Monday, November 30, 2015

Walter Echo Hawk: “The Human Rights Era of American Indian Law”

American history is American Indian history, from Fort Laramie’s popularity among settlers traveling the Oregon Trail to the cherished legend of the Thanksgiving feast.  Often called the “Cowboy State,” Wyoming situates itself both in the myth and the history of the United States’ expansion into the West.  The University of Wyoming has long had institutional and community connections with tribal communities, including collaborative research and educational programs between WyCEHG and the Wind River Reservation tribal community. 

In 2004, the University of Wyoming established the High Plains American Indian Research Institute (HPAIRI), whose mission is to promote positive and productive relationships between the University of Wyoming and regional American Indian communities. HPAIRI will facilitate and expand on those crucial exchanges. 

In order to underscore the relevance of HPAIRI to tribal sovereignty, an annual High Plains American Indian Research Institute Distinguished Lecture has been established.  On October 19, Walter Echo-Hawk visited UW as HPAIRI’s inaugural distinguished lecturer.  His theme was indigenous rights as human rights.  After giving the audience a detailed timeline of Indian rights in American history, he offered a cogent argument for an affirmative statement of indigenous rights as a vital next step for America. 

Walter Echo-Hawk’s career as an attorney and legal scholar spans four decades, and Echo-Hawk took part in legal milestones such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments (1994).  His writing includes In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided and In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America & the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 
Echo-Hawk contends that “Indian rights” in American jurisprudence are a mishmash of contradictory precedents, fundamentally contaminated by colonialist definitions of indigenous rights and claims.  He points out that there has never been a Supreme Court precedent or constitutional amendment that would, once and for all, vitiate hundreds of years of history that includes land-grabbing, residential schools, resource theft, widespread corruption, and asymmetric war. 

“Indian law” in the United States still includes and refers to precedents dating from hundreds of years ago – long before self-determination and tribal rights entered the national conversation.  “There’s never been a public discourse about the nature and content of human rights of Native Americans in the same way that questions of slavery and discrimination against black Americans were the subjects of very serious national discourse and soul search.  We have to face our inner demons as to some truth-telling about what happened – what we did to the Indians.” 

The Supreme Court still relies on cases associated with inequality, citing them with approval.  “We are appalled by Supreme Court decisions in the Dred Scott case, Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu.  Those cases have all been overruled and rejected as repugnant judicial missteps – but the cases that do the same thing in the very same kind of language pertaining to Indians have never been reversed.  They remain good law that is still relied upon today.” 

Echo-Hawk believes that American Indian history is at a point of transformative change, what he calls a “human rights era” in law and policy.  He believes that American Indians have progressed as far as they can under current US legal precedents, and must aim higher: according to Echo-Hawk, the next step is a constitutional amendment recognizing indigenous rights for American indigenous peoples as fundamental human rights.

Echo-Hawk acknowledges that this is an ambitious undertaking: “It’s a very huge change and it would lead to thinking of Native-American rights as inherent human rights.”  He argues, however, that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides both an impetus and a model for that effort. 

He also argues that seeing Native Americans as colonized people – and American history as colonialist history – would be an important and challenging move forward for the United States as a whole.    

“When we think of genocide, we think of that occurring in distant lands – it’s been with us since day one, but we never think of genocide in our own country.  Many Americans would rise up in anger at the very idea that our nation committed genocide against indigenous peoples – but if you apply the definition of genocide from the 1948 UN genocide convention, most observers would conclude that acts of genocide did in fact take place.” 

Echo-Hawk sees universities as sharing an important role in this reconciliation process.  Universities are focal points for research and public debate, as well as sites for collaboration, intellectual exchange, and community outreach.  Through cooperative efforts like WyCEHG’s work with the Wind River Reservation community and HPAIRI, the University of Wyoming can assist in this important process. 

After Echo-Hawk’s address, I spoke with Judith Antell, Director Emerita of the American Indian Studies Program at UW; and Torivio Fodder, a postdoctoral researcher in the American Indian Studies Department.  Judith is director of HPAIRI, and both have been instrumental in the creation of HPAIRI.  They were very pleased to welcome Walter Echo-Hawk to UW. 

As Judith explained, “We brought Walter here because his work really dovetails with the thinking behind the creation of HPAIRI.  We hope to foster goodwill and help the university develop its relationships with tribes in the region, supporting indigenous sovereignty in the process.”

HPAIRI also arranged a lunch for Echo-Hawk and UW students.   Torivio pointed out that face-to-face interactions are valuable: “Students can see that this is a human being, a man who has kids of his own.  It really humanizes this scholarly mystery that a lot of people have, how do you become a Ph.D., how do you write articles.” 

