Growing up on the Navajo Nation, Karletta Chief ’07 saw firsthand the environmental impacts of mining on her community. Her family was forced to move off their land due to health hazards posed by its proximity to the Black Mesa strip mine.
And her grandfather lost 100 head of sheep — his livelihood —when water was contaminated by a spill from the mine.
Many in her community shared the same challenges.
“I had questions around environmental degradation,” she says. “I wondered why my family didn’t have running water or electricity. Yet near us, land was being destroyed for coal to produce energy for cities like Las Vegas, LA and Phoenix and brown water was being used to transfer the pulverized coal.”
From a young age, she knew water was important, and, she says, she wanted to understand where it came from. She often wondered, “How do we get clean drinking water? How could it be possible for my community to have safe drinking water for ourselves and our livestock?”
These questions still drive her today. Chief, who is Diné, is now a University of Arizona Distinguished Outreach Professor of environmental science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Through her research and outreach, she partners with Native communities to address environmental challenges and water insecurities facing tribes.
Chief recalls that even as a young child, she loved math and science. “All my experiences and passion for STEM came together as I pursued my degree in environmental engineering,” she says.
Chief earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and returned to her home state to earn a doctorate in hydrology and water sources from UArizona in 2003.
“I came back to UArizona as faculty because of the university’s land grant mission to bridge university research and knowledge with communities to address the pressing challenges they face,” she says. “Working with communities in that way is amazing, and it’s what made me want to work here versus other institutions.”
In 2021, Chief was named director of UArizona’s new Indigenous Resilience Center. Her charge is to partner with Native Nations, alongside the university’s Arizona Institutes for Resilient Environments and Societies and Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. Faculty and staff work with tribal leaders and governments to co-design community-driven solutions for solar energy, off-grid water resources, food resources, Native plant adaptation and health.
“The Indigenous Resilience Center is the University of Arizona’s commitment to giving back to local tribes who have stewarded this land for millennia. Tribes have endured and sacrificed so much in terms of land loss and social and environmental impacts, much at the hand of the United States,” Chief says.
“Universities have benefited from this through their physical infrastructure and have a responsibility to be a bridge — to ethically address the challenges those communities face in ways that build trust and transparency.”