Navajo Philosophies and Worldviews Shape Focus Groups on the Impacts of a Mine Spill

people sitting on metal chairs in a meeting room

Diné community members participate in a listening session. (Photo courtesy of Paloma Beamer, Ph.D.)

NIEHS-funded researchers and Navajo (Diné) community partners incorporated Indigenous philosophies and worldviews into the development of focus groups to examine the effects of an environmental disaster on the Navajo Nation. In 2015, the Gold King Mine Spill released contaminants into a river that runs through the Navajo Nation. Researchers sought to examine the impacts of the spill on the Diné community. A recent publication describes how they developed and implemented the focus groups and analyzed resulting information to gain insight into conducting research with Indigenous communities.

Karletta Chief, Ph.D., co-principal investigator with the University of Arizona, described how the project started: “After the Gold King Mine Spill, the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency reached out to the Community Engagement Core of the Superfund Research Program at the University of Arizona for assistance to determine the impact the spill would have on the Diné community. We listened to community concerns through forums, public meetings, and listening sessions. As a result, we developed research concepts and submitted them for review by the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency and Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources. Once the research was approved by the Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board, Diné community partners worked with us to develop focus groups that would help understand the impacts of the spill on Diné communities. We owe the success of the focus groups in large part to our Diné community partners and Jeannie Benally of the University of Arizona Tribal Cooperative Extension.”

Community Partnerships Build Trust in the Indigenous Community

The research was part of the Gold King Mine Spill Diné Exposure Project and was conducted in partnership with the Northern Arizona University, Navajo Nation, Navajo Community Health Representatives, Tó’ Bee NihiDziil, Diné College, the University of Arizona Tribal Cooperative Extension, traditional knowledge holders, community leaders and advocates, and Diné community members.

Diné community partners participated in all aspects of the project, leading to community buy-in and trust.

“We are well aware of distrust in research and non-Indigenous researchers due to past injustices, and yet knew that the community questions about the impact of this devastating spill needed to be answered in a culturally-responsive approach”, stated Paloma Beamer, Ph.D., co-principal investigator with the University of Arizona. “The community partnerships and buy-in were essential for making this research possible. Because of the trust-building among community members, we had more authentic responses that went beyond physical health concerns and allowed us to get a better understanding of the cultural and spiritual impacts.”

University of Arizona researchers held listening sessions in each community to inform development of the focus groups. They also presented the research proposal to Navajo chapters, or individual geographical entities within the Navajo Nation, for approval, and the Navajo Nation president and vice president provided their support.

Diné and fluent Diné language speakers led the focus groups, and Diné and non-Diné students, faculty, and community members supported the focus groups. Cultural experts were consulted to guide teams through focus group methods.

Adapting Focus Groups to the Diné Community

Diné researchers, traditional knowledge holders, and medicine people played an important role in ensuring Diné philosophies and worldviews were incorporated in the focus groups. The project used the two-eyed seeing approach, which is a way of adapting non-indigenous research practices to Indigenous culture. This approach recognizes that Indigenous cultural practices are of equal importance to non-indigenous research methods.

Diné cultural experts advised the researchers on incorporating a key Diné cultural concept, called K’é, in the design, conduct, and analysis of the focus groups. K’é is a way of honoring relationships to others and the natural world. Following this cultural guidance, researchers incorporated practices into the focus groups by beginning sessions with formal greetings in which Diné team members acknowledged their family ties and parental lineages, while non-Diné team members offered a similar greeting. This practice established that these sessions were conducted in the context of Diné culture and values.

“Through the guidance of the Diné partners, we knew the community would be more receptive to participating in the research and sharing their concerns when it was clear that Diné values were being honored in the focus groups”, added Chief. “Practices such as the formal greeting, offering a Diné prayer, and translating all statements into Diné and English, firmly grounded the focus groups in the culture and established a trusted space for participants to voice their concerns in the context of their culture.”

Determining the Socio-cultural Impacts of the Mine Spill

Focus group questions were framed with Diné values and concerns in mind. Researchers asked questions about community members’ relationship with the river and with farming. For example, researchers asked how the community members thought the river would be used in the short- and long-term, and what they would like to see for the river in the future.

