Native American and indigenous studies professor designs research relevant to tribal communities and the academy

by Lisa H. Schwartz
Jan. 5, 2018

For Clint Carroll, participatory research is relevant to both tribal communities and the university.

In a recent interview, Carroll, assistant professor of ethnic studies, with a concentration in Native American and indigenous studies, described his long-term commitment to working with his people, the Cherokee Nation. The discussion highlighted how obstacles have guided Carroll’s learning and the methodologies he uses for community-engaged scholarship.

In his research, Carroll has worked closely with the Cherokee Nation Medicine Keepers, a group of Cherokee elders working to preserve traditional ethnobotanical knowledge and to use this knowledge to affect environmental policy. His book, Roots of Our Renewal: Ethnobotany and Cherokee Environmental Governance (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), discusses the evolution of the Medicine Keepers.

In describing his research and facilitation of the Medicine Keepers, Carroll emphasized that knowledge cannot be separated from a people’s way of life and access to resources.  

A five-year National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award Carroll received in 2017 will extend this work, which is being documented in this blog. He also recently published a study in July 2017 on arsenic exposure in American Indian elders.

Carroll received his doctorate in environmental science, policy, and management from the University of California Berkeley and joined CU Boulder from the University of Minnesota in Fall 2015.

The importance of mentors, dialogic relationships with stakeholders, empowering leadership from within the community, and the dialectic of action and scholarly reflection are other keys to Carroll’s success as a community-engaged researcher.

This is part of the Office for Outreach and Engagement's Engaged Scholars Interview series, which is designed to bring the process of community-engaged scholarship to life through discussions with exemplary CU Boulder scholars.

Why do you do community-engaged work as part of your research, teaching or creative work?

Making scholarship relevant to my community: Networking, mentors, persistence, and knowledge gaps
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona (UA), I participated in numerous faculty-led research projects through the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology. These community-centered environmental research projects inspired me to pursue similar work relevant to my community in Oklahoma. I grew up in Dallas, Texas, away from Cherokee communities in Oklahoma, which, of course, created both a physical and social distance between me and the tribe. But with the help of Cherokee/Creek Professor Tom Holm in the American Indian Studies Program at UA (still a valuable mentor to me today), I contacted Cherokee Nation policy analyst Dr. Richard Allen, who later became a valuable friend and mentor. Dr. Allen in turn connected me to others, including Nancy John, who directs the Cherokee Nation Office of Environmental Protection. I was very persistent in contacting folks, which I knew risked annoying them, but I think ultimately they were interested in what I could possibly bring to the table, given my tribal citizenship and my research experiences.

Nancy John really went out on a limb for me and brought me on as an “emergency hire” the summer after I graduated with my BA in anthropology and American Indian studies. As the Cherokee Nation’s equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), she explained that they knew a lot about air and water quality, but didn’t have much information on traditional knowledge. In other words, there was no central source for that information within the tribal offices. Nancy proposed that I put together a database of traditional ethnobotanical knowledge as it related to environmental impacts on culturally significant plants in order to raise awareness of the importance of this knowledge and to guide tribal policy.

Benefits and challenges of access to traditional community knowledge
At the time, a source that people were using for this information was a book published in the 1800s, written by Richard Foreman, a Cherokee physician. My job was to to go out and talk to contemporary Cherokees who were still using wild plants. That in itself was a daunting task because of the subject matter. When someone asks about plants, Cherokee people will first want to know if you are talking about crops that they grow in the garden or if are you talking about medicine. If you are talking about medicine, the access to that knowledge is tremendously restricted depending on who you are and why you are asking. So, this created a “roadblock” of sorts that could only be addressed through years of relationship-building.

Reflect on your particular experience and journey as a scholar. How has your experience shaped your beliefs and practices?

Designing of community-based projects through encountering obstacles
The ethnobotany project in the Office of Environmental Protection launched my work as a graduate student, and got me thinking about what it means to design a community-based project. The lessons I have learned have been through the process of encountering obstacles. I had to reflect on and figure out how to do the work ethically and responsibly with regard to community buy-in and support, and through tending to the relationships that I established--not only during that first summer, but through the course of my graduate education. Building relationships with individuals was a huge component of my graduate work.

The dialectic of community engaged work and scholarly reflection
After I spent the summer of 2004 working with the tribe in Oklahoma, I went to UC Berkeley for graduate school. Needless to say, Berkeley was a drastically different place compared to rural northeastern Oklahoma. But the time I spent during the academic year at Berkeley allowed me to reflect on my summer field work (which I continued for the subsequent two summers), and created an interesting dialectic that produced my dissertation, and later the book.

