Native American communities face some of the worst living conditions in the US [1
]. They often do not have the basic infrastructure in place, and lack the economies of scale and the human and civic resources needed to operate, maintain, and improve their infrastructure [2
]. In 2017, the National Congress of American Indians published an initial report on tribal infrastructure indicating that more than 60% of the roads within the Indian Reservation Roads system are earth or gravel [3
]. According to a recent Pew report [6
] and Energy Information Administration [7
], 47% of households on Native American reservations do not have access to broadband services, and 14% of households lack access to electricity. Furthermore, as of 2011, there were over 120,000 tribal homes lacking access to basic water sanitation services [1
Building sustainable infrastructure systems is directly related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) nine; which focuses on building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and fostering innovation, and indirectly relevant to SDGs 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, and 11 [9
]. Our study contributes to SDGs by aiming to better understand Native American communities’ infrastructure needs, priorities, and opportunities for more sustainable infrastructure systems now, and into the future.
It is critical that Native American voices are included in understanding infrastructure challenges, priorities, and opportunities in order to move towards more sustainable and resilient infrastructure systems [10
]. Indeed, Saiyed and Irwin [11
] have called for more research into the traditional knowledge and practices held by many Native Americans in order to better understand sustainable infrastructure and green design. However, Native Americans themselves remain highly underrepresented in undergraduate engineering programs and engineering workforce [12
]. Further, in the California State University System, Native American students have the lowest four-year graduation rate compared to any underrepresented group—at only 14% [14
]. To date, there have been few studies exploring Native American perspectives of infrastructure challenges and on how to build sustainable and resilient infrastructure systems in their communities [11
Our cross-disciplinary study brings together social science and engineering fields to bridge the urgent gap between infrastructure research, community needs, and decision-making and policy. Drawing from social science and participatory research methods, we conducted six group interviews with tribal community members in San Diego County, California to better understand the unique infrastructure-related challenges faced by Native American communities and to explore the potential use of traditional knowledge and practice in innovating sustainable infrastructure systems. San Diego County is an excellent location to study such issues as there are currently 18 federally recognized reservations within San Diego County, greater than any other county in the USA [16
]. The groups located in San Diego County include the Luiseño, Cupeño, Cahuilla, Kumeyaay, and Diegueno tribes, with a total of approximately 20,000 members living on and off reservations (Figure 1
2.1. Research Approach
Community-based participatory research is a collaborative, action-oriented research approach that seeks to address disparities through aligning community members’ insider knowledge with academic and methodological expertise [17
]. The community-based participatory research approach taken in this study facilitated mutual respect and understanding between the research participants and researchers and is an important approach that links community members and research institutions [18
]. Hendricks et al. [10
] and Saiyed and Irwin [11
] have advocated for greater use of participatory approaches to research on building sustainable and resilient infrastructure systems, including the integration of Native American traditional knowledge and practice into sustainable infrastructure design. Prior to data collection, the research protocol was approved by the Institutional Review Board at San Diego State University (Protocol Number HS-2021-0092), and all interview participants gave their informed consent.
2.2. Data Collection
In this study, we conducted 6 group interviews with a total of 8 individuals (1–2 individuals per interview) that identify as a Southern California tribal members. The interviews were semi-structured and focused around a series of open-ended research questions as outlined in Table 1
, below. There were two interviews that included two individuals, both of whom knew each other and were from similar demographic groups. For example, we interviewed two related individuals together and two students at the same institution together. While this may lead to response effects [17
], they are likely minimal due to the interviewees’ familiarity with each other and the nature of our questions, which are not particularly personal or private in nature. The goal of the interviews was to understand the nuanced ‘lived experiences’ of Southern California tribal members. Understanding nuanced perspectives and experiences is important because every participant may have different perspectives and experiences. Nuance is about showing that things are “not always true or not true, and that they may be true in part, or true in circumstances or at times” [19
]. The goal of the interviews was to document the participants’ different lenses, perspectives, and experiences, create meaning out of them, and explore both commonalities and differences between research participants [19
]. The goal of the interviews was not to generate statistically significant or representative data.
