, bringing Indigenous and scientific knowledge together, tackling research challenges that are important to Indigenous communities, training Indigenous early career students and scientists, and creating a framework in which all scientists can work in partnership with Indigenous communities,” said Amanda Adams, NSF Program Director for Education and Cross-Disciplinary Activities and part of the leadership team for the CoPe program. “This hub exemplifies that broadening participation and meaningful scientific research are not mutually exclusive pursuits.”

The legacy of the funding for the RVCC Hub will extend far beyond the five-year funding period in at least a couple of ways. First, the grant will be used in part to increase administrative and technological infrastructure at Haskell so that current and future research with and by Indigenous scientists and communities can be more robustly supported. Second, one of the goals of the new hub will be broadening participation in Earth system science among Indigenous students and researchers. 

“Our research framework includes opportunities for Indigenous students to be mentored and trained in the sciences in a way that encourages them to be their whole selves,” said NCAR scientist Heather Lazrus, a co-principal investigator for the hub and one of the founders of NCAR’s Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences. “Indigenous scientists can conduct rigorous research and be able to carry their Indigenous knowledge and cultural selves at the same time — those two things can co-exist and are essential to make the sciences more welcoming, inclusive, and justice-centered.”

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