Building Capacity for Tribal Environmental Governance
In Summer 2022, the Institute for a Sustainable Earth proudly piloted a collaborative research project in partnership with two of Virginia’s Indigenous Nations: the Chickahominy and the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribes, both located in the Tidewater Region of Virginia. With support from Mason’s Summer Team Impact Program and the Office of Undergraduate Research, 10 undergraduate researchers, 2 graduate researchers, and two faculty members joined several Indigenous knowledge-bearers and government officials to research environmental changes and resilience strategies within the Tribes’ ancestral homelands.
After centuries of marginalization, Indigenous nations in the Commonwealth of Virginia have successfully mobilized for recognition and self-determination in recent decades. However, the global climate crisis poses outsized threats to these communities as they work to restore environmental stewardship activities. In this context, this project centers Indigenous research priorities and proceeds with methods founded on respect, reciprocity, and additive community engagements. The project’s goal is to collect and analyze environmental data to serve as a baseline for tribal decision-making about climate resilience, including various data sets reflecting air and water quality, biodiversity, ethnobiology, and the restoration of traditional foodways. By focusing on Indigenous environmental practices, this research explores how place-based knowledge can be both preserved and mobilized to inspire community resilience in the face of the climate crisis.
The multidisciplinary research team, led by Dr. Jeremy M. Campbell and Dr. Tom Wood, conducted research based in geographic information systems (GIS), wildlife surveys on recently reacquired Tribal lands, longitudinal air and water quality data, and traditional ecological knowledge. Crucially, their work has been guided by the principles and practice of Indigenous data sovereignty, where clear lines of Tribally-controlled access to and protection of information of all kinds are respected and upheld. Part of the team’s ongoing work is collaborating with Indigenous data scientists to build and maintain secure databases that can still be flexible and open enough to inform Tribal decision-making in concrete ways. Tribal authorities and the Institute for a Sustainable Earth are currently seeking extramural funding to expand these initial collaborations.
Dana Adkins, the Environmental Director for the Chickahominy Tribe, had this to say about his collaborations with Mason researchers: “This project has been very valuable to the Chickahominy Tribe, as it’s helped us establish a baseline of information about our tribal lands and waters that will help us as we make decisions going forward. As we work to strengthen our community’s role as stewards of our ancestral lands, it’s been great to partner with the students and learn from them as they learn from us.” One of the Mason undergraduate researchers that led the way in this work was Mr Adkins’s niece, Sara Jefferson, a junior psychology major, resident of Charles City, VA, and Citizen of the Chickahominy Tribe.
To learn more about how the ISE is continuing to engage Tribal Partners in the Commonwealth of Virginia, please view the Project Videos. Any additional questions or ideas for collaborations can be forwarded to Dr. Jeremy M. Campbell, ISE’s Associate Director for Strategic Engagement, at firstname.lastname@example.org.