According to Bernard [20
], a handful of knowledgeable people is enough to uncover the core categories in any study of lived experiences. In qualitative studies, data saturation is typically reached after 6–7 interviews [20
]. This is further supported by Guest et al. [21
], who found that in their 30 interviews in Ghana, 70% of the themes extracted from the interviews were discovered in the first six interviews. Thus, small sample size is appropriate and effective to uncover the majority of major themes and topics relevant to the research question. Additionally, the overarching goal of this qualitative research is to focus on a depth of understanding, rather than breadth; thus, the focus group discussions aimed to understand the perspectives of several Native American tribal members in-depth, instead of covering the entire breadth of perspectives and experiences that likely exist throughout Native American communities nation-wide [18
]. As all individuals interviewed interact daily with the infrastructure systems in their communities and homes (by showering, turning on the light, making a phone call, driving, etc.), they are all knowledgeable about how these systems affects themselves and their broader communities.
Research participants were recruited via email. Within the email, the aims of the research were thoroughly explained stating that the purpose of the research was to better understand the infrastructure, technological, and socio-economic challenges of Native American people and co-design programs with the community to help alleviate and mitigate these challenges. The outreach email also stated the rights that each participant held such as anonymity protection, confidentiality, and voluntary participation. Recruitment efforts include sending emails to San Diego State University’s Native American student groups and resources, as well as by contacting publicly available email addresses of tribal administrators at reservations within San Diego County, California. Criteria for inclusion in the study were individuals who belong to a tribal group within San Diego County, were over the age of 18, and were willing and able to participate in a Zoom interview.
Given COVID-19 and face-to-face travel restrictions of San Diego State University, we conducted the interviews in May and June 2021 through the Zoom Video Conferencing Platform. Each interview lasted approximately an hour and a half to two hours. The interviews were recorded and audio transcripts were automatically generated by Zoom and afterward checked for accuracy and revised where appropriate.
As shown in Table 1
, the interview began with an opening statement, then used semi-structured questions to learn of the participants’ background and how participants viewed the effectiveness of various infrastructure systems. The semi-structured interviews followed the questions in Table 1
for discussion, but remained open-ended and allowed the interviewees to respond in any way they choose, elaborate on their answers, and raise new issues [19
We also conducted three full-day participant observation field visits to three Native American reservations in and near San Diego County, California. When COVID-19 restrictions were loosened mid-summer 2021, we presented our research ideas and survey questions at a consortium of 22 tribal leaders at the Pala Casino, California in July 2021. We followed this up with three in-person visits to three different Native American reservations. This further allowed us to gather information on life at a reservation from not just higher-up administrators like the tribal Chiefs themselves but also from school teachers on the reservations to grant-writers who are dedicated to accrue government funding for the betterment of the tribe. As part of this participant observation data collection, field notes were taken both during and after each field visit. Notes from the full-day visits to the three Native American Reservations were consolidated and reviewed within the research team. These field visits were used to triangulate findings from the qualitative interviews and allowed us as researchers to have a deeper understanding and experiential knowledge of the issues discussed in the interviews [20
]. Direct participant observations were not included in the formal data analysis, but assisted with contextualizing and generalizing interview results.
2.3. Data Analysis
Analysis of the interview text drew from inductive grounded theory analytical methods [20
] and was conducted using QSR Nvivo 1.3.2 (4300) software as a tool for coding. In short, inductive grounded theory uses text to identify analytic categories (or codes) that emerge from within the text [20
]. This analytical method was utilized in this study because it is systematic, provides for data depth and richness, and has the ability to determine what is actually happening related to a given research question instead of a priori assumptions [20
]. The objective of this type of qualitative analysis is to discover variation, portray shades of meaning, and examine complexity [19
Coding took place in a three step process. The first step was reading all the interviews and creating the different codes and categories of codes. Quotes from the interview text were placed under their relevant codes. These larger-picture coding categories were based on the research questions and initial findings. Second, after the first read through of the interviews and initial coding we read all the codes and categories and re-organized where necessary. Codes were reorganized based on emerging categories that came up during the coding process. The last step was to reread all of the interviews to make sure that the quotes from the interviews were correct and under the correct code. This three step process helped to ensure that the final codes were as thorough and accurate as possible.