Torivio spoke to HPAIRI’s importance from his perspective as a researcher: “We refer to exploitative research practices as ‘extractive research,’” taking without offering anything in return.  “We’re learning how to treat contributions from American Indian tribal communities with respect, to give that information back to the communities.  We’re in the business of building relationships, trust, and mutual respect.” 

Posted to the EPSCoR blog by Jess White

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Snow Pillows and Snow Plates

In 1949, a record-breaking blizzard swept across Wyoming and surrounding states. Snowbanks rose as high as farmhouse roofs, and roads across all three states were blocked for weeks. One survivor described a “tsunami” of snow sweeping across the prairie, and a farmer recalled digging a pig out of a snowbank three months later. (The pig was alive.) The “Blizzard of ‘49” was one of the most intense snowstorms to hit the Intermountain West.

The official record for blizzard snowfall? Twelve inches. Back then, meteorologists used instruments similar to yardsticks to measure snowfall, and strong winds made it difficult to measure snow accurately.

Snow plate after installation
(image credit: Elizabeth Traver)
This fall, researchers installed new equipment to measure snowfall in Wyoming’s Snowy Range, in areas of the mountain where there was no snow measuring equipment. Elizabeth Traver, manager of the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics’ (WyCEHG) Surface and Subsurface Hydrology Lab (SSHL), explained how this new snow measuring equipment would work.
New equipment, which was purchased by WyCEHG through a 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation, consists of lightweight aluminum plates measuring over two meters on each side. Connected to pressure sensors that measure the weight of the snow on the plate, these “snow plates” are sensors that can track snowfall over a given area.
Air and snow temperature sensors
and solar power source
(image credit: Elizabeth Traver)
The plates are an improvement over an earlier method, which used “snow pillows.” Snow pillows are like big water mattresses, about three meters square. They’re filled with biodegradable anti-freeze (the same chemical used to make some brands of ice cream, non-toxic to humans and animals), and connected to similar pressure sensors. The antifreeze cushion helps distribute weight evenly over the pillow’s surface.

The snow plates are much easier to carry and set up – Traver said that she and other researchers would carry folded snow plates “two at a time” up the trail. They’re also less fragile, and require less maintenance. In addition, since no chemicals are needed, this method of testing can be seen as more environmentally safe.

Each location is also equipped with a snow depth sensor, an air temperature probe, and five snow temperature sensors. These sensors are placed fifteen centimeters above the ground and then every thirty after that, so they can take the temperature of the snowpack as a whole, allowing researchers to monitor environmental conditions and predict melting patters. Hydrologists and meteorologists can use the data from the snow plates to predict weather and water flow over time.

The plates are connected to a satellite uplink, and will generate real-time data that can be accessed via web. Because the areas where studies occur are remote, the plates are powered by solar panels. As Traver explained, “The idea is that they will require minimal maintenance. ”

I asked Traver about other maintenance concerns and she said, “Well, you might be interested to know that when I first set up these systems, one of them crashed. So when I went to the field, I found that a bear had destroyed the battery, just ripped it apart. Left some nice paw prints on the snow plate.”

Despite the hazards or difficulties of research in remote places, WyCEHG’s new approach to measuring snow will hopefully help managers and others working to understand Wyoming’s water resources and mountain weather patterns.
Closeup of snow plate surface with bear pawprints
(image credit: Elizabeth Traver)
Posted to the University of Wyoming EPSCoR blog by Jess White.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Documentary Screening: Storm of the Century: The Blizzard of '49

On Wednesday, November 17th, Wyoming PBS is offering a free screening of a documentary, Storm of the Century: The Blizzard of '49.  The screening will take place at Laramie County Community College, at LCCC's Training Center and will be followed by a panel discussion featuring the producer Tom Manning, Jim Ehrenberger, and James Fuller.

The blizzard of 1949 was one of the worst in Wyoming history, killing 12 people in Wyoming and 76 in the Intermountain West.  Farmers were particularly hard-hit by the storm, which rushed in from the northwest and dropped temperatures over forty degrees in a matter of a few hours.  One witness, Dan Corbin, recalls seeing a storm like a "tsunami."

Ranchers despaired of herding livestock in whiteout conditions and took refuge inside.  The next day, winds gusting up to 80 mph created drifts as high as thirty feet.  Archive photographs show relief workers tunneling through mountains of hard-packed snow as steep and crystalline as salt caves.

According to Rebecca Hein at, the storm raged for three days, but blizzard recuperation lasted into the early spring.  The U.S. Air Force helped with Operation Hayride (better known as Operation Haylift), transporting hay to Wyoming farms.  The Wyoming Game and Fish Department staged a parallel food drive for local wildlife, delivering hay, cottonseed cake, and alfalfa pellets to deer, elk, and antelope.  Game birds were fed corn and small grain.