Participants expressed concern for long-term changes to the culture as a result of the spill, such as whether the community would be able to continue traditional farming and ranching, and whether their children would move away from the area and lose connection with families and traditions. Participants spoke about spiritual concerns related to river access and to crops used in traditional practices whose growth may now be threatened. Community members also expressed concerns about mental health risks.

dried-up corn fields

After the spill, corn fields on the Navajo Nation remained unplanted during the usual re-planting season while irrigation systems pulling water from the contaminated river were shut off. (Photos courtesy of Paloma Beamer, Ph.D.)

“Focus group participants were candid about their concerns and openly discussed the spill in a cultural context”, stated Beamer. “It was apparent that the community sees a wide range of impacts from the spill, including impacts on preserving their way of life and to the wildlife. The spill is viewed as a recent example in a long history of offenses to the community.”

Nicolette Teufel-Shone, Ph.D., co-principal investigator with Northern Arizona University, said, “Having Diné and non-Diné data analysts and authors from the Navajo Nation, community organizations, and the universities was critical to ensure that focus group participants’ perspectives were conveyed within the cultural context in which they were shared.”

The results were presented to Navajo Nation leaders and will be used to help the community mitigate the impacts of the spill. As another outcome of the research, Navajo Nation leaders expressed interest in hearing community members’ concerns to address and plan for emergencies in the future. Trust built through this collaborative project has also led to future opportunities for the researchers and partners, including training students on how to work with Indigenous communities and addressing additional community concerns such as food sovereignty and COVID-19 pandemic response.

Successful Collaborations With Tribal Communities

Recently, a team of researchers, led by Jonathan Credo and Jani Ingram, Ph.D., outlined general strategies for developing successful research partnerships with American Indian and Alaska Native communities. These strategies were reflected in the Gold King Mine Spill Diné Exposure Project’s focus group activities, but they are generalizable and focus on building trust in the community through transparency and equitable partnerships. Strategies include:

Federal government entities, such as the NIH Tribal Health Research Office (THRO), also have policies to foster equitable engagement of tribes, supporting successful research with respect to tribal culture. At NIH, THRO is the central point of contact for American Indian and Alaska Native communities throughout the U.S. THRO helps ensure meaningful input from and collaboration with Tribal Nations on NIH policies, programs, and priorities through Tribal consultation. In addition, THRO helps raise cultural competency across the agency and hosts events focused on the importance of American Indian and Alaska Native culture in biomedical research. To learn more, watch a recent lecture on the interconnectedness of culture and science and read about THRO’s historic Traditional Medicine Summit which provided a foundation for integrating traditional healing knowledge with research.

Public Comment Sought on New Objectives for Healthy People 2030

Healthy People 2030 includes objectives for improving the health and wellbeing of Americans over the current decade. Objectives are arranged by categories such as environmental health and the social and community context of health. The Department of Health and Human Services is seeking public comment on three new objectives:

The public can also propose additional core, developmental, or research objectives that address critical public health issues. Public comments will be accepted until January 10, 2022.

Resources Developed to Counter Health Misinformation

Health misinformation is the spread of false, inaccurate, or misleading information that does not adhere to the best available scientific evidence. The NIH Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities and the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General have developed resources to fight the spread of health misinformation.

CEAL COVID-19 resources were developed for public health professionals in communities disproportionally affected by COVID-19. These resources are available in English and Spanish and include materials such as a fact sheet on COVID-19 vaccines with details about vaccine development and reasons to get a vaccine.

The Surgeon General’s report, A Community Toolkit for Addressing Health Misinformation, includes tips for addressing all types of health misinformation and with all audiences. Practical tips address how to avoid spreading false health information in daily situations. It also has steps to take when communicating with family and friends about misinformation, such as empathizing, pointing to credible sources, and using inclusive language.