2.4. Positionality of the Researchers and Limitations of Research Methods
It is important to acknowledge the positionality of the researchers, as well as the limitations of the research methods. First, in acknowledging the positionality of the researchers, while we do all come from diverse ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, none of us identify as Native American. While we felt the research participants talked openly and freely with us, being ‘outsiders’ may have influenced how our research participants spoke to us and/or the answers that they gave. Additionally, the use of Zoom instead of face-to-face interviewing likely influenced the participants as it is more difficult to build rapport and trust between interviewer and interviewee through Zoom. It was evident in our in-person interviews that we were able to establish a deeper rapport and connection with some of our interviewees to the point where they felt comfortable sharing some of the better kept secrets and cultural malpractices of their tribes. Additionally, as acknowledged above, qualitative research is an excellent tool for capturing the in-depth experiences and perspectives of our research participants. However, they do not capture the breadth of experiences, nor do they touch on the variety of other experiences across Native American reservations and communities. Thus, we do not claim that our study provides a complete picture of infrastructure systems in rural Native American communities in San Diego County. Instead, we delve into the in-depth knowledge of those individuals who participated in this research and discuss their perspectives and experiences specifically and directly.
3. Research Findings
This section presents the findings from the six groups interviews. In particular, an overview of the findings and conclusions is summarized in Table 2
, and more detailed information about each of the individual infrastructure systems is presented in subsequent sections.
3.1. Built Environment
According to our study, the major challenges with the built environment include a lack of building codes and enforcement, native land being held in trust by the Federal government, and persistent wildfire risk that continues to threaten homes and buildings. Participants also highlighted the diversity of home type and quality depending on the resources of each reservation, including government housing—referred to by our participants as ‘HUD homes’—mobile homes, prefabricated homes, and self-built homes. Importantly, two participants discussed the reservation system and how “all the reserves in the county are Federal Land, they’re considered Federal Land. The government considers themselves as keeping it in trust for us, but really it disables our ability to truly be sovereign and it also takes away our ability to truly be self-sustaining.” Due to these land restrictions, it makes it difficult to obtain land to build a home unless you inherit property, and it is also difficult to obtain bank loans because banks are not able to repossess the land. Further, due to a lack of building codes and enforcement, the quality of any homes and buildings varies. However, it is also important to note that some participants did express that a lack of building codes can also be beneficial and lead to innovation when it comes to designing and building homes and other innovative infrastructure systems.
Traditionally, natives in this area did not face many of these challenges as they migrated between less-permanent structures depending on the season. As one participant explained,
“...usually we would take a little dirt out and they [houses] were built round. They were branches and then leaves were put over; they were not permanent. I am now moving up to Palomar because it’s time to harvest acorns, and now it’s time to go down to the beach, because you know it’s time to get the fish, and that kind of thing, so you know they [houses] were easy to repair.”
The same participant suggested that because of these traditional ways of life, the concept of a permanent home was something many natives did not completely understand originally, and something that they had to learn from Western culture.
3.2. Water and Wastewater
As is common in rural areas, water and wastewater systems are decentralized. Many of the native communities in Southern California rely on groundwater pumps and septic systems. According to our research participants, this can lead to distrust in water quality and worry about septic systems contaminating the groundwater. As explained by one research participant, “If one of those septic systems starts to have a problem, it could impact our whole water system… I think we need a backup. I think we need the infrastructure of a sewer system.” Another participant expanded on this perception of contaminated groundwater by explaining that,
“we don’t drink our water, I don’t even wash my face in it. It’s full of bleach and chlorine, that’s how they solve the problem. It causes you to get like hard stones so most people don’t drink it. Like I said, we only bathe in it because we don’t have any choice. And I think that they should do something at the you know higher level, but I don’t know, I think that maybe people should at least be offered filters in their homes.”
Despite these concerns, research participants discussed their traditional knowledge and practices for sustainable water use and management by saying “Water is life… you will hear every native community say that water is life, Mother Earth, we have to protect it.” This ethic has led to conservation efforts even at on-reservation gaming facilities, where water conservation and recycling are encouraged, according to one participant. Water is so important, that many communities have been in decades-long legal battles for rights to water on their land. For example, as highlighted by one participant, the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians recently won a fifty-year ongoing lawsuit over water rights after “our water has been diverted to a local town.”
