An Environmental Scientist and an Educator Highlight Navajo Efforts to Balance Tradition with Scientific Priorities
This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
The global pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the stark disparities that exist within American communities. In the past months, journalists and public health experts have reminded us how longstanding systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Still, the national dialogue noticeably lacks a general awareness of Indigenous people's needs and priorities, especially in the scientific realm.
To learn more about some of the issues facing often-overlooked Indigenous tribal communities, we sought the perspectives of two members of the Navajo Nation: Nonabah Lane, Director of Development of New Mexico Projects at Navajo Power and the founder of Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, a farm that teaches Navajo culture through traditional farming and bilingual education; and Elmer Guy, Ph.D., president of Navajo Technical University, the first university to be established forty years ago on the Navajo Nation that today stands as a premier institution of higher education focusing on a balance between science and technology and traditional culture.
Elmer Guy and Nonabah Lane.
Credits: Navajo Technical University, left, and Diana Levine
Nonabah Lane: The COVID pandemic is really highlighting a lot of ways in which we are lacking, and that's especially true here in our tribal community, because the first thing you need to even address where we are in this science and technology space is the internet. There's a considerable gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of internet. The Navajo Nation is roughly the size of West Virginia, but we don't have anywhere near the broadband and internet access that other "states" this size would have. Some of the more glaring reasons for this go back to historical policies, lack of funding for infrastructure on tribal lands, and current rights-of-way issues, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that larger corporations aren't as willing to take risks in doing business on a tribal trust land. When you don't have the internet, you don't have access to information, you don't have access to what is going on in the world or science or technology, and you can't keep up with work or school.
Dr. Elmer Guy: That's right. In this pandemic, as we're being forced to go online, I see school buses parked outside for students who don't have internet at home. The buses are equipped with Wi-Fi, so if students can find a way to get to where those buses are parked, they can get on and do their homework. But only then.
Internet has long been an issue, and the Navajo Nation's telecommunications department created a cyber task force that we at Navajo Technical University (NTU) are members of. One of the things we recently did was to petition the FCC for special temporary authority of an EBS [Educational Broadband Services] 2.5-GHz spectrum that was available but not being used. So now we have that and we're using it to set up hot spots for students to connect. We're also working with the four internet-service companies: Cellular One, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, Sacred Wind, and Frontier. As Nonabah was saying, the Navajo Nation is quite large and has five agencies. NTU is in the eastern agency, but Navajo Tribal Utility Authority doesn't have a footprint here, so we partnered with Sacred Wind as well as Frontier to broaden our bandwidth.
We've also been collaborating with the Navajo Cyber Team on developing a Navajo Nation broadband policy, and we're almost done with that. The Navajo Nation received some CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] funding, and part of that is being used to address broadband. One of the things we're trying to do is see if tribal colleges can qualify for E-Rates [educational rates], since schools are eligible for E-Rates. And so some of the schools are getting connected.
What's also happening is that the Navajo Nation is trying to expand water lines to families so that they have water to wash their hands during this pandemic. We're recommending that if they're going to dig for the water lines, they might as well lay down conduits, too, so that later we will be able to install fiber as well. We happen to specialize in wireless technology here at NTU, and that is making a significant impact. In the past, it used to be about point-to-point, and when you're trying to serve a community in the valley, you'd have to find a water tank or something high and then get down and into that community from there. But with newer technology, they can bend now into those valleys. We keep reminding the state that they need to address rural communities. We've reached out to congressional members to push them to address broadband issues with Indian communities, and there are a couple of bills out now addressing that.
Of course, there are other things we're looking at in terms of scientific priorities: artificial intelligence, robotics, and climate change. We're in a high-desert environment, and the sand dunes are increasing because of overgrazing and other factors. Water sources are limited, and air pollution doesn't really help, so robotics could be promising. For example, we're looking at the water-filtering systems for wells so that both animals and humans have access to safe water. We're beginning to see the reach of technology in places like grocery stores, where people can check themselves out without the need for cashiers. So we try to look ahead and project what kinds of jobs will and will not be needed on the Navajo Nation, then have our faculty think about ways of adjusting the curriculum to stay in line with where the world is headed.
"One of the biggest challenges for us is how we make sure there's a connection between the students who want to go into science and how they can continue to contribute to Navajo communities—to their parents' and grandparents' way of life."
