Engineering helps Indigenous infrastructure

Ann-Perry Witmer (left), professor and senior research scientist, visits residents of Janko Kollo with FIEA engineer Xiomara Echeverria to learn more about indigenous practices and community technical needs.

Photo courtesy of Pamela S Bedient/Applied Research Institute Website

Ann-Perry Witmer (left), professor and senior research scientist, visits residents of Janko Kollo with FIEA engineer Xiomara Echeverria to learn more about indigenous practices and community technical needs.

By Vivian La, Assistant News Editor

While living in Danville, Ill., Dean Dempsey, a member of the Navajo Nation and field engineer, took for granted how easily he could access clean water.

Some of Dempsey’s family who live on a Navajo reservation in the Southwest don’t have the same luxury, often traveling several hundred miles to haul barrels of water from the nearest water source. Dempsey’s aunt’s water system failed about a year after installation, leading to her keeping a room filled with jugs of water to meet basic needs.

Researchers and engineers have come and gone trying to solve the Navajo Nation’s systemic infrastructure problems, according to Dempsey.

“(Engineers) always had a specific way they wanted to fix it, or thought they could fix it,” Dempsey said. “The trust was never there. The ignorance, or the arrogance, of the person that would come and try to do certain things was not accepted.”

Dempsey has since moved back to the Navajo reservation, working for the Navajo Water Project to address these infrastructure issues.

He’s a former electronic technician who made the switch to engineering to help the Nation access pipe water. According to data from the Navajo Nation Department, an estimated 30% of families in the Nation do not have access to pipe water.

The Indigenous-led organization prioritizes the knowledge held by local leaders and engineers like Dempsey, which is the basis of contextual engineering — a way of thinking about the design process that includes cultural and societal impacts.

“That knowledge of where everything is, and all our prayers, and our songs have been on this land for millions of years,” Dempsey said. “I think that all that knowledge and all that connection makes me a better engineer here on the reservation. I’m just understanding what people are trying to explain to me about the land they live on or about the water they know about.”

Contextual engineering is making its way through the University, where students and faculty in the Grainger College of Engineering are trying to create a network of institutions and nonprofits, like DigDeep, that center Indigenous knowledge and technologies.

Abhiroop Chattopadhyay, graduate student studying electrical engineering, has worked on the Navajo reservation to address energy needs across the region. He said a large part of contextual engineering is just about listening to the people they’re trying to help.

“What the engineering aspect of the project should be, I think, is much more faithfully understood when one understands the context of the society it is coming from,” Chattopadhyay said.

For example, when his team went to the Navajo Nation to speak to residents about electricity, they quickly shifted their goals after these discussions.

“We found out that lack of electricity is a major inconvenience. But lack of water is a crisis for them,” he said. “So if energy is to play a role, it would be best served by improving the water access in any way it could.”

Chattopadhyay is a part of the Contextual Engineering Research Group at the University. Led by Ann-Perry Witmer, a professor and senior research scientist at the University’s Applied Research Institute, the lab group includes students from different academic backgrounds, not just engineering.

Witmer, who coined the term contextual engineering, said researchers often ignore the knowledge that already exists in a place, which is usually Indigenous knowledge.

“There’s a lot to be known there because it sort of evolved in the place, and therefore it’s addressing a need in that place,” Witmer said. “We should be learning what that is, before we try to put something in there that didn’t come out of there.”

Engineers don’t usually learn about humility in the context of their work, Witmer said. She was a newspaper reporter before changing careers but still uses journalistic skills everyday.

“If you don’t ask the question, you’re never going to find an answer,” she said. “So you have to recognize that you don’t know everything before you start.”

For Aisha Syed, senior in LAS, contextual engineering has a lot of potential for both improving the lives of underserved groups and building empathy.

“Contextual engineering is just listening to people,” Syed said. “I think if we can start respecting that and appreciating that, then not only will the field of engineering change, but you’ll just give everyone an appreciation of the communities around them.”

Rosalyn LaPier, an environmental history professor at the University and an ethnobotanist, studies the traditional ecological knowledge passed down through Indigenous communities. Because different tribes have different relationships with the land and their environment, frameworks like contextual engineering can address a history of exploitation and failed attempts.

But as a member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Métis, LaPier has seen firsthand how communities can get tired of researchers always coming onto the reservation to “fix” their problems. 

Researchers should ask the communities they’re working with, she said. What they want is usually not going to be what an outsider thinks needs to be addressed.

LaPier said another issue arises when scientists leave and the people living there might not have the technical skills to manage upkeep of an engineering “solution,” leading to yet another failure.

“(Build) technical skills or education so that when that grant ends, those folks leave, that the community is not left with a dilapidated hotel,” LaPier said. “You build the capacity of the folks that you’re working with.”

Indigenous communities also want to be seen as equal partners who hold knowledge that outsiders don’t, she said.

“They know (the environment) really intimately, in detail, and they may not have a PhD,” LaPier said.

Dempsey, the field engineer for DigDeep, said he’s looking forward to bringing water — and the joy that comes with it — to families throughout the Navajo Nation.

“Water is exciting, water is life and water is, you know, wonderful,” he said.

When Dempsey’s aunt finally had her water system fixed, he recalled her visiting the next day — her hair dripping wet, and she was bearing gifts for her family. She kept saying that she took a shower today, Dempsey said.

He’s hopeful that he’ll continue to grow as an engineer who uses his knowledge and experiences to inform his work.

“Knowledge is power,” Dempsey said. “And the more I study, and the more I learn — even doesn’t have to be from a book, it could be from people that just have a small knowledge of what’s going on — that is enough.”

 

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