Technical Models Informed by Indigenous Cultural Values

November is Native American Heritage month. Throughout the month, we will be featuring blogs by EPA and EPA-supported Native American environmental and public health researchers, and about issues related to Tribal Science.

Technical Models Informed by Indigenous Cultural Values

By Len Necefer

Researcher interviewing a women.

Len Necefer conducting surveys with the Navajo Nation.

Growing up in the Navajo Nation, I learned firsthand about the link between the environment and the health of our people. A nonsmoker, my grandfather developed silicosis and had his entire left lung removed at the age of 45, the result of years of unsafe uranium mining practices typical across the Navajo Nation. His health problems were complicated later in life by poor air quality from large coal power plants in the region.

While both uranium and coal provide significant revenue and employment for the tribe, I believed that there must be a way to develop energy resources with fewer consequences to the environment and its people. I believed there could be a way to draw upon the Navajo teachings from my family about my responsibilities to the environment to guide this new path.

I was awarded an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Fellowship in 2012 to pursue my doctoral work at Carnegie Mellon University. My dissertation is focused on developing technical decision tools to help tribal policy makers make more informed decisions on future energy resource development. The tool will track and display culturally-relevant outcomes from different environmental decisions, such as specific impacts on land and water resources uniquely important to the Navajo Nation cultural practices, such as sacred sites and medicinal herbs.

The technical model that I am developing has already been used to illuminate the long-term environmental impacts of energy resource management policies. It will be building upon Tools for Energy Modeling Optimization and Assessment, to consider non-technical factors of energy resource management decisions.

While the technical model provides a necessary framework for assessing different energy resource management pathways, it is important to understand what the Navajo public understands about these issues and what cultural values inform their opinions. In order to understand these perspectives, I conducted interviews and surveys in the Navajo Nation community. In addition to my studies at Carnegie Mellon, I have continued learning about ceremonial traditions in order to accurately represent Navajo perspectives on the environment.

I hope to extend this tool to help other American Indian and Alaskan Native groups make better informed, lower impact energy resource management decisions that are consistent with their own unique cultural values.

About the Author: Former EPA STAR fellow Len Necefer is a member of the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 2012 with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. His doctoral research at Carnegie Mellon University focuses on the intersection between technical and social issues of energy resources, climate change, and sustainability of native nations.


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