NL: Since we're talking about the internet and A.I., I think one of the key issues that isn't addressed in tribal communities is data: data security, privacy, and, ultimately, ownership. It's such a gray area. Take this pandemic, for instance, and the numbers and the data that's being collected: who's taking all of this information out of our communities and who's accounting for it? It's an important component being extracted seemingly covertly. Our tribal communities don't necessarily understand how valuable it is to keep that data within our communities.
I know there are various data holders who are not Navajo who have studied Navajo people and our environment, from soil samples to diabetes rates, and it's just not information we fully have access to as a population—our own information. It's critical to get everyone on the same page and to understand the importance of that.
There's a water project I'm working on that came out of the Gold King Mine waste-water spill of 2015, which was a major environmental catastrophe in New Mexico that affected the run-off from the San Juan Mountains. The water contamination really hurt agriculture, especially Navajo farmers on the San Juan River. We still feel it, even if the pandemic has kind of overshadowed it, and before the pandemic, my organization, Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, adopted a lot of the hard-science data that was taken by the University of Arizona. We've been working with New Mexico State University in continuing to collect and share data with the community in order to build back confidence with Navajo consumers about our farm produce. We have an ongoing partnership with New Mexico State University where they come out and do soil testing, and Navajo Preparatory School students are developing a curriculum around this as well. The point is to get easy-to-use, low-cost technology so that farmers can do this testing on their own and not have to wait for and rely on a university or the government agencies to come out and test it. This initiative would not have been possible without the support of the MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellowship.
Of course, you're always going to have the people in the community who don't believe in science and don't believe that the water is, in fact, okay, but it's essential that we have that scientific data. It's about empowering farmers to be able to relay that message as well—and finding a bridge between our longstanding traditions and modern science. A lot of the farming among the Navajo is deeply traditional to this region, and, as a culture, we're focused on the traditional aspects of the food. That's really why we felt like it was important to be proactive about this—because if you lose one more generation of farmers who don't produce these heritage foods, it's not just your food, it's your whole culture and way of life—your heritage—that could be gone. So it's important to preserve that tradition, but also alongside Western science—and data is critical.
EG: Nonabah is right about tradition, and I think one of the biggest challenges for us is how we make sure there's a connection between the students who want to go into science and how they can continue to contribute to Navajo communities—to their parents' and grandparents' way of life. A lot of the time, you have to create those opportunities. For example, we're trying to develop an environmental laboratory at one of our sites in Chinle, Arizona, where we want to be able to test the water, soil, air, uranium, etc. We have people who can run that facility mainly to help with the uranium mine clean-up. There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines, and what might usually happen is that funds would become available and outside entities would get those grants and they'd come in and do the work. Then, as soon as the grant is up, they leave and everything disappears, but the problem remains. It's these kinds of situations where we say, Why can't we do that ourselves? And the only way is to train and prepare engineers ourselves, from our community.
A lot of our students intern with the U.S. Army and Air Force Research Labs Faculty Fellowship or with Boeing or NASA, and, when they graduate, those groups grab them for themselves. So I keep asking the Navajo Nation where they are in all of this. A lot of times we are the ones who create the barriers that only end up hurting us. When the Navajo Nation puts out job vacancies, they require candidates to have so many years of experience, and our students don't qualify. There is a tremendous need for our graduates, but everybody except the Navajo Nation ends up hiring them.
NL: As Dr. Guy says, creating opportunity is so important. My family's non-profit organization, Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, actually came about for that particular reason. We had people coming in and doing workshops and telling us how we should plant and do this or that. It was absurd—how can you come from Washington State and tell us how to plant when you don't know what native crops have been planted in our home region for centuries? And so, because of my family's background in the sciences and the traditional upbringing we all share, we built this program ourselves. We incorporate the science into our program, and we encourage students to pursue a career in science, while trying to create those job opportunities for them here. I find that more than 75% of the Navajo students I interact with—whether in high school or college—want to come back home. They just don't have the work or career opportunities to do so.
EG: NTU also has a partnership with the Navajo Nation's economic department, and we run their business incubator program. We encourage people to go into businesses here on Navajo. One of the challenges is that, even though the Navajo Nation may be the size of West Virginia, we don't own the land. So you have to deal with leases or homesite land-use permits, and it's daunting. We streamline that process and help people put together business plans, set up payroll taxes, figure out marketing strategies, and so forth.