The documentary project is sponsored in part by a grant from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund - a program of the Department of State Parks and cultural Resources; with partial funding by the Wyoming Humanities Council; and with additional funding from Pacificorp, the Wheeler Family Foundation, Rose Brothers Inc. of Lingle, and the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation.

Learn more about the blizzard here and read an eyewitness account here.

Posted by Jess White on November 6, 2015.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Metadata: Continuing the Conversation

Shannon Albeke got into data mapping because of fish. “I worked at the Colorado Division of Wildlife for eight years prior to getting my Ph.D. It started back in 1999. We had lots and lots of information on these little fishes of Colorado. The only way you analyze all that data was to create a database and some tools for searching within it. It turned out I had an aptitude for it, and things just went from there. Now I’m an informaticist.” Albeke creates online archives that are open, accessible, and easy to navigate.
Shannon Albeke

In a way, Albeke is a victim of the internet’s success – by now, we’re so familiar with search engines like Google that we don’t think about the planning and management that makes an algorithm such an indispensable tool. Albeke isn’t just a strong advocate for data sharing – he and his team promote good metadata habits. “Metadata” refers to data about data, like labels on files or tags on blog posts. Just like a phone book, metadata allows a search engine to reach individual datasets in a gigantic archive. When metadata is sloppy or incomplete, data is effectively “unlisted.”

What are the benefits of the “open-data” method? (And why should researchers cultivate good data habits?) Data sharing cuts down on redundancy, or experiments that are needlessly repetitive. This means that scientists waste less time and use resources more effectively. It can be hard for scientists to raise funds for large-scale studies, and using available data can make research much more efficient.

This is especially important for student researchers as Albeke explains, “One student wants to use software to process gut microbes and use their DNA to explore the fauna living in your belly. Before, she could read an article about gut fauna. But now, she can also look at the data those researchers used. She can use the same tools to ask a different question of the same dataset. Could she have done that ten years ago? Absolutely not.”

Data sharing also allows researchers working in the same study area to answer broader, more complex questions by working across disciplines. For example, an ecologist collecting data on snowfall could partner with an entomologist examining bark beetle populations in the same forest. By sharing information, these researchers might be able to better answer questions about how precipitation and weather might impact beetle outbreaks.

Albeke’s team is planning visual maps of a study area, with data sets linked to a particular location. For example, several sets of data could be grouped together as part of a “clickable” multimedia map of the Snowy Range in the Medicine Bow National Forest. Researchers could look at a geographical map and see data on any number of measurements including water flow in a stream, plant growth in the forest, or weather records like temperature or wind speed. By creating a system that allows for different sets of data to be viewed on a map, researchers can answer questions on many different levels.

One very basic example of a database map.
Image credit: Shannon Albeke

In addition, Albeke is creating data banks that thousands of people can use – as researchers and contributors. According to him, the biggest problem is ‘searchability,’ or making data legible and visible, especially across disciplines. Different fields of research use different words, even in closely-related areas like botany and biology. This means that a scientist who searches for a word related to their research might not see useful data if it’s been collected and stored by a scientist using a different set of terms. Albeke’s solution is to create search engines that can “translate” terms across disciplines. This is called “semantic searching.”

Aside from data availability, another big problem is security. Does “sharing” data mean that it’s available to everyone? Can multiple people “edit” the data, like a Wikipedia entry or group Facebook page? If the data is available on a website linked to email and password information, what if the site is hacked? What about plagiarism? What if someone deletes four years of data by mistake?

All of these questions need to be answered before data sharing can become the norm, and Albeke’s team partners with IT professionals to find ways to maximize security and flexibility.

Some of these solutions can actually add features to the program. For example, a data archive could allow scientists to track ‘visitors’ to their data, and find researchers with similar interests. In this way, people who use the research will be identified just like if one checked a book out of a library. Tracking could also allow users to network with readers and colleagues around the world, and then a data archive can become a forum where scientists can synthesize results and collaborate on questions.

As Albeke and others find ways to manage data, researchers will need to help to make data available and provide additional information so that it can be understood by others. In WyCEHG, researchers are already making data available and working with Albeke and his team to ensure scientific questions consider the big picture and use all available resources to answer complex questions about water to benefit Wyoming and our water managers.

Posted by Jess White on November 5, 2015

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Geophysics Article Published in Science Magazine!

Last week, we announced that UW doctoral student James St. Clair is lead author on an article that would be published in Science magazine, a leading scientific journal.  Steve Holbrook, a professor of geology and geophysics; Cliff Riebe, an associate professor of geology and geophysics; and Brad Carr, a research scientist in geology and geophysics, are co-authors of the paper.

You can read the paper, "Geophysical imaging reveals topographic stress control of bedrock weathering," here.