Ambassador Award

Karletta Chief (Diné)

University of Arizona


Citation for Karletta Chief (Diné)

Dr. Karletta Chief is a trailblazer whose visionary work in community-driven water research has yielded profound and sustained benefits for Native Americans in the United States and sets an example for meaningful engagement between scientists and Indigenous Peoples worldwide.

Dr. Chief’s research exemplifies ethical engagement with Indigenous communities and elevates scientific discourse about tribal perspectives on water management, climate change, and mining impacts. A hydrology professor and extension specialist at the University of Arizona, she has developed meaningful partnerships with Native Nations centered on community-based participatory research on water—a precious and sacred resource for Indigenous Peoples. Impacts of her work include bringing widespread attention to unique impacts of a mining disaster on an Indigenous community. 

In 2015, 11 million liters of acid mine drainage spilled from the abandoned Gold King Mine into the headwaters of the San Juan River, a crucial water source for the Navajo Nation (Diné), a 71,000-square-kilometerreservation in the southwestern United States. In the wake of the Gold King Mine Spill, Dr. Chief spearheaded an extensive water quality sampling campaign to understand impacts of contaminants on Navajo surface water, sediments, irrigation water, and agricultural soil. She led efforts to document cultural and spiritual uses of water initially overlooked by environmental regulators—uses representing potential pathways of human exposure to mine waste. Notably, this work overturned initial conclusions by others that the spill minimally impacted Diné livelihoods and well-being. Working with cultural experts and linguists, Dr. Chief led Diné-centered science communication and outreach in communities throughout the 350,000-citizen Navajo Nation. Regional and national news outlets sought her expertise on the spill. Public radio’s Science Friday produced a documentary film about her efforts.

Dr. Chief’s work following the Gold King Mine spill is only one example of a career dedicated to amplifying Indigenous perspectives on water and the environment. Her dedication stems partly from the fact that she is, herself, Diné, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, and from a Navajo mined-leased community, Black Mesa. Raised in a home without electricity or running water and a first-generation college student, she overcame extraordinary obstacles to become a scientist and tenured professor at a premier research institution. Her personal story informs her own work and inspires students, colleagues, and communities worldwide. Dr. Chief uses her position not only to pursue innovative science but also as a platform to serve and lead with unparalleled purpose and impact.


—Ryan E. Emanuel, North Carolina State University, Raleigh; and Aradhna Tripati, University of California, Los Angeles


Yá’át’ééh. Hello to my relatives, friends, and colleagues. It is a great honor to receive the 2020 AGU Ambassador Award! I am of the Bitterwater clan and born for my father who is of Near-the-Water clan. My maternal grandfathers are of the Many Goats clan and my paternal grandfathers are of the Red-running-into-the-water clan. This is how I identify myself as a Diné scientist. I am a first-generation college graduate who was able to pursue higher education despite challenging circumstances because my parents encouraged me to learn and pursue education. I was born and raised on the Navajo Nation and grew up in a home with no electricity, no running water, and little money but with Navajo as my first language. My parents' teachings taught me to pray daily, work hard, appreciate life, respect others, and take pride in my culture. My family lived in a mining community, and I witnessed the environmental degradation caused by Peabody Coal Company. This background created my desire to go to college and use my education to help preserve the environment and cosolve solutions to environmental challenges facing Indigenous communities. I have come full circle in reaching my dream; as an extension specialist, I am able to bridge science with Native American communities and to mentor Native American students in environmental research important to their communities. Memories of all the years, since I was graduate student, attending and presenting at AGU flooded my mind upon learning of my award. I remembered how intimidated I was to walk among all the scientists and to hang up my research poster in the poster hall. I never imagined that one day I would be named an AGU ambassador for the tens of thousands of AGU members. Thank you to my AGU colleagues for nominating me. Thank you for taking the time, care, and dedication to submit a nomination packet on my behalf. I am extremely honored that the community-based and community-driven research that I do with my team on water challenges facing Indigenous communities is recognized. I believe in the inclusion of Indigenous communities in Earth and space sciences using culturally based, Indigenous-led approaches. In this way, we can support a pathway for more Indigenous students and codesign solutions. I would like to dedicate my Ambassador Award to my late aunt, Virginia Tallman, who passed away from COVID-19. Ahé’hee.

—Dr. Karletta Chief, University of Arizona, Tucson