Facilitating community conversation and action: The birth of the Medicine Keepers
The Medicine Keepers came into being in October 2008, through a meeting with a group of elders that I convened as a result of the obstacles I had experienced during the summers I spent in Oklahoma. Everyone agreed that what I was doing was a good project, but no one was motivated to openly participate—there was still a very valid hesitancy to talk about this subject. During this time, I had started working for the tribe’s Natural Resources Department, under the supervision of Pat Gwin. He and I worked to convene a meeting with many of the individuals I had been talking to about the project. We thought that a conversation among themselves, not just with me, would be more productive to furthering the goals of the project. At that meeting, the elders talked about how their ethnobotanical knowledge was something that they had grown up with and was an important part of their way of life, but they were not seeing this knowledge being transferred to young people. They questioned themselves: “are we going to throw our hands up or are we going to work to get this knowledge to future generations?” That moment crystallized their goals and they decided, “we have to do something about this.” That is how the Medicine Keepers group was born, and they continue to meet about this goal today.

Knowledge situated in ways of life
Taking a giant step back and looking at this work from a historical perspective allowed me to see how Cherokee plant knowledge cannot be separated from the way of life that encompasses that knowledge, including the ability to access and manage natural resources. In the book, I describe the Medicine Keepers as a significant formation for revitalizing plant knowledge as well as guiding tribal environmental governance based on ancestral knowledge and values.

How do you integrate your community work into your research, teaching and creative work?

Continued dialogue with the Medicine Keepers
During the process of writing the dissertation, I continued to be in dialogue with the Medicine Keepers. It wasn’t like, “hey I got what I need and now I’m out!” I had flexibility because of fellowships and I would go back to Oklahoma to help convene and facilitate the Medicine Keepers’ group meetings. As a facilitator, I worked to keep momentum going for the group. I would share with the Medicine Keepers my ideas about what I thought was happening and how I was approaching the work—I would run it by them as a collective. This relationship has continued to the present.

Affecting policy change and perceptions with community-engaged research
In 2015, I partnered with the Medicine Keepers on another project that was designed to provide a platform for their collective voice on local environmental issues. We used Photovoice methodology, a participatory research approach that puts cameras into the hands of participants and seeks to gain their perspective. First, we convened the Medicine Keepers and the group decided on “land” and “health” as the two concepts for the project. They were tasked with taking photos of what those concepts meant to them, and then I interviewed them about their photos individually and as a group. After that, I put together a documentary with their still images and voiceovers, which they screened and then provided feedback and revisions. The final version of the video, titled “Cherokee Voices for the Land,” was shown during the Cherokee National Holiday, which draws thousands of people to Tahlequah, Oklahoma each year. Importantly, we didn’t just screen it, we also surveyed people before and after they saw the film so that we were able quantify changes in people’s values and knowledge of certain cultural concepts as a result of watching the video. The Medicine Keepers and I published an article of public scholarship in Langscape Magazine, and I co-authored an article manuscript with the academic mentors who helped me design the project, which we recently submitted to the journal EcoHealth. This work ultimately seeks to inform positive changes in tribal environmental policy. A lot of people have seen the video in tribal leadership, and I think it’s had a positive impact on the way the tribe is approaching land management.

NSF early career award: A community project for Native science
I recently received an NSF early career award for an integrated education and research project, in which I draw from current work in Indigenous studies on land-based education as a method for decolonization. Getting back to the idea of dialogue, before I wrote the proposal, I went to the Medicine Keepers and spoke with the group about the idea. I noted their previously-voiced aspirations for teaching their knowledge to younger generations, and shared that I had an opportunity to apply for a grant that would develop a combined research and education program. After presenting my ideas, they said “go for it.” The project is currently underway, and I’m excited to be continuing my work with them with the support of the NSF.

Learning about our connection to the land historically and in the present is one way to counteract colonial legacies. I didn't quite say the word “decolonization” in the NSF proposal [laughter], but the key was to emphasize how the project integrates Native ways of knowing and Western science and couches it in research experience for Native undergraduate and graduate students. Learning the Cherokee language will also be a central component of the project.

Navigating changing landscapes through dynamic practices
Our primary research question is: how are Cherokee people navigating a landscape of uncertainty characterized by checkerboarded property lines and confounded by climate change? Our methods and approach emphasize that environmental knowledge is a way of life, not something that is static—it’s based in practices, places, and relationships. We aim for our work to inform broader understandings of Indigenous adaptations to colonialism and climate change, as well as Cherokee Nation land conservation plans. We hope to facilitate strategies by which Cherokee communities can control their own areas, thereby maintaining or gaining access to resources and thus perpetuating practices that inform their way of life and contribute to landscape and community health.

What are some strategies you use, what have you learned about balancing the demands of community work and academia?

