Beginning Fall 2015
University of Colorado Boulder
Ph.D.: Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, 2011.
B.A.: Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson, 2003.
American Indian environmental policy & governance, Political ecology, Indigenous ethnography, Traditional ecological knowledge and practices, American Indian environmental health.
I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and my research explores the intersection of indigenous governance and indigenous environmental perspectives in settler state contexts. I study the ability of indigenous nations to assert sovereignty over their lands and the extent to which this enables the perpetuation of unique ecological knowledges and practices. This overall outlook situates my long-term research agenda to develop a sovereignty-based political-ecological approach to indigenous environmental issues. In North America, indigenous environmental governance operates within a continuum of resource-based and relationship-based practices. As many American Indian nations enhance natural resource management programs in order to protect and reassert control over tribal lands, they also seek to uphold relationships to the non-human world that are central to their tribal identities and self-determination strategies.
My present research centers on this process of negotiation in the Cherokee Nation, and views it through the lens of my enduring relationship with a group of Cherokee elders and knowledge keepers in northeastern Oklahoma—to whom I have served as a facilitator since the group’s formation in 2008. This group came about as a result of interviews I had been conducting since 2004 on a tribally-funded ethnobotanical project designed to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into tribal environmental policy. In bringing my interviewees together with the Cherokee Nation Natural Resources Department staff, an important partnership emerged to confront the noticeable decline in the transmission of traditional ecological knowledge—specifically knowledge pertaining to traditional medicine. This partnership has taken strides to address the absence of the relationship-based approach in Cherokee Nation policy by providing a forum for dialog about environmental issues. Presently, the elders group serves as an advisory council to the Cherokee Nation Administration Support Department, which reports directly to the Principle Chief’s office. The partnership represents a formal reintegration of traditional and bureaucratic forms of governance that has not existed in Cherokee politics since before Oklahoma statehood in 1907.
In my first book manuscript, Sovereign Landscapes: Environment, Governance, and the Politics of Plants in the Cherokee Nation (forthcoming in Spring 2015 from the University of Minnesota Press), I discuss the significance of this phenomenon through historical and ethnographic methods. Tracing Cherokee political and environmental history from the early nineteenth century to contemporary times, I describe how the Cherokee Nation has employed the state form of political organization in order to resist colonial forces. This has had both effective impacts on colonial policy, as well as dire repercussions for how Cherokee citizens relate to each other and to the natural world. While the establishment of tribal environmental programs through state structures has led to increased self-determination and resource control, it has been accompanied by the need to maintain complex bureaucracies that are often impediments to the representation of local environmental knowledge, values, and practices within tribal environmental policy. Nevertheless, looking closely at Cherokee negotiations of this paradox reveals a transformative process that produces a unique political formation—one that draws from dominant configurations of power (the state form), but is able to nurture Cherokee traditions of governance and environmental values.
Continuing with my emphasis on the intersections of political ecology and indigenous studies, my next research project, titled Healing the Land, Healing the People: Cherokee Health Sovereignty and Environmental Conservation in Oklahoma, is focused on the relationship between American Indian conservation strategies and community health. The Cherokee elders group has proposed numerous conservation projects that have arisen in conjunction with community health concerns. Such projects entail reserving tracts of tribal land for the management of culturally significant plants. In combination with wild cultivation methods, the group has also proposed the construction of simulated growth environments (i.e., greenhouses) for the cultivation of more sensitive species like American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)—both highly important plants in Cherokee medicine. Such plants, along with numerous others, have become increasingly hard to find within the Cherokee Nation land base in northeastern Oklahoma. Moreover, my past research suggests a correlation between this resource scarcity and the decline in the use and transmission of traditional ecological knowledge in contemporary Cherokee society. Propagation of targeted species through the creation of tribal conservation areas and management programs will serve to promote tribally-based research on our culturally significant medicine plants, train future generations of tribal environmental managers, and provide traditional healers with the materials they need to carry out their practice of Cherokee medicine.
My study of Cherokee conservation strategies and community health thus works toward a broadly defined notion of “health sovereignty,” which asserts that the ability of American Indian nations to foster and contribute to the health of their people is directly related to their ability to protect and conserve tribal lands, and, by extension, their knowledge of and relationship to those lands. Through my active involvement with the Cherokee elders group and its related initiatives as both a scholar and an invested tribal citizen, I hope to advance such projects, and by doing so, create new paradigms for tribal environmental management and science that incorporate and fuse the resource- and relationship-based approaches. Within this mission lies my intention for a significant contribution to the future of indigenous environmental education.
Contributions to Edited Collections
Works in Progress