In our discussions of telecommunications, participants discussed how spotty and inconsistent the Internet connection can be, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the seriousness of this issue. For example, one participant stated that “The minute it gets cloudy, you don’t have the Internet so it just goes down a lot, and then, as far as the pandemic, we’ve been trying to advocate for our students”, while another participant discussed how during Zoom meetings “all of a sudden it freezes up and I’ve been knocked off so it’s hard to get business done in this pandemic, it was very challenging for some of the software that we used didn’t work.” However, some participants did talk about recent federal government efforts to support expanding Internet access and connectivity on tribal reservations and hoped that given the small size of many of San Diego County’s reservations that it might be possible to lay broadband fiber to every house.
Participants also highlighted two other major challenges: the impacts of wildfires and wind on telecommunications and a lack of technological literacy. Many areas of these reservations are susceptible to high winds, which only exacerbates the risk of wildfire, and thus electricity is often shut off to help mitigate this risk—which means that the Internet is also shut off. Further, many tribal members living on reservations are older, and as one younger respondent discussed “My grandma has an iPhone and I kind of have to show her how to even just dial a call sometimes.” Similarly, another participant highlighted that “half of this community are over 55 … so I would say about 50% really are not that proficient with the use of computers or even anything technical.” Thus, the potential benefits for computer and Internet literacy programs in these communities are promising, and many participants showed support for this idea.
In building a resilient transportation system, research participants discussed how public buses are infrequent and late, how the local roads are windy, two-lane roads, often on steep terrain, and issues with funding road operation and maintenance. In discussing the bus system, one participant stated “We do have a transportation system that has buses come out here, but they’re not frequent. You know, they come about every hour and a half or two hours, and you can get a bus in and out of here.” Participants talked about how this is a problem for people who work or take classes in surrounding towns, as well as elderly who do not drive and may need to get to medical appointments. One local educator stated that he “would have students who would have to leave at like five in the morning to make like eight o’clock classes. You know, if they missed the bus, I mean they’re screwed, that’s it. I mean it’s like that’s ridiculous.”
The local highway that runs through many of the participants’ reservations in north San Diego County is a windy, steep, two-lane road, leading to traffic and public safety hazards. Additionally, road maintenance is expensive and one participant discussed the pros and cons of obtaining outside funding to maintain the roads. He explained that “If they’re BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] roads, those are considered public roads… but the problem is, if we accept that money, then the roadway is public and we have people on the reservation that we don’t want here. If the roads belong to us, we can do what we want to do.” With a long history of distrust in outsiders for many native people, the participant explained how many reservation residents do not want outsiders coming and going from their reservation. Lastly, one participant discussed their tensions between preserving the land and building transportation infrastructure. She told us that “To me, I think what should be most important is preserving the land, so a lot of times when talking about transportation we will just bulldoze through a canyon and not think twice about it.”
One of the biggest energy-related issues discussed by participants was frequent power outages and rolling blackouts, often due to wind and wildfire risks. As explained by one participant,
“because of where we are in Indian country we have more public safety power shutdowns every year, and that is because we are located in rural areas that have a very high fire danger, overhead lines, not underground lines, and so once the winds kick up and the humidity level is low, they shut the power off out here, which is twofold problem for many. One is that the tribal elders, some of them have machinery and things that help them survive that then now become compromised because they don’t have power, so we have to send out emergency service personnel to go check on them and try to move them to a place in the government that has a generator so that they have the power that they need.”
As described by this participant, and others, generators are often used as a backup source of power. However, generators can be expensive to use due to high fuel costs. Another participant described how these public safety shut-offs are typically in the hot summer months, so heat-related health issues also become a major concern.
However, three participants discussed their desire to utilize solar power more widely throughout their reservations. One participant told us that she “ got solar… but I’m hoping for a tesla box because I’m lacking a powerbox and that would I guess help with my solar system… allow me to store solar so when it gets cloudy we don’t have issues.” This suggests that there may be significant benefits of expanding solar use, as well as increasing energy storage capacity within homes, but also for administrative buildings and gaming facilities.
