The Project

This is a 5-year research and education project supported by a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Award (Award ID: 1654217, Principal Investigator: Dr. Clint Carroll, Start Date: July 2017).

The project investigates the relationship between access to natural resources, language preservation, environmental knowledge, and the maintenance of biodiversity. Worldwide, the loss of traditional environmental knowledge and languages with small speaker communities occurs together. Scientists and Indigenous communities alike worry that this loss threatens Indigenous life ways, as well as the contributions of Indigenous knowledge systems to science generally and the preservation of biodiversity in particular. This project focuses on a fundamental but little-investigated piece of this problem: Indigenous access to natural resources. What happens when that access is limited? Are communities able to adapt, or is the knowledge linked to the land in danger of being lost? And what role can Western scientific knowledge (both natural and social) play in this process? To answer these questions, we will investigate how Native American people mentally and physically navigate barriers to their land-based cultural knowledge and practices, how such approaches to social and environmental challenges may inform the broader society, and whether tribal environmental education in traditional and Western science can contribute to local cultural and ecological resiliency.

The research will be carried out in five Oklahoma counties where Cherokees are the largest minority. The project has three phases. First, the PI will collaborate with the tribal biologist and a Cherokee elders group dedicated to the preservation of traditional ecological knowledge to devise modules for a special 3-year program focused on teaching the following: Western and Cherokee knowledge of regional plants, animals, and ecological processes; social science research methods, including ethnographic interviewing, participatory mapping, and GIS; and the Cherokee language. The PI and his collaborators will then competitively select students to complete the program and gather data. The researcher and the students will survey rural households, conduct in-depth ethnographic interviews, and carry out participatory mapping to locate resource areas, record knowledge about those areas, and determine barriers to assessing them. The project will conclude with an assessment of the educational program, finalizing the community maps, and analyzing the data to pinpoint the linkages between resource access, knowledge preservation, language revitalization, and land conservation.

Findings from the research will document and contribute to social science theory of cultural resilience and adaptation to the environmental shifts and changing resource access accompanying climate change. Broader societal impacts of the project include training a future generation of Cherokee scientists, supporting tribal efforts to maintain language and traditional ecological knowledge, and documenting resources and language. All materials produced will be housed with the Cherokee Nation, in Oklahoma archives, and at the University of Colorado.

Read more about this project in the University of Colorado’s Arts and Sciences Magazine.