CRRES interviewed Faculty Affiliate Dr. Ryan Comfort, Assistant Professor in the Media School, about his recent publication in Society & Natural Resources, “Political Macroenvironments & Cultural Information Protection: The Challenge of Communication in Native American Environmental and Natural Resource Management.” In this interview we discuss how his career trajectory informs his ongoing research agenda, the issues his research identifies, and the importance of reciprocity when conducting research with Indigenous Nations. Dr. Ryan Comfort is a citizen of the Keweenaw Bay Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe.
An Interview with Dr. Ryan Comfort
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Dr. Comfort: I'm an Assistant Professor in The Media School in the Journalism unit. My research area is in the realm of Indigenous science communication. I specifically work with the natural resources staff and Native American Nations, the tribal governments and tribal non-governmental organizations (NGO's) who are working on natural resource issues. Those are the folks who I'm really creating scholarship for. I've been working on these kinds of issues almost my entire career. My first job out of college was teaching folks in Wisconsin about the history, culture and sovereignty of Wisconsin's Native Nations, and it was part of a state mandate to try to reduce conflict over natural resources in the state. Then some pretty ugly racial conflicts [happened] when tribes’ treaty rights were upheld in the state in the 1980s, and so they passed this educational mandate thinking it would hopefully reduce conflicts. My entire career has been designed around this kind of science communication to reduce conflict over natural resources. After that job, I went off and got my master’s degree in visual communication. I worked with Wisconsin Public Television and the Educational Communications Board to create video projects. We didn't have any contemporary stories about Native science in the state and if I'm trying to convince teachers and other folks to tell these stories, we have to have them. So that's why I got my master’s because I wanted to be able to actually produce the stories myself, and I did that work while I tried to get some staff jobs in journalism and multimedia, but it was in a time of extreme industry contraction. I was freelancing for a while, picked up the doctoral work and decided I'd go the research route. I've been working on the same problem from different angles for my entire career.
You have an article recently published in Society & Natural Resources, could you tell us how this research came about?
Dr. Comfort: I'll give you my research agenda— the first step is problem identification. It's easy to assume from one's individual perspective or experience what the problems are. My perspective being a practitioner or Indigenous person, or somebody who has been in this world a little bit isn't necessarily reflective of the of larger social trends. What I needed to do through a lot of my early research was to see if what I had observed personally and professionally played out across Indian country. In another study on environmental communication that interviews folks in the Indigenous diaspora, I was trying to see why is there such a dearth of Indigenous science stories out there? Part of it was to see what does the environment, science, and environmental media landscape look like in Indian country from the perspective of Indigenous folks and from the perspective of Tribal natural resource professions? Then to see what some of the challenges are. Why don't we have more media? It's easy to assume a lack of resources when people think of Indigenous folks. They think generally— they have this weird dichotomy between rich casino Natives and super poor reservation Natives. It's either tons of tons of resources or absolutely no resources, so it's easy to jump to conclusions about a lack of expertise or lack of financial resources to support this kind of work and lack of innovation or lack of trust in the media. A big part of this initial research has been trying to pinpoint where the big issues are and so the Society & Natural Resources study was part of that first step of problem identification.
What issues have you been able to identify?
Dr. Comfort: One of the issues I found in these two studies was that natural resource professionals, these tribal scientists wanted to make more use of media, so no, it's not a problem of motivation or design. We can't attribute the gap to a lack of that and what folks identified were or seemed like two big issues that came out of that one was science and environmental communication by these folks, it's a political issue because it ties to culture. It's easy for folks to talk about the Western science side of things, but as soon as you start trying to connect it to the culture and why this kind of science is important or why this type of management, it becomes political. Folks were much more ambivalent in the qualitative side of the data. They were saying, “Well yeah, it's political.” We need guidance from the top of our government structures in terms of what we can and can't share, or how we talk about it. I think that is a big challenge. If you think about, say, any state DNR (Department of Natural Resources) cause that's effectively what we're trying to show the parallels between tribal DNRS and state DNR's. If you look at the state of Indiana's website. They run a great website. They have a lot of information. They're on social media. They're producing videos that make image posts and not all tribal natural resource departments can do that without concerns of crossing certain political lines.
Do you have an example of something that can’t be shared?
Dr. Comfort: One of the things I did following this survey was do some field work out with the Yakama Nation. I talked to folks to get a sense of who was producing this media, who wasn't, who wanted to and why couldn't they? One person I talked to had previously worked for the Natural Resources Department and produced a pamphlet about harvesting wild huckleberries, it's a significant food to the tribe. It has a place and culture and story. I showed that pamphlet to some current natural resources folks and asked them, “Would you ever consider publishing something like this?” And they looked at me and said, “No, I couldn't do that because it deals with traditional food and where that traditional food is located and how you traditionally harvest that food.” The person who had published it had social, cultural, and political capital to be able to do it, whereas the person I showed it to didn't feel they had those components. What the study is really revealing is cultural authority in science communication. For Indigenous folks, cultural authority matters. It means you have this right to communicate about cultural things and it's tied to the politics of culture. It's tied to knowledge of science and the environment.
In the article you discuss how your study’s design was very intentional in addressing the need for reciprocity when conducting research with Native Nations. Could you talk more about this approach?
Dr. Comfort: One of the big issues in Indian country is research has typically been very extractive. You think of the origins of anthropology, they come in and take the knowledge of artifacts and all. So rather than coming in and taking things all the time, I really try to give back. I mean the ideal scenario is you construct your research questions and answer with the needs of the community you're studying or working with, and so I always try to do that as well. Sometimes it can't be a perfect event. For example, I'm studying tribal government communication. I want to interview government employees. I can't exactly turn over raw data to the tribal government, right? It puts the employees at risk, so you can't do that. What I do instead in those situations is trying to provide them with a report in aggregate or provide some sort of service. For example, I was working with the Yakama Nation and helped them build their website and take photographs for their communications, helped them shoot footage for video and interviews. I still try to make it a good reciprocal relationship.
In this article about the macro environments, I really just sat down and talked with folks in the Native Fish and Wildlife Society about these kinds of issues. I asked them, “What do you want to know?” I incorporated some of those questions into the survey to make each study have some sort of utility and be able to give back. I took the results of this study that the organization had asked, including what they wanted to know and reported back. Here's the data. The issues that were raised by this community are now what I’m trying to address an answer through future research. It's not just a one-off study, it's my entire agenda and directed by community needs and observations of over more than two decades at this point.
What kind of visual media have you produced?
Dr. Comfort: I got my start doing some consulting and production work with Wisconsin Public Television on a history project called Tribal Histories and there's another project called The Ways. We made videos on contemporary Indigenous history, culture and sovereignty. I have produced my own version of that with the eastern Band of Cherokee called Cherokee Portraits. I've done a lot of photo work with tribal communities. I still do some but now it's part of—I roll it into my research. Send them to the Yakama Nations Natural Resources website. Every time I go to a Native American Fish and Wildlife conference, I take photos. They've used a lot of my photos. Again, it’s a reciprocity thing.
Meet the Researcher
Ryan Comfort is an Assistant Professor in the Media School at Indiana University. His research interests lie at the intersection of Native Studies, visual media storytelling, and environmental communication. