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.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.