Weather and Society Watch
Fieldwork in Indian Country: A Conversational Experience
Instead of coming home with a bright red sports car (though I do have a bright red pickup truck), I decided one day in April 2005 to finally pursue that elusive Ph.D. While my career in the atmospheric sciences has gone well, it has been limited in several fundamental ways by not having that ultimate sheepskin. As someone in a position of authority once told me, it doesn't really matter what the Ph.D. is in (basket weaving was cited as a valid example) – “just get one.” Instead of pursuing this in meteorology—within which I had done research for a number of years in the climate diagnostics area and more recently as part of an international climate observing/modeling program—I picked human geography and, specifically, its “nature and society” subfield. I've always been fascinated with how we as human beings mediate, exploit, and even “create” nature in order to live in it the ways we want to, and how people who are not scientists “know” nature, particularly weather and climate, so this allowed me to put some meat to the bone. As someone who has camped and backpacked quite a bit, often in places with little or no communication potential with the outside world (including the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico when 9/11 was taking place), I have wondered how people who had no access to “weather information” anticipated its changes. How did they know? As I'm finding, and as Bob Dylan once said, “You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
In the very first graduate seminar course of my first semester back (“Nature and Society”), I was able to connect with a political ecologist, Karl Offen, who shares many of my views and interests on such topics. I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do in terms of a dissertation, but through this course and a subsequent one on Latin American environmental history, I became officially interested in how Native peoples know nature and how they adapt within it. This has been variously termed local, indigenous, or traditional knowledge, or even “wisdom” (e.g., Suzuki and Knudtson 1992). There is a vast literature in this area that crosses several disciplines. Karl had done extensive fieldwork in Nicaragua with the Miskitu Indians and encouraged me to pursue my interest. Although much of this sort of research is done in Third World locales, it turns out that I live in a good place to do this in a First World setting—Oklahoma.
Before statehood, Oklahoma was known as the Oklahoma Territory to the west and the Indian Territory to the east. Tribes engaged in a sedentary agricultural lifestyle were “removed” to the territory during the 1800s along the Trail of Tears and other routes from the southeastern United States . Other more nomadic tribes arrived via various treaties that forced them into the territory from the Great Plains . The result today is a vibrant Native population in Oklahoma that is increasingly aiming to become more self-sufficient and sovereign—or as once explained, to “decolonize.” Based on some historical documents work I did as pre-research for my dissertation proposal (Peppler 2010, in press), I found evidence of traditional weather and climate knowledge within tribes in Oklahoma . Some of this knowledge is observational, while some is part of ceremonial or oral tradition (e.g., Momaday 1969, p. 48-51 – regarding the Kiowa Storm Spirit). Based on these leads, I sought contemporary knowledge of these topics and chose interview research of Native farmers in southwestern Oklahoma . I want to know how they observe and conceptualize weather and climate, including in traditional ways, and how they use this knowledge in efforts to farm, ranch and garden, in some cases within the broader framework of achieving food sovereignty.
So how does one get started in this sort of work? Through the help of an in-house Oklahoma State University agricultural extension agent, I was able to contact several county extension agents in “Indian Country,” those parts of Oklahoma in which tribal populations remain abundant and strong. The agent in Caddo County , to the southwest of Norman where I live, said he knew a fellow who works with Native farmers and that he might be able to help me. He copied this man in an email response to me, and within 13 minutes I heard from a man who is now is my friend Randall. He is based in Anadarko and Fort Cobb and helps Native men and women enter and remain in farming, ranching and gardening. Randall wrote to me, “ Mr. Peppler, My name is Randall [ ], and I am extension outreach for Langston University to the Native American Indian Farmers and Ranchers. Also, I am a full blood member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma , am very active culturally and traditionally to my Indian People to help with their farming needs and I am also, a farmer myself. I have a list of 280 Native Farmers we can talk to…Randy, call me at 10:00AM. I shall be awaiting your call!! A-ho!! (thank you).” The rest, as they say, is history.
