Field Stations Speaker Series, 2021

New Directions in Environmental Health and Equity in the Southwest

November 10, 2021

Southwest Colorado and Northern New Mexico (the traditional homelands and territories of the ancestral homes and territories of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ, Apache, the Pueblos, Hopi, Zuni, and the Diné (Navajo) Nation) have been impacted by mining and other forms of industrial extraction since the 1870s, when heavy metals mining began in the San Juan Mountains following the Brunot Agreement and the displacement of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ (Ute). In the 20th century, the U.S. government milled uranium from this region to build its nuclear program, and coal-fired power plants provided electricity to millions living in Western cities. In the early 21st century, oil and gas companies drilled thousands of wells here. In this panel presentation, researchers, educators and writers will share their ongoing projects that seek to understand environmental health in the region and to build local and Indigenous-led capacity for environmental monitoring. The speakers in this forum have worked to understand the impacts of the Gold King Mine Spill, a 2015 toxic spill in which 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage were released from a gold mine retaining wall near Silverton, Colorado, affecting the Animas River, an important tributary of the Colorado River. They will discuss how this event has impacted new ways forward for writing and research on community health, uses of water and environmental management.

This panel was convened by Arielle Milkman.


  • Amber Benally (Rising Leaders Manager, Grand Canyon Trust)
  • Dr. Karletta Chief (Associate Professor, University of Arizona Department of Environmental Science)
  • Dr. Rebecca Clausen (Professor of Sociology and Human Services, Fort Lewis College)
  • Jonathan Thompson (Contributing Editor, High Country News)


Amber Benally
Yá’át’ééh, shik’éí dóó shidine’é. Shí éí Amber Benally yinishyé. Tł’ízí lání nishłį́. Tódich’ii’nii bashishchiin. Kiisaanii dashicheii. Kiyaa’áanii dashinalí. Ákót’éego, Diné Asdzáán nishłį́. Tó Naneesdizí déé’ naashá. Axhé’hee’!

This is how Amber introduces herself as a Diné, Hopi, and Zuni woman. She grew up exploring the Colorado Plateau and sought to understand the deep relationship between people and place. She graduated from Diné College before earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology and environmental studies from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Her education and her family’s experiences with the toxic history of uranium mining on Navajo land compelled Amber to act on environmental injustices. Amber joined the Trust in 2018 because she believes in the voices of young people, the power of underrepresented populations, and the determination of anyone with a passion.

Dr. Karletta Chief is an Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ. As an Extension Specialist, she works to bring relevant science to Native American communities in a culturally sensitive manner by providing hydrology expertise, transferring knowledge, assessing information needs, and developing applied science projects. Two of her primary tribal projects are The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Climate Adaptation and Traditional Knowledge and The Navajo Nation Gold King Mine Spill Impacts. Dr. Chief supervises and advises the research of 11 graduate students, 10 of whom are Native American working on topics related to tribal environmental issues. Dr. Chief received a B.S. and M.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Stanford University in 1998 and 2000 and a Ph.D. in Hydrology and Water Resources from UA in 2007. She completed her post-doctorate at Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, NV. In 2011, Dr. Chief was named American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) Most Promising Scientist/Scholar, 2013 Stanford University Distinguished Alumni Scholar, 2015 Native American 40 under 40, 2016 AISES Professional of the Year, and 2016 Phoenix Indian Center Woman of the Year.

Dr. Rebecca Clausen is professor of Sociology and Human Services at Fort Lewis College. She is also an affiliate faculty member in the Environmental Studies Program. She joined the college in 2008 from the University of Oregon, where she was a graduate teaching fellow in sociology and environmental studies. Clausen is an environmental sociologist whose research interests include the social drivers of environmental change, the political economy of global food systems, and marine fishery degradation. Her current research focuses on the social and emotional impacts of the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill to farming communities on the Navajo Nation. Dr. Rebecca Clausen actively publishes her research in journals such as Sustainability and Society and Natural Resources. In 2015, Clausen co-authored and published The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries, and Aquaculture which contributed to defining a new field of Marine Sociology. She is a reviewer for several journals, including the American Sociological Review, Conservation Biology, and Sociology of Development. Dr. Clausen is actively involved in college committees such as the Institutional Review Board. She teaches a summer field course, Ecology and Society, and travels with students for five weeks to different communities around the Four Corners. She is an advisor for the FLC Sociology Club, which runs the Grub Hub, a student-run food bank for FLC students.

Jonathan Thompson was born and raised in southwestern Colorado. He owned and edited the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper in the tiny town of Silverton, Colo., and was the editor-in-chief of High Country News from 2007 to 2010. He now runs The, a public lands newsletter. In 2016, Jonathan was awarded the Society of Environmental Journalist’s Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market. Jonathan is the author of the following books: River of Lost Souls, Behind the Slickrock Curtain, and Sagebrush Empire.

Additional Resources

For more information relating to this panel, please refer to these additional resources.

Amber Benally

Rising Leaders at the Grand Canyon Trust

LeaderShift: Training a new generation of advocates by Amber Benally

Native Youth on Becoming Future Ancestors by Amber Benally

Karletta Chief

Driscoll, E. L. Groskin, and K. Chief. 2018. Breakthrough: Bitterwater on Protecting the Waterways on the Navajo Nation. Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science, Short film anthology from Science Friday and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), January 12, 2018.

Bekes, E., A. Eaton, Y. Ornelas Van Horneo, P.I. Beamer, and K. Chief. 2019. Gold King Mine Spill Diné Exposure Stud – End of Project Reflection (short ver.) Parrot One Production, July 10, 2019.

Ornelas Van Horneo, Y., K. Chief, P.H. Charley, M.G. Begay, N. Lothropo, M.L. Bell, R.A. Canales, N.I. Teufel-Shone, and P.I. Beamer. 2021. Impacts to Dine activities with the San Juan River after the Gold King Mine Spill. J. Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology.

Beamer, P., K. Chief, N. Borreroo, and B. Riverao. 2016. Water Is Our Life: How a Mining Disaster Affected the Navajo Nation. Truth Out, April 2016

Jonathan Thompson

The Land Desk, a newsletter about Place:

(2016) Silverton’s Gold King reckoning. High Country News

River of Lost Souls reading aids

(2020) Can Farmington, New Mexico Survive without Fossil Fuels? Sierra: The Magazine of the Sierra Club.