Carrying My Family and Tribal Traditions Forward in Science

By Ruth Hall, PhD

Ruth at graduation with her major professor, Dr. Michael Patterson and daughter, Lily Anna

One warm afternoon early on in my career, I touched the trees planted over 40 years before by the grandfather I had never met. As a soil conservationist, he planted many of the trees in the small community where I grew up, but years later, I found myself assessing those same trees with the realization that many of them would be removed because of disease. My grandfather, Sam Boyd, forged ahead against many barriers and stereotypes to earn a college degree back when there were far fewer Native Americans even considering college. He was in graduate school when he answered the call to the armed services. Upon returning from war, he began a family and never had the opportunity to finish his education, but the trees he planted left a legacy for his descendants.

Sam Boyd

The intersection of my identities as a woman and as a Native American, coupled with my tribal culture having grown up on a rural Indian reservation made me want to continue the legacy my grandfather left behind.

Those intersections created my connection with the land and shaped the inquisitive nature that would lead me to pursue science.

Eventually, my love for the sciences was deepened by my experiences as a student research assistant and then as a faculty member. At my home tribal college, research was a tool we used to address the cultural and environmental issues our people faced. While there, I also had the opportunity to coordinate outreach that connected our tribes’ Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and education with biologists from diverse fields: wildlife biologists, entomologists, horticulturists, and foresters.

Science took me places I never imagined. Facing down a charging herd of bison, collaborating with scientists and tribal elders to answer big questions about plant life, and leading forestry demonstrations in front of rapt faces of young schoolchildren are just a few experiences that showed me how exciting, meaningful, and rewarding research can be. Every single one of these experiences occurred on my home reservation and solidified my foundation as a Native American woman scientist.

I was able to see the world through the eyes of my tribal culture and through the eyes of a scientist with training in both Native and western science paradigms.

As a Native American scientist, it was important for me to privilege Native science, TEK, and Indigenous knowledge systems. So I found myself challenged through a summer research experience in Costa Rica, where I was assigned to do research on heliconia, which was very different from my original proposal to work with Indigenous Costa Ricans on natural resource philosophies and practices. I was disappointed because my research became just a typical western science project.

Some of the indigenous people Ruth met during her research in Costa Rica

However, I came to terms with the change, completed the project, and then advocated through an advisory group to develop a program specifically for Native American students to gain research experience in Costa Rica. During the research symposium at the conclusion of the program, I met Penny Kukuk from the University of Montana. She and the funding of the Sloan Foundation became instrumental in the pursuit of my graduate degrees.

Ultimately, my complex identity afforded me some benefits in my academic pursuits, like exposure to multiple knowledge systems in the field of science, but, also many challenges that my counterparts did not encounter, like systemic and institutional racism and sexism.

I was able to explore and understand research from perspectives that most western-trained scientists could not. The values and philosophies from my tribal culture include respect, reciprocity, humility, and generosity. Fortunately, Indigenous scholars have been developing and articulating Indigenous research methodologies for the past couple of decades, which integrates those worldviews into how we conduct research. This also meant I had to be able to justify and fight for those knowledge systems as valid and valuable.

Fortunately, the right people entered my life and either exposed me to opportunities or served as mentors. They supported my ideas and philosophies about science and research, which helped me grow my own voice. First and foremost, all the love, support, and belief I was afforded to grow into a Native scientist started at home with my parents, Don and Nellie, as well as my extended family. Without that important foundation they helped build, I may not have had the same remarkable journey. I was also extremely fortunate to have a wealth of Native American mentors who were scientists like Linda Black Elk, Ed Galindo, Aaron Thomas and Otakuye Conroy Ben; scholars like Seafha Ramos, Marsha Small, and Karla Bird; and professors like Clarice Baker-Big Back, Katherine Shanely, and Gyda Swaney.

People believed in me and invested their time or their money in the development of my knowledge and skills.

My doctoral work was partially funded through the Ford Foundation, which also gave me access to a network of diverse scholars in all fields of academia.

Ruth’s sons accompany her into the field for data collection in Costa Rica

Now I am able to pay it forward by using my knowledge and skills to help other Native scholars in STEM. I am a co-PI on a National Science Foundation project that is developing a model to better support the success of Native American Faculty STEM faculty. I teach courses that merge Native American knowledge and western science at my home tribal college, such as BIO 388 Native American Ecological Knowledge. I am able to work with my communities to revitalize our traditional food systems. And, of course, this all started with a young Native female scientist whose elders built a legacy of love for science, research, learning, and being in service to one’s community.

About the Author

Dr. Ruth Hall, Hątáde Wį́yą (Night Wind Woman), is an enrolled citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a member of the Maxoxadi (Alkali Lodge) Clan. She earned her associate’s degree in Environmental Science from Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the University of North Dakota, master’s degree in Organismal Biology and Ecology from the University of Montana, and her doctorate in Forest and Conservation Sciences from the University of Montana. She is a Ford Foundation Fellow and Sloan Indigenous Graduate Fellow. Currently, she is the Director of Native American Studies at Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College and a social science researcher for the University of Montana’s NSF-funded Willow Project.

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