One of the challenges is resistance, and that's something you have to deal with. For example, when I was pushing my faculty to develop an engineering degree, no one could understand why. So I told them about the national goal—that the United States has set a goal for itself that by the year 2026 or whenever, it wants to have 100,000 engineers. But what about the Navajo Nation's goals? We don't have a goal, but we should, and you have to push people to get there. Eventually everyone sees the benefits of these kinds of decisions.
NL: I also believe we have to encourage the entrepreneurial mindset: If something doesn't exist here already, then ask yourself what's needed and create it. This is our community, and we can make that change. I'm really biased toward starting your own thing because that's what I do. Before COVID-19 hit, I was developing a water lab that would stand closer to the Southern Ute Reservation so that it could be at the opening to the tributaries that run into the Colorado River and downstream to the tribes. I wanted that specific site because it would allow us to monitor the water that's a priority for tribes—because everyone else already has their own resources. And all of the water scientists involved were Navajo. If people like us don't take the initiative for these kinds of projects, the absolute wrong person is going to do it, without understanding the community.
EG: Whether it's the environment or water or some other scientific need, it's important that we remember to develop the smaller steps necessary for achieving any goal. For example, if we need veterinarians, then we have to ask what the steps are to get us to that point. A veterinary or medical school probably won't happen at NTU, but we could begin by identifying and building the steps needed to get there. We did this by starting a veterinary technician program and then added an animal science degree and then a biology degree, which is designed somewhat as a pre-medical degree, so that students can go into either medicine or veterinary science. We know we can't always make a leap right away, but we can build the pathways that get us there.
NL: For everything we've been discussing, I think it's really important to understand that we're not talking for the whole of the Navajo Nation; the Navajo Nation is large, and its culture is regional. There are different priorities in different communities. Where I live, we have abundant water around us, so that is not a need, but if you go 100 miles south, there's no water infrastructure whatsoever. And there are other issues, from coal and oil and gas extraction, to the uranium issue, which are regional. Some people live close to large health facilities while rural communities only have access to a clinic. NTU is resource-abundant in terms of having that academic outlet for students while people on the other side of the reservation may not have that. I'm always very clear about this. I may be speaking from a tribal nation, I may be speaking from experience, but I'm not speaking for the Navajo Nation as a whole, and I'm not speaking for tribal communities as a whole. Yes, we are a community, and we can expose a greater picture in our area of expertise, but there are definitely different areas that have individual needs.
Still, I do believe in the promise of what the future can hold for us in terms of both science and tradition. The two can complement each other and are not at odds, even though we tend to think of sustainability in scientific terms. And yes, science can help us achieve sustainability through things like solar tech, health innovations, and natural sciences. But I'm talking about sustainability overall and of the Earth: sustainability of water, energy, and agriculture, but also of human capacity and Navajo culture.
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Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?"
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the Hillman Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Dr. Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at Hillman who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of C. difficile infection and he wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy.
In Sydney, Australia, in the basement of an inner-city high-rise, lives a mass of unexpected inhabitants: millions of maggots. The insects are far from unwelcome. They are there to feast on the food waste generated by the building's human residents.
Goterra, the start-up that installed the maggots in the building in December, belongs to the rapidly expanding insect agriculture industry, which is experiencing a surge of investment worldwide.
The maggots – the larvae of the black soldier fly – are voracious, unfussy eaters. As adult flies, they don't eat, so the young fatten up swiftly on whatever they can get. Goterra's basement colony can munch through 5 metric tons of waste in a day.
"Maggots are nature's cleaners," says Bob Gordon, Head of Growth at Goterra. "They're a great tool to manage waste streams."
Their capacity to consume presents a neat response to the problem of food waste, which contributes up to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year as it rots in landfill.
"The maggots eat the food fairly fresh," Gordon says. "So, there's minimal degradation and you don't get those methane emissions."
Alongside their ability to devour waste, the soldier fly larvae hold further agricultural promise: they yield an incredibly efficient protein. After the maggots have binged for about 12 days, Goterra harvests and processes them into a protein-rich livestock feed. Their excrement, known as frass, is also collected and turned into soil conditioner.
"We are producing protein in a basement," says Gordon. "It's urban farming – really sustainable, urban farming."
Goterra's module in the basement at Barangaroo, Sydney.
Supplied by Goterra
Goterra's founder Olympia Yarger started producing the insects in "buckets in her backyard" in 2016. Today, Goterra has a large-scale processing plant and has developed proprietary modules – in shipping containers – that use robotics to manage the larvae.