I have been working with Randall since February 2009 to line up interviews and to attend various farmer and community functions (small farmer meetings and workshops, conservation meetings, environmental camps for children) to not only learn more about what is going on in farming but also to know the people and the communities. Randall wears many hats, all with the goal of helping Native people farm and ranch their own lands: In addition to Langston Outreach , he helps lead the Native American Indian Farming & Ranching Cooperative that serves about 280 Native farming families, and Kiowa Native Farms LLC, a group that seeks to create community gardens and farmers markets, and “kill facilities” for buffalo—it will be sponsoring the first annual “Native American Vegetable Contest” on August 5-6. Ours is a reciprocal relationship of helping each other achieve our goals; while he helps spread the word about what I'm doing and finds people for me to talk to, I've talked to children at the Apache Tribe Environmental Camp accompanied by a VORTEX2 reconnaissance vehicle that was a big hit. As part of my outreach I also became aware of the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative in eastern Oklahoma – the Muscogee (Creek) people came to Oklahoma from the southeastern U.S. and have a legacy of farming (and rainmakers!). The MFSI is involved in creating sustainable agriculture by planting and saving traditional vegetable seed lines and promoting healthier diets and lifestyles. I hope to extend my research to this part of the state someday.
My experiences with Randall and others in Indian Country have been a rewarding privilege. I have met farmers of Kiowa, Comanche, Delaware , Caddo, Wichita , and Creek heritage. To sit in a room with these folks, where meetings begin with a blessing (and sometimes a ceremony) and food breaks are amazing, is much different than being in a conference session full of academics. My IRB-approved interview protocol includes a number of topical areas, including background information about the farmers and their heritage, their weather knowledge and how they form and use it, how they farm, and how they network (the social and farming institutions they are involved in). I also engage them in a conversation about climate change, asking whether they have noticed it and if so, have they done anything in response to it (the thinking here being that people who are outdoors a lot and depend on the outdoors for their living are keen to notice and adapt to its changes). My conversations have lasted anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. While I have an interview protocol that appears structured, I often go with the flow—if people are willing to talk, I just let them.
My first interviewee, Garrett, talked for over 10 minutes before I ever asked a question or got him to sign a consent form (fortunately my recorder was on). He told me about how he knew there would be a dry spell because the beavers were building dams on his property. Some interviews have been conducted in a motel restaurant that is a popular local spot (I've used its Wi-Fi during past storm chases—who knew?). Other interviews have been conducted in the local library. The most recent interview was conducted in a garden at a historic rural church that dates back to Oklahoma statehood and was the site of the Indigenous Environmental Philosophy 2010 summit this spring that I was lucky enough to attend for one day. This gardening informant, Maya, is helping to connect me with traditional people she knows. She gardens with girls ages 12-18 as part of a self-esteem program she founded.
I have heard some amazing things so far that will be fully written up in my dissertation. I have been told about observational signs that some of the farmers still use to help guide them. These include animal and plant behavior (gathering habits of beavers, size and thickness of squirrel and bird nests, horse and cattle behavior, ant movements, thickness of pecan shells, greenness of plums) and celestial occurrences (star visibility, moon rings, sunrise color). Randall will call to tell me the cattle are gathering in the woods to lie down, and subsequently ask what's up; it turns out these have been on severe weather threat days. An interesting point made is that “knowing the moods of things is important…weather can get mixed up and turned around.” Some of these observational signs have been passed down by elders and are things I ran across when doing my background research. On climate change, a couple of farmers told me they don't think much about the climate change debate but that they think climate change is happening based on their everyday observations. Comments include, “…the past 10 years have not been the same…not balancing out…more unpredictable…more downs than ups” and “… water tables have been affected and creeks are drying up…rivers fall so low that you can walk through them.”
