Geotimes
Web Feature 
Science on Tribal Lands

Susan M. Marcus

The land owned by Native Americans in the United States would, all together, rank 11th in a list of states by acreage. Currently, the U.S. government holds about 56 million acres of land in trust for tribes and individuals. The Navajo Nation alone totals 16 million acres, about the size of Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey combined. Tribes may acquire land, so the amount of tribal land is likely to increase. American Indians and Alaska Natives are not only the First Americans, but they are also an important land-owning segment of our nation.

Pictured is Tsezhin Bii', which means "within black rocks" in the Navajo language. This area of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the Southwest, is also near the Hopi Buttes area in Arizona. The butte-dotted landscape formaed as a result of volcanic activity 7 million years ago. USGS scientists are working with the Navajo Nation to conduct research in this area on how climate variability affects land use. Humans have occupied this area since at least A.D. 600. The trailer pictured in the foreground in home to Navajos. Photo by George Breit

More than 2 million Americans identified themselves as American Indians or Alaska Natives in the 2000 Census. More than 4 million identified themselves as all or part Indian or Native American. This population group composes more than 550 communities run by federally recognized tribal governments. State governments recognize additional tribes, and the federal process allows for recognizing more.

A major priority for these tribal governments is land management. Land management requires scientific knowledge, particularly the knowledge offered by geologists. Often, issues of tribal land management can become contentious, particularly as tribal and nontribal governments must sometimes share resources. But scientists can step in as objective providers of information.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) provides reliable scientific information to people who make decisions about lands and resources. Native American land and resource managers use USGS information to respond to concerns about human health, resource use and conservation. USGS information is used by many parties involved with issues of tribal rights, notably water rights.

Scientists have expertise based on formal education, field experiences and the peer review process. Native American knowledge rests on experience too — centuries of it, usually distilled into oral traditions, wisdom and culture. The scientists who work on tribal lands value the opportunity to complement their scientific knowledge with Native American knowledge, because both are rooted in close observation of earth processes that change through time. Geologists, hydrologists and other earth scientists study aspects of the land that are not bounded by political lines. Tribal lands share attributes with other lands, but they are not “public” or federal property. Tribal governments are defined as “domestic dependent sovereigns,” and thus control access to their lands. In order to gain access to these lands and to do science on them, USGS scientists are learning to explain the rationale of our studies and the uses of our information to people whose values may differ from those of other USGS cooperators and stakeholders.

This has meant learning new ways of applying our craft. Scientific culture relies on reproducible data and shared information; it may include perceptions of a world with humans at the top. The cultures of Native Americans vary extensively, though most have a worldview that perceives all of Earth, including humans, as integrated. Experience and observation are valued as ways to understand the land and its inhabitants together.

Earth scientists and Native Americans both value experiential learning and gain wisdom from experienced leaders in the field. Like other land managers, tribal governments want information to manage their lands wisely, and often want to know how present actions may affect seven generations into the future.

Information for a key resource

Water is crucial to the health of any community, particularly on tribal lands. The quality of surface water and groundwater directly affects human and environmental health now and for generations. The majority of tribal lands in the conterminous United States are in semi-arid regions, where water is a scarce resource. Due to economic and cultural conditions, tribal communities rely on nearby land and water for much of their subsistence. Spiritual practices related to land, water and animals are crucial to their survival and culture.

USGS stream monitoring for sediment, contaminants, flow rates and water use are important information sources for tribal governments and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribes use the data to set irrigation policies, address public health concerns, and negotiate with other water users. USGS also is helping several tribes develop their own stream gaging and monitoring capabilities.

USGS studies of water contamination affecting tribal lands stretch from Maine and Florida to from Washington and Alaska. The Oglala Lakota, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, and the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin are among the tribes that have worked with USGS to delineate sources of safe drinking water.

Several tribes with groundwater contaminated by hydrocarbons or by saline water that infiltrated into groundwater when hydrocarbons were extracted nearby. USGS scientists have been working recently with the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. They have identified that the reservation’s groundwater is contaminated by saline water and by large nitrate concentrations. Saline-water contamination in the East Poplar oil field not only discharges to the Poplar River, but it also may include as much as 12.4 square miles and may affect 9 to 60 billion gallons of groundwater.
The probable source of saline-water contamination is brine that is a byproduct of the production of crude oil in the East Poplar oil field. Another study found that nitrate concentrations in more than 50 percent of the groundwater wells completed in the Flaxville and underlying aquifers exceeded the EPA’s safety standard of 10 milligrams per liter.

The last sampling period was in 1993, and hydrologists need to perform monitoring to determine whether the saltwater plumes in the East Poplar oil field have migrated since then. They also need to take more samples to determine if nitrate concentrations vary seasonally or over longer periods of time. And, determining changes in groundwater quality requires a long-term groundwater sampling network. The multiyear monitoring program now underway will help the tribes use data collected by USGS scientists to assure that their people have healthy, potable water.