Medicine Keepers as leadership, Carroll as facilitator
The Medicine Keepers are partners in the entire NSF project. I don’t think this type of work could happen successfully without their partnership, what with the limitations of my own position. With a family and a full-time job, it’s more difficult to go and set up residence in Oklahoma compared to when I was a grad student.

So, the support and leadership from the Medicine Keepers, though their cultural knowledge and their embeddedness in local familial networks, will be central to the success of the project. Their guidance in determining the best approach to asking very sensitive research questions is key to the success of the project, which ranges from participatory mapping projects to plant gathering interviews. The five undergraduate student researchers that we will recruit for the land education program ideally will have an investment in the community, so that they will stick around and potentially assume positions of leadership. In addition to being the Principal Investigator of the grant, I will continue my role as facilitator and convener to the Medicine Keepers, emphasizing dialogue and fostering the elders’ leadership throughout the process.

 How I integrate community-based work with teaching is a key factor in thinking about pedagogy and advising and how I will fold those lessons into the courses I teach. It is a challenge to make my work locally-significant in a realm that requires long-term relationships. How do I translate this work locally, here in Colorado? I have only been at CU for two years and I know I have to give it time, develop networks, and be persistent. But I’ve always wanted to do a “lab” with my Indigenous environmental issues course that entails hands-on experience with a local Native community-based project where we can put the lessons from class into practice.

In my department, we have the Comparative Ethnic Studies PhD program through which I am also training an Indigenous graduate student, who will be helping out with the NSF research component in the future.

What is your experience with / thoughts on / plan for tenure?  

Although this doesn’t necessarily factor into tenure decisions, I go about this work acknowledging that in community-based work, we often do two times the amount of work as compared to social scientific work that does not employ participatory methodologies. But I also approach my work knowing its value in producing projects that actually have local relevance and that provide something tangible and meaningful for the communities with which I work. With that in mind, for example with the Photovoice project, we were able to produce something collectively that provided a platform to engage with tribal policy and had also had methods to quantify participants’ perceptions, leading to scholarly publications. From this work, we sought to produce a journal article manuscript as well as the Langscape article that, while it is more publically-accessible, is less heavily weighted within academia.

Furthermore, drawing from Beth Osnes’ interview, I agree with the idea that active critical reflection (theorizing) isn’t necessarily antithetical to the work that we do in academia. In Indigenous studies, this kind of engaged scholarship is a very positive thing. It contributes an Indigenous voice to literature on methodology, ethnography, environmental studies, anthropology, et cetera. Many of these areas haven’t had that voice in the past, and in fact have historically marginalized those voices, or presented them as the “other.”

In my field of Indigenous studies, especially as regards my training and influences from the University of Arizona, a key consideration for scholarship is that the community somehow be a part of the work. In fact, within our field, if a scholar does not articulate the relevance to the community, then the research can be viewed as suspect. So, I try to have a foot in both community-based scholarship and developing theory that centers Indigenous studies scholarship while drawing from other fields as well. I aim to build theoretical understandings and to build the field of Indigenous studies, while being in dialogue with anthropology and political ecology, both fields that informed my training.

Regarding this work (engaged scholarship), what kind of mentorship have you received and how do you mentor others? Any advice for others who are interested in this work?

Through a discussion with the Medicine Keepers in November, I learned that the word in Cherokee for “teach” more accurately describes the act of “showing.” So, to say “teach me” actually translates as “show me”--squeyohvga. There is a clear line between what the elders consider “pushy” or “bossy,” and leading by example. When I am working with elders who I see as mentors, they are showing me how to be a better Cherokee, to engage things that sometimes the university space is not conducive for thinking about or doing.

Recently, the Native Investigator Development Program, showed me how to craft research proposals and to learn about effective grant-writing skills. It was an invaluable program for me that I want to give credit to. The final deliverable was to write a grant proposal, and this incubated my successful NSF award, as well as helped to develop the PhotoVoice project. In the NSF project there will be five Cherokee undergraduate students funded to work with the Medicine Keepers. I will work with them as a mentor, together with the Medicine Keepers and our tribal biologist, Pat Gwin. Emphasizing the importance of learning multiple knowledge traditions, we will work to foster and grow a next generation of tribal environmental leaders— that is the grand goal of the project.

I have received a lot of amazing mentorship. I’d like to build upon that, but also develop my own unique approach to mentoring. At Berkeley, I had a great primary advisor and committee, but none of them were Native. Conversely, at the University of Arizona I had a lot of Native faculty mentors. So, I ask myself: how can I merge that experience with Berkeley while also taking my own approach? How can I incorporate the mentorship I receive from my community as well? How can I extend this to when I design a graduate seminar, so that I foster a different space for dialogue and discussion? These are the big questions that I have. I want to be critically engaged in the way that I go forward in my own mentoring styles. Perhaps in ten or twenty years I will know more, but it will always be an active process.