One man made an alarming comment about his ability to observe nature: “… things [should] go by the calendar…but have to go on intuition more now because you cannot rely on nature due to all the changes taking place” . An interesting point made is that “… everything works together . Nature as we know it is being lost. It is taken for granted by society. People don't value the land anymore; they trash and waste it. There's a loss of respect for what God has given us.” On farming, they find their perception of a more variable climate to affect their ability to farm. Increased variation and decreased reliability of their observational signs over time led one person to say “everything is confused.” However, the farmers are trying to do the right thing, employing, for example, no-till farming methods for wheat that lead to soil and moisture conservation, resulting in less erosion and clearer streams for fishing. Gardening efforts that aim to maintain traditional seed lines also promote community gardening and farmers' markets, with the hope of encouraging healthier eating.
In the end, the farmers I've talked to so far feel their insight could contribute to the public discussion on climate change adaptation. But, to them it is just common sense—it is what they "just know" from being rooted to the land in deeply reciprocal and increasingly sustainable ways (e.g., Ingold and Kurttila 2000), and we should pay attention. There is a strong element of situational awareness to their observational knowledge of weather and climate (some seem to trust their own reading of nature as much or more than what they see from television or Internet weather, which often is not specific enough in time or space). Almost universally, the farmers are worried about losing traditional ways; one said “… it is important to take a stance to preserve our knowledge for the children; they need to know ' this is what used to happen '.” They see traditional knowledge as important as a comparison to “ changes that could happen .”
Conversations in Indian Country are rekindling memories of weather knowledge and stories once passed down, and it is my hope that we can collectively save them. As a broader research and development goal, exploring different ways of knowing—not just recent advances in science but also on-the-ground, rooted-in-place-and-meaning observations of, experiences in, and adaptations to the natural world—may contribute unique, unexpected, and non-intuitive perspectives (e.g., Cruikshank 2001; Berkes 1999 ; Pierotti and Wildcat 2000; Herman 2008; Basso 1996; American Meteorological Society 2010 Annual Meeting session “Ways of Knowing: Traditional Knowledge as a Key Insight for Dealing with a Changing Climate” – R. Peppler and H. Lazrus, co-organizers ) and, as such, prove useful within cross-cultural research and co-managements efforts (e.g., Stephenson and Moller 2009; Krupnik 2009) for better conceptualizing, recognizing, and understanding shifting environmental conditions such as a changing climate.
*Randy Peppler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate director of the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Oklahoma.
Basso, K. H., 1996: Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. University of New Mexico Press, 171 pp.
Berkes, F., 1999: Sacred Ecologies: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management. Taylor & Francis, 209 pp.
Cruikshank, J., 2001: Glaciers and climate change: Perspectives from oral tradition. Arctic, 54, 377-393.
Ingold, T., and T. Kurttila, 2000: Perceiving the environment in Finnish Lapland. Body & Society, 6, 183-196.
Krupnik, I., 2009: “The way we see it coming”: Building the legacy of Indigenous observations in IPY 2007-2008. Smithsonian at the Poles: Contributions to International Polar Year Science, I. Krupnik, M. A. Lang, and S. E. Miller, eds. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 129-142.
Momaday, N. S., 1969: The Way to Rainy Mountain. University of New Mexico Press, 89 pp.
Peppler, R. A., 2010: “Old Indian Ways” of predicting the weather: Senator Robert S. Kerr and the winter predictions of 1950–51 and 1951–52. Weather, Climate and Society, 2, in press. [Available for early release at http://journals.ametsoc.org/toc/wcas/0/0]
Pierotti, R., and D. Wildcat, 2000: Traditional ecological knowledge: The third alternative (commentary). Ecological Applications, 10, 1333-1340.
Stephenson, J., and H. Moller, 2009: Cross-cultural environmental research and management: challenges and progress. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 39, 139-149.
Suzuki, D., and P. Knudtson, 1992: Wisdom of the Elders: Sacred Native Stories of Nature. Bantam Books, 274 pp.
Figure 2: A self esteem garden located at a church in Caddo County, Okla. (Photo by Randy Peppler)