If you look at a globe of the Earth, you see something very familiar: seven continents, five oceans, islands, mountain ranges, rivers, and deserts. But the world didn’t always look like this—the climate has been changing since the beginning of time. Many places that are currently deserts used to be forests; then, during the ice ages, those forests were covered by glaciers.
The Earth’s climate is always changing for many reasons. However, there is scientific evidence that the climate is now changing faster than usual. Many people, including me, think that this rapid change is because of global warming.
Living on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona, I can see the effects of the climate changing every day. In my work as a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), I study why the climate in our region is changing. But my questions and observations about climate change are not new in the Native American community. Indigenous people such as the Navajo have watched the climate in North America change for centuries. Generation after generation has passed down traditional Native knowledge about changes in the land and climate and how these changes have affected the daily life of people, plants, and animals.
For many years, I have been hearing stories from Navajo elders about how the land in one particular area of the reservation used to look—about how tall the grass was and how there used to be a lot of water where there isn’t any now. They told me about how the land is changing because people aren’t following their traditions. I saw that there was a lot of Native knowledge that scientists were not listening to, and I thought about how I could use it to study the land. I started trying to prove their stories scientifically, by looking at the geographic history of the land.
At the USGS, I am studying sand dunes and the way they move. The Navajo nation is semi-arid and a very sandy place. Usually the sand is held in place by plants, but right now we’re having a drought, and a lot of the plants have died. The sand gets blown around by the wind, which is dangerous for many reasons. For example, breathing sand and dust can make people sick. I talk to the Navajo people about when and why the sand dunes moved in the past, and how those conditions might be similar to what is happening now. I can’t always say for sure why the climate is changing, but I know that human beings affect the land in many different ways We have the duty to study these changes and ask ourselves what we’re doing to take care of our home.
It was this sense of duty that helped me return to school when I was twenty-eight and a single mother of three. Over the fourteen years it took me from when I entered college to when I earned my Ph.D., my kids and I faced hard times. But I knew I had to believe in myself and keep going because I wanted to help people, especially in the Navajo nation. Native knowledge has a lot of very important information, but, many times, scientists don’t take it very seriously. We need more Native American scientists who are willing to stand up for their work so that the traditional knowledge won’t be lost and can help people learn how to be better caretakers of the land and good children of Mother Earth.
To read more about Dr. Hiza, visit Science Careers at: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2005_03_18/noDOI.802786469421881191