3.6. Education and Human Capital
As documented in the literature [12
], Native Americans are less likely to attend and graduate from a four-year University, as well as pursue STEM and STEM-related careers. From our study, which included three native university students and educators, participants discussed how native students often have low self-confidence, lack culturally relevant and culturally supportive K-12 education, often have an immediate need to earn an income, while for others the per cap received by gaming tribe members can act as a financial disincentive to pursue an education or even find a job. As explained by one Native American university student when talking about her own higher education,
“What you wouldn’t know from looking at me from seeing my outspokenness and my determination is I almost dropped out of college three times already, just like that need for reassurance is not there when I need it and I always think about it, and I take steps to do it [drop out], but I never follow through either because I’m scared or I have this fear of failing my family. I don’t want to say poor, but a lot of people who are in that situation want money now, even if they could have more money, later on, they would rather have money now… We are in college, I feel my parents are kind of unsure about my future because I’m not making money right now.”
The need for an immediate income is critical for some students, as explained above, while on the other hand, tribal members whose tribes own gaming facilities (casinos, hotels, resorts, etc.) receive a monthly stipend referred to as a ‘Per Cap’ by our respondents. This stipend can act as a disincentive to pursue higher education or a career because tribal members will receive their stipend after they turn 18 regardless. This highlights the significant role of finances in the choices made by Native American youth about their future.
Additionally, while some reservations have small charter schools or other on-reservation education resources, most students attend local public schools in nearby towns and cities. This can make it difficult for students to feel that they belong and to be taught in a way that is culturally supportive. This was highlighted by one respondent, who told us that he sees a need for more “recognition and availability for native students and native instructors, you know, and non-native instructors who are sympathetic to the educational necessities of the tribes and not going in and telling the tribes ‘Oh, this is what we’re going to teach you’, but rather ask the tribal governments and the tribal communities ‘what classes, do you need?’”
3.7. Strengths and Opportunities
To successfully create sustainable infrastructure systems in Native American communities in Southern California, it is important to not only highlight challenges and issues but also opportunities to draw from the strengths of these communities and cultures. While all native tribes and communities are different, research participants emphasized the importance of leveraging their cultures, sovereignty, and care for the welfare of their tribal communities for more sustainable infrastructure systems (Figure 2
Being family oriented, native pride and empowerment, and the importance of Mother Earth were highlighted by research participants as being important strengths to draw from for creating sustainable infrastructure systems. According to one participant, “it’s like we’re all holding hands and nobody’s going to let go. No one’s going to get left behind, you know somebody’s going to pull you up or at least try.” This cultural emphasis on family and community can be a major source of pride. For example, another respondent told us, “a lot of decisions are based on those cultural beliefs in the protection of the community, community oriented decision-making.” These viewpoints also include the relationship of people and the community to the environment and a sense of not only taking care of your family but also the environment. As one research participant summarized,
“Life is sacred, she [Mother Earth] is sacred, she gave us this life, and what are we doing? Turning around and just beating the hell out of her, basically, and we need to think about what are we leaving for the next generation? This is a symbiotic relationship between mother and children because the other creatures are children of the earth too.”
Similarly, research participants highlighted this sense of responsibility to other members of their community as a key strength in the overall welfare of their tribal communities. For example, participants highlighted the need to take care of the community elders. As one research participant told us, “Our elders, you know they link us to our past, so we cherish and take care of them.” In terms of elders, much of the discussion was focused on access to quality healthcare and ensuring that infrastructure systems, be it telehealth programs or transportation to medical appointments, really focus on the health and wellbeing of community elders. Alternatively, for the youth, there was a focus on expanding educational opportunities (as highlighted in a previous section), as well as job training and creation within the communities in order to build and maintain infrastructure systems internally.
Lastly, themes of maintaining, protecting, and utilizing tribal sovereignty came up throughout our discussions as a major strength. Sovereignty allows for innovation when it comes to sustainable infrastructure systems, but is also something that must not be compromised by any infrastructure system. Sovereignty is critical for building not just sustainable infrastructure, but equitable infrastructure systems that maintain self-determination. For example, in relation to designing sustainable infrastructure systems, one participant told us that “It’s just equality and sovereignty. Tribal knowledge isn’t just as cut and dry as people would like to frame it to be. It’s dynamic because it’s based upon the equitable, sustainability, and sovereignty of the different tribes and asking what they need professionally in order to build and maintain their communities.” This idea also extends to any federal government interventions and funding for infrastructure, that they must not compromise native sovereignty over their lands and futures.