Report Provides Strategies for Achieving Better Health Through Climate Action

The International Society for Environmental Epidemiology and the International Society for Urban Health released a joint report in November 2021, Health Co-Benefits of Climate Action Through Co-Production and Systems Thinking. The authors proposed that better health can be achieved by developing climate change policy with a multi-disciplinary approach that considers community health. They also emphasize the importance of transparent collaborations among multi-disciplinary teams of policymakers, health professionals, researchers, and community members in developing scientific evidence that takes diverse community perspectives into account. This approach encourages equitable partnerships that meet the health needs of communities while addressing climate change issues.

NIEHS Releases Technical Assistance Pilot Program

The NIEHS Division of Extramural Research recently released a one-year pilot program which provides technical assistance to researchers and community partners. The pilot offers training in grant writing, peer review, evaluation, logic modeling, metrics development, and translational research. The program encourages NIEHS grantees and potential grantees to increase diversity and inclusion of staff and community partners, and to engage community partners in the research process. Program details will be available online later in January. For more information, you may reach out to Toccara A. Chamberlain.

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Environmental justice is the equitable treatment and involvement of all people in environmental laws and policies. Yet, historically disadvantaged communities face inequities in environmental health such as poor air and water quality, food insecurity, and pollution. In the podcast, Environmental Justice: The Past, Present, and Future of the Movement, Robert Bullard, Ph.D., reflects on his experience over more than 40 years and discusses how the movement addresses disparities in environmental health among disadvantaged communities.

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Christine Marie George, Ph.D.

Christine Marie George, Ph.D., an epidemiologist, and environmental engineer at Johns Hopkins University, engages with communities to develop environmental health interventions. George and her team work to reduce exposures to such contaminants as arsenic in drinking water. George prioritizes community engagement in intervention design and implementation to help the community take ownership the project.

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PHS 2021-2 Omnibus Solicitation of the NIH, CDC, and FDA for Small Business Innovation Research Grant Applications (Parent SBIR [R43/R44] Clinical Trial Not Allowed)

 Enables U.S.-owned and operated small businesses to conduct research and development that has a strong potential for commercialization. This award and the associated PHS 2021-2 Omnibus Solicitation of the NIH and CDC for Small Business Innovation Research Grant Applications (Parent SBIR [R43/R44] Clinical Trial Required) provide funds for small businesses to stimulate technological innovation in the private sector and strengthen the role of small business in meeting federal research and development needs. The related Small Business Technology Transfer announcements (PHS 2021-2 Omnibus Solicitation of the NIH for Small Business Technology Transfer Grant Applications (Parent STTR [R41/R42] Clinical Trial Not Allowed) and PHS 2021-2 Omnibus Solicitation of the NIH for Small Business Technology Transfer Grant Applications (Parent STTR [R41/R42 Clinical Trial Required)) aim to foster technology transfer through cooperative research and development between small businesses and research institutions. Applicants are encouraged to submit grant applications in response to NIH-identified topics.

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Environmental Justice Video Challenge for Students

The EPA and partners have launched the Environmental Justice Video Challenge for Students to enhance communities’ capacity to address environmental and public health inequities. The goals of the challenge are to 1) inspire students at accredited colleges and universities in the U.S. and its territories to work directly with communities in the identification and characterization of environmental justice challenges using data and publicly available tools, and 2) help communities (including residents and other stakeholders) address environmental justice challenges and/or vulnerabilities to environmental and public health hazards using data and publicly available tools. There are two phases for the challenge. In Phase 1, students will create a video to demonstrate innovative approaches to identify and characterize an environmental justice issue(s) in a select community using data and publicly available tools. Students are strongly encouraged to work in teams and identify and collaborate with community organizations that may bring important understanding and perspective to the environmental justice challenge(s) the community is facing. In Phase 2, students will develop a video to display how they used data and publicly available tools to identify strategies and opportunities to address an identified environmental justice issue(s) and worked with a community-based organization(s) to inform strategies for intervention and/or facilitated effective community engagement and advocacy on the environmental justice issues. Phase 1 of the challenge is currently open. Details on Phase 2 will be posted at a future date. Registration for an informational webinar is now open.

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