Using environmental science to help Native nations, Karletta Chief earns Women of Impact award

Aug. 24, 2022

UArizona Environmental Science faculty among 30 awardees for inaugural ceremony

When it comes to using science research to help Indigenous communities, Karletta Chief stands in a league of her own. Her work facing environmental challenges affecting Native nations is a major factor in her earning the Women of Impact award from the University of Arizona’s Office of Research, Innovation and Impact.

Chief is Diné and is from the Bitter Water Clan, one of the four original Navajo Nation clans. At the University of Arizona, she is an associate professor and extension specialist in the Environmental Science department. By connecting her cultural heritage with her profession, Chief successfully studies how climate change and industries, such as mining, impact Native nations and their water.

In 2021, Chief became the first director of the Indigenous Resilience Center, a new University of Arizona research facility focusing on interdisciplinary projects with Native nations. Through this center and in her own Environmental Science research, Chief said keeping Native nations’ perspective and knowledge involved is essential.

“It is critical that Native nations drive the research questions based on their priorities and long-standing local knowledge, and that the approaches involve decolonized and indigenized approaches with Indigenous scientists actively leading these efforts,” Chief said. “Furthermore, the resilience partnerships will aim to involve students who want to give back to their communities through community-based projects that are action oriented and solution driven."

Prior to her faculty appointment at UArizona in 2011, Chief earned her PhD here in 2007. She also earned her BS and MS in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Stanford.

Since she started with the Environmental Science department, Chief authored over 25 scholarly publications and gave hundreds of presentations on hydrology, soil, and professional development, amongst other topics.

Chief’s long list of accolades includes earning a personalized bench in the Women’s Plaza of Honor. While receiving this honor, along with her Distinguished Outreach Faculty Award, she said her work and her personal life are tied to the women who came before her and those who will follow in her footsteps after.

“I stand on the shoulders of all the women before me including Adzáá Tó’díchíínii, my great-great grandmother, who through her weaving survived the internment camp at Bosque Redondo during the Long Walk by weaving beautiful Navajo rugs and exchanging them for food,” Chief said. “Now as a professor, wife and mother, I strive to give back to future generations of women leaders!”

Chief, along with 29 other faculty members including Environmental Science’s Raina Maier, will be honored at the inaugural Women of Impact award ceremony on August 24.