Danville, Ill. While living in the U.S., field engineer Dean Dempsey, a member of the Navajo Nation, took note of how easily he could access clean water.
Some of the Dempsey families who live on the Navajo reservation in the southwest do not have that luxury, often traveling several hundred miles to barrel water from the nearest water source. Dempsey’s aunt’s water system failed about a year after installation, causing him to keep a room full of water jugs to meet basic needs.
Researchers and engineers are trying to solve the Navajo Nation’s systemic infrastructure problems, according to Dempsey.
“(The engineers) always had a specific way they wanted to fix it, or thought they could fix it,” Dempsey said. “The trust was never there. The ignorance, or the arrogance, of the person who would come and try to do certain things was not accepted.”
Dempsey has since returned to the Navajo reservation, working for Navajo Water Project To overcome these infrastructure issues.
He is a former electronics technician who turned to engineering to help the nation deliver piped water. According to statistics from the Navajo Nation Department, an estimate is 30% family The nation does not have access to piped water.
The Indigenous-led organization prioritizes the knowledge of local leaders and engineers like Dempsey, which is the basis for contextual engineering – a way of thinking about the design process that includes cultural and social influences.
Dempsey said, “That knowledge where everything is, and all our prayers, and our songs have been on this land for millions of years.” “I think all that knowledge and all that connection makes me a better engineer here on the reservation. I’m just trying to understand what people are trying to explain to me about the land they live on or They know about water.
Relevant engineering is making its way through the university, where students and faculty in the Granger College of Engineering are trying to build a network of institutions and non-profits, such as DigDip, a hub of indigenous knowledge and technologies.
Abhirup Chattopadhyay, a graduate student studying electrical engineering, has worked on the Navajo Reservation to address the energy needs of the entire region. A big part of contextual engineering is just listening to the people they’re trying to help, he said.
“I think what should be the engineering aspect of a project can be understood more honestly when one understands the context of the society it’s coming from,” Chattopadhyay said.
For example, when his team went to the Navajo Nation to talk about electricity, he quickly changed his goals after these discussions.
“We found that lack of electricity is a major inconvenience. But lack of water is a crisis for them,” he said. “So if energy has to play a role, it is best done by improving access to water in some way. Will happen.”
Chattopadhyay is part of Contextual Engineering Research Group in the University. Led by Ann-Perry Witmer, a professor and senior research scientist at the university’s Institute of Applied Research, the lab group includes students from a variety of academic backgrounds, not just engineering.
Witmer, who coined the term contextual engineering, said researchers often ignore knowledge that already exists in a place, which is usually indigenous knowledge.
“There’s a lot to learn because it’s evolved in place, and so it’s addressing a need in that place,” Witmer said. “We must learn what that is before we try to put something out there that isn’t out there.”
Engineers typically don’t learn about humility in the context of their work, Witmer said. She was a newspaper reporter before changing careers but still uses her journalistic skills every day.
“If you don’t ask the questions, you’ll never get the answers,” she said. “So you have to recognize that you don’t know everything before you start.”
For Ayesha Syed, senior, relevant engineering at LAS has enormous potential for both improving the lives of under-served groups and building empathy.
“Contextual engineering is just listening to people,” Syed said. “I think if we can start to respect and appreciate that, not only will the field of engineering change, but you’ll see everyone appreciate the communities around them.”
Rosalynn Lapierre, professor of environmental history at the university and ethnobotanist, studies traditional ecological knowledge passed down through indigenous communities. Because different tribes have different relationships with the land and their environment, frameworks such as contextual engineering can address the history of exploitation and failed attempts.
But as a member of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana and the Métis, LaPierre has seen firsthand how communities can always tire of researchers who come to the reservation to “fix” their problems.
He said researchers should ask the communities they are working with. What they want is usually not what an outsider would think needed to be addressed.
LaPier said another issue arises when the scientists leave and the people who remain there may not have the technical skills to manage the engineering “solution”, which could lead to another failure.
“[Build]technical skills or education so that when that grant expires, those people leave, that the community is not left with a dilapidated hotel,” Lapierre said. “You build the potential of the people you’re working with.”
He added that indigenous communities also want to be seen as equal partners who possess knowledge that outsiders do not.
“They really know (the environment) deeply, in detail, and they may not have a Ph.D.,” Lapierre said.
DigDeep’s field engineer Dempsey said he looks forward to bringing water — and the joy that comes with it — to families throughout the Navajo Nation.
He said, “Water is exciting, water is life and water is wonderful.”
When Dempsey’s aunts finally got their water system fixed, they reminded her to come the next day—her hair was wet, and she was picking up presents for her family. She kept saying she took a shower today, Dempsey said.
He hopes to continue to develop into an engineer who uses his knowledge and experiences to inform his work.
“Knowledge is power,” said Dempsey. “And the more I study, and the more I learn – it doesn’t even have to be from a book, it can be from people who have a little knowledge of what’s going on – this is enough.”