The people of the Penobscot Nation in Maine use river fish for sustenance and cultural reasons. With information on the occurrence and distribution of dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in fish and sediment in the Penobscot River, the Penobscot Nation and others can make decisions on ecological and human health risks.

Sampling by the Penobscot Nation’s Department of Natural Resources quantified concentrations of dioxins and furans in the riverbed sediment to a limited degree. In 1999, the Bureau of Indian Affairs brought together agencies — including the Penobscot Nation, USGS, EPA, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the University of Maine Water Resources Research Institute — to study the river’s water quality. The results of this multi-party evaluation will help the Penobscot manage resources and care for the health of their people. Other jurisdictions may also use the information for land management decisions.

USGS is conducting geological and geophysical studies to provide a framework for understanding aquifers in several critical groundwater basins along the Rio Grande, which extends from Colorado to Mexico. The diverse users of water, overseen by tribal, state and local governments, need information for making water claims.

The current focus is the Española groundwater basin in the greater Santa Fe, N.M., region that includes lands belonging to the several Pueblo Indian tribes, or pueblos.

USGS scientists are developing a 3-D view of the groundwater basin that will eventually improve our understanding of groundwater flow and resources. The project includes geologic mapping in cooperation with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources and the University of New Mexico; geophysical mapping of the subsurface in cooperation with Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Summer of Applied Geophysics Experience educational program; investigations of how faults affect the aquifer system; and studies of geologic history to predict the distribution of underground aquifers. Geologic and geophysical maps of Pueblo areas provide information that aid Pueblo governments in protecting groundwater and in assessing of water and other natural resources.

In Arizona, USGS is studying how climate variability and land use affect the Hopi Buttes region of the Navajo Nation. Researchers are examining the current surficial and bedrock geology, soil and water quality, and plant ecology in the context of the effects of human habitation over millennia. Information for teachers and for local land use planning is part of the project, including presentations given to Navajo governing bodies and schools in the Navajo language. Tribal members are an integral part of the study team. The Navajo Nation can use the historical, geological and biological information in determining grazing policies and in mitigating human health risks from domestic water supplies that might be contaminated.

Education and cooperation

Working with tribal organizations and educational institutions, USGS aims to provide tribal governments and Native Americans with the technical capabilities and knowledge they need to manage their lands (related article in the September 2001 Geotimes). And tribal leaders and educators recognize the need to train new generations to walk not only in the world of their culture, but also in the world of Western science.

During the signing ceremony for the agreement between Sinte Gleska University of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the U.S. Geological Survey on Oct. 4, 2000, Albert White Hat Sr. explains the significance of the ceremony and the relationship between the two partners. The partnership means that USGS works with the university on earth science education. Photo courtesy of USGS

Working with the Survey’s EROS Data Center, Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota has created a curriculum in geographic information systems (GIS). This collaboration provides training for the students and provides land-planning information for the tribe. USGS provided mentoring, data and internship assistance.

USGS started a GIS program at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. With support from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Haskell attracts Native American students from throughout the United States. Using information about tribal lands, the course has taught skills transferable to careers in many fields, both on and off the reservation. Another cooperative effort with Haskell was a short film, “Mother Earth’s Story,” which viewed the science of geology from a Native American perspective. The film was created for Native American high school and entry-level college classes, to encourage the students to pursue careers in science, particularly in earth science.

The Federal Geographic Data Committee supports satellite broadcasts of geospatial classes from the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute to tribal colleges throughout the West. The committee is supported by USGS, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Intertribal GIS Council and has created specialized courses on building and maintaining a GIS.

Cooperation and collaboration with tribal governments and Native Americans can benefit all parties. Tribal governments may not have the scientific peer networks that scientists rely upon in many intergovernmental or cooperative studies. All of us in the geoscience community should work toward building those networks within the tribal community. We will benefit from such networks because they increase the numbers and the understanding of the consumers of our information. Tribes will benefit by having reliable information to manage human health, resource and environmental issues. More cooperation also will broaden Native Americans’ career options.

Geoscientists can inspire Native American students to pursue careers in science by sharing our enthusiasm for studying Earth, through classroom presentations and cooperative field studies. The next time you are near a Native American school, whether it be a tribal college, university or school for younger students, contact the science or natural resources teacher and offer to give a presentation about your field or to demonstrate a field technique. Take the opportunity to show them a wonderful, new world within their own lands.


Marcus is an American Indian/Alaska Native Liaison for the U.S. Geological Survey. She works in the USGS Reston, Va., office. E-mail
For more information on USGS activities related to American Indians and Alaska Natives, please visit the USGS site

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