Geosciences: Academia and its Proximity to Native Lands

By Jessica Brookholdt '24 with the Department Detectives for ANT 245

For a Princeton student, attending a performance at McCarter Theatre and hearing the Land Acknowledgement before the performance begins is a common experience. We live here on campus knowing that it was once Lenni-Lenape people who inhabited this land. For many students, that is where the acknowledgement ends. But not for all. The Nuclear Princeton Project and its coinciding seminar course offers students an opportunity to reckon with the relationship between Native people and Princeton University, an opportunity that was not taken lightly by myself.

In class, we explored the relationship between Princeton’s physics department and Native people. But being a curious student, I was sure it didn’t end there. A short walk through campus allows a student to see a slew of construction which involves digging up the earth beneath our feet, earth that, as mentioned, once belonged to the Lenni-Lenape. Though the purpose of this dredging is an effort in sustainability initiatives here on campus, a decent purpose, its reckoning with indigeneity as the heavy machinery lifts up the land does not feel unnecessary. This is what brought me to thoughts of the other ways in which the university interacts with the land. Immediately, my thoughts turned to the geosciences department. 

Exploring the Department of Geosciences website, I came across the history of the department.  Rather quickly I came across this entry under the history from 1930-1950. “Another major undertaking in field research at this time was the "Red Lodge Project" (1930), initiated by Richard M. Field and fellow faculty member W. Taylor Thom. Red Lodge and its successor, the Yellowstone-Bighorn Research Association (1936), were designed to further geological knowledge both in general and about that region in particular.” It was immediately clear from the name alone that this project and its research area was in close proximity to native lands, which led me to the Native Lands website. I quickly found that the research base, though not on indigenous land at the time of its founding, was on what was previously part of Crow Nation. 

Journeying to Mudd Library to find more information about this project, I came across a field guide written by Richard Field. In this field guide, he discusses the area surrounding the research and including some land that did at the time belong to the Crow Nation. In this field guide, the Crow Nation is mentioned exactly once in reference to their Reservation and the Chief at the time, Chief Plenty Coos, who passed away shortly after the beginning of the Red Lodge Project. Searching through all the archives made available in reference to the Red Lodge Project, I found no correspondence between Field, Thom, and aunty members of the Crow Nation. This is not to say that there was no correspondence, just none worthy of archiving. 

The Red Lodge Project is not the only bit of university’s research that has this kind of proximity to Native people. But there is something to be said about the Department of Geosciences' choice to claim this as part of their proud history without also recognizing the impacts it might have had on indigenous people in the area. A sentiment that echoes the current construction happening on campus. It is important to acknowledge these histories, but also to move forward and increase positive impacts on native communities. This is why my research led me to conduct an interview with Tommy Rock.

Tommy Rock, a current Postdoctoral Research Associate and Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Geosciences Department and a member of the Navajo Nation is doing exactly the kind of research that benefits Native people. In this interview, Rock informed me that he met with Professor John Higgins about the fellowship who brought him on to “initiate a program to expand the identification, monitoring and communication of environmental hazards related to legacy uranium mining, and ongoing oil and gas exploration, in the Navajo Nation,” as stated on the Geosciences Department website. This work that he is doing in the Four Corners represents a positive future for our reckoning with impacts on Native people. When asking Rock how he feels about the relationship between the university and indigenous members of the Princeton community, he said he hopes the university makes good on the thoughts and ideas that come as a result of current diversity initiatives on campus and that the indigenous students on campus are given a more permanent affinity space. With Rock leaving shortly after the conclusion of this school, one can only hope that the university values his thoughts as one of very few indigenous scholars that have been employed here in recent years.


Works Cited

“The Department of Geosciences.” Princeton University, Accessed 9 May 2023.