Indigenous Resilience Center receives $2 million grant from Waverley Street Foundation

Two men and two women stand together in a line while smiling.

Indigenous Resilience Center administrative staff, from right to left: director Karletta Chief, manager Daniel Sestiaga, Jr., program coordinator Bernice Rodriguez and outreach coordinator Torran Anderson. IRes was recently awarded $2 million from the Waverely Street Foundation to expand existing programs and support Indigenous experts, scholars and outreach specialists in developing local solutions to climate issues.

Indigenous Resilience Center

The University of Arizona Indigenous Resilience Center will expand its efforts to help tribal communities develop local solutions to climate-related issues thanks to $2 million in funding from the Waverley Street Foundation to support the two-year project "Climate Resilience Through Indigenous Co-Design at the Food, Energy and Water Nexus."

The gift was announced Nov. 3 as part of the public launch of the university's $3 billion fundraising campaign, Fuel Wonder. The launch, coinciding with Homecoming celebrations, included the announcement of $118.65 million in new gifts that will ignite the aspirations and goals of students, faculty and staff. Since 2017, when the counting for the campaign began, the University has raised a total of $2,040,735,512.

The funding will maintain and expand existing programs at the center, known as IRes, sustain new Indigenous scholars and other personnel, and support additional outreach efforts with Native nations.

The Indigenous Resilience Center was launched in 2021 to partner with Native nations in order to address environmental challenges in ways that respect Native and Indigenous sovereignty and knowledge, and to train the next generation of community leaders with that knowledge. IRes is a program within the university's Arizona Institute for Resilience and is supported by the institute's Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice.

"The Indigenous Resilience Center is a seed that is being watered, a plant that is growing, needed and desired by tribal communities," said Karletta Chief, the project's principal investigator, director of the Indigenous Resilience Center, and a professor and extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science. "As we grow, I envision us to grow into a center that is connected to and invested in tribal communities, that we become a bridge between the University of Arizona and tribal communities while collaborating with existing Indigenous centers on campus and other tribal programs to be part of the big wheel that is working to support tribal communities."

Two women stand while a man kneels, all in a field of tomato plants. The man is interacting with a white piece of technology while one woman holds a laptop and the other smiles.

Indigenous Resilience Center Director Karletta Chief, left, working in the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.

Indigenous Resilience Center

The San Francisco-based Waverley Street Foundation is a nonprofit that supports "climate solutions that are grounded in and emerge from the day-to-day needs of people and local communities" by funding grant partners working closely with farmers, students, Indigenous peoples and others.

The project, which was launched in September, will also enable the center to hire outreach specialists, trained tribal engagement specialists, administrative and program manager support personnel, students dedicated to tribal resilience work, and grant specialists who can assist both IRes and its tribal partners in securing additional funding.

"The Indigenous Resilience Center has maintained and expanded its commitment to building solutions to environmental problems in partnership with Native nations and tribal communities," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. “I am very grateful for this support from the Waverley Street Foundation, which will help us continue to improve the lives of Indigenous people while respecting and centering their knowledge."

Chief said that climate change, pandemics, weather and other adverse events disproportionately impact Indigenous communities that have lived sustainably on their native lands for thousands of years – threatening not only their communities but their repositories of deep, place-based knowledge and long-standing respect for the environment.

Some of the pressing environmental risks faced by Indigenous people include higher temperatures, changes in rain patterns and extreme weather conditions, all of which alter regional hydrology and could potentially lead to habitat loss and food chain collapse. Chief said such environmental changes may in turn lead to shifts in geographic ranges and population change as people are faced with major health impacts such as heat waves, poor air quality and lack of access to healthy foods, clean water and secure energy.

These types of systemic changes are hazards to which Native Americans in the United States – tribal and nontribal alike – are exposed because of their unique socioeconomic conditions, political status, infrastructure, livelihoods and cultural practices.

"Many Native nations have less access to resources," Chief said. "Their infrastructure, like water, may be nonexistent. It may be limited due to changes in water qualities and quantities that can be the result of climate change. The infrastructure may be deteriorating, or they may not even have access to water because they are still going through tribal water rights to define their own rights. In that way, there are all these complex, cultural and socioeconomic issues involving their sovereignty and livelihoods that come together in a complex way that make them (Indigenous people) different in terms of how they will be impacted by climate change, and how they will respond to climate impacts."

In order to face current and future environmental challenges facing Native nations and Indigenous people, Chief said the Indigenous Resilience Center focuses on building trust through relationships, respect, responsibility and reciprocity – the "four R's" that support the center's values and mission.

Money from the Waverley Street Foundation will also support several of the center's existing programs: Indigenous Food, Energy and Water Security and Sovereignty; the Native FEWS Alliance; IndigeSEEDS; and Indigenous Mapping and Data.

  • The Indigenous Food, Energy and Water Security and Sovereignty project aims to support the resilience of Indigenous communities by establishing off-grid, solar-powered water and greenhouse units designed, built and operated by Diné (Navajo) citizens. Each unit will include a pressure-driven nanofiltration system to treat non-potable water and provide water security to approximately 30 families. Vicky Karanikola, project co-investigator, assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering and head of the KORES Lab, focuses on advancing water and wastewater treatment processes with particular interest on material and process optimization at the water-energy nexus interface. 
  • The Native FEWS Alliance works with the University of California, Berkeley, the American Higher Education Consortium and over 20 tribal partners to broaden the participation of Native American and underrepresented students in food, energy and water systems education and careers.
  • The IndigiSEEDS program, run by Michael Johnson, assistance specialist in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, promotes Indigenous agriculture, supports food sovereignty and protects Indigenous heirloom seeds.
  • Indigenous Mapping and Data uses geospatial technology such as geographic information systems and global positioning systems to advance understanding of the relationships among place, health and resilience, emphasizing the household experience with water and environmental contaminants. The program is run by assistant professor of environmental science Joe Hoover.

"The keys to climate change and fluctuations are adaptation and resiliency, which Indigenous people have demonstrated since time immemorial," Johnson said. "Our culture values and belief systems are at the core of these mediating principles and should be reinforced and understood. Our crops are like us: They need nurturing coupled with ways of knowing that continue to make us who we are. And without that type of recognition, we can have no equity."

The project will also fund five $50,000 grants to support other environment-related tribal efforts, and the Indigenous Resilience Center will work alongside UArizona's Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center to support tribal communities in acquiring future funding and other resources with the help of a new grant writing specialist.

"It's really exciting that we're on the ground, working with communities and making that change towards climate resilience and adaptation with tribal communities," Chief said.