The modules have been installed on site at municipal buildings, hospitals, supermarkets, several McDonald's restaurants, and a range of smaller enterprises in Australia. Users pay a subscription fee and simply pour in the waste; Goterra visits once a fortnight to harvest the bugs.
Insect agriculture is well established outside of the West, and the practice is gaining traction around the world. China has mega-facilities that can process hundreds of tons of waste in a day. In Kenya, a program recently trained 2000 farmers in soldier fly farming to boost their economic security. French biotech company InnovaFeed, in partnership with US agricultural heavyweight ADM, plans to build "the world's largest insect protein facility" in Illinois this year.
"The [maggots] are science fiction on earth. Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
But the concept is still not to everyone's taste.
"This is still a topic that I say is a bit like black liquorice – people tend to either really like it or really don't," says Wendy Lu McGill, Communications Director at the North American Coalition of Insect Agriculture (NACIA).
Formed in 2016, NACIA now has over 100 members – including researchers and commercial producers of black soldier flies, meal worms and crickets.
McGill says there have been a few iterations of insect agriculture in the US – beginning with worms produced for bait after World War II then shifting to food for exotic pets. The current focus – "insects as food and feed" – took root about a decade ago, with the establishment of the first commercial farms for this purpose.
"We're starting to see more expansion in the U.S. and a lot of the larger investments have been for black soldier fly producers," McGill says. "They tend to have larger facilities and the animal feed market they're looking at is potentially quite large."
InnovaFeed's Illinois facility is set to produce 60,000 metric tons of animal feed protein per year.
"They'll be trying to employ many different circular principles," McGill says of the project. "For example, the heat from the feed factory – the excess heat that would normally just be vented – will be used to heat the other side that's raising the black soldier fly."
Although commercial applications have started to flourish recently, scientific knowledge of the black soldier fly's potential has existed for decades.
Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, has been studying the insect for over 20 years, contributing to key technologies used in the industry. He also founded Evo, a black soldier fly company in Texas, which feeds its larvae the waste from a local bakery and distillery.
"They are science fiction on earth," he says of the maggots. "Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
Tomberlin says fly farms can work effectively at different scales, and present possibilities for non-Western countries to shift towards "commodity independence."
"You don't have to have millions of dollars invested to be successful in producing this insect," he says. "[A farm] can be as simple as an open barn along the equator to a 30,000 square-foot indoor facility in the Netherlands."
As the world's population balloons, food insecurity is an increasing concern. By 2050, the UN predicts that to feed our projected population we will need to ramp up food production by at least 60%. Insect agriculture, which uses very little land and water compared to traditional livestock farming, could play a key role.
Insects may become more common human food, but the current commercial focus is animal feed. Aquaculture is a key market, with insects presenting an alternative to fish meal derived from over-exploited stocks. Insect meal is also increasingly popular in pet food, particularly in Europe.
While recent investment has been strong – NACIA says 2020 was the best year yet – reaching a scale that can match existing agricultural industries and providing a competitive price point are still hurdles for insect agriculture.
But COVID-19 has strengthened the argument for new agricultural approaches, such as the decentralized, indoor systems and circular principles employed by insect farms.
"This has given the world a preview – which no one wanted – of [future] supply chain disruptions," says McGill.
As the industry works to meet demand, Tomberlin predicts diversification and product innovation: "I think food science is going to play a big part in that. They can take an insect and create ice cream." (Dried soldier fly larvae "taste kind of like popcorn," if you were wondering.)
Tomberlin says the insects could even become an interplanetary protein source: "I do believe in that. I mean, if we're going to colonize other planets, we need to be sustainable."
But he issues a word of caution about the industry growing too big, too fast: "I think we as an industry need to be very careful of how we harness and apply [our knowledge]. The black soldier fly is considered the crown jewel today, but if it's mismanaged, it can be relegated back to a past."
Goterra's Gordon also warns against rushing into mass production: "If you're just replacing big intensive animal agriculture with big intensive animal agriculture with more efficient animals, then what's the change you're really effecting?"
But he expects the industry will continue its rise though the next decade, and Goterra – fuelled by recent $8 million Series A funding – plans to expand internationally this year.
"Within 10 years' time, I would like to see the vast majority of our unavoidable food waste being used to produce maggots to go into a protein application," Gordon says.
"There's no lack of demand. And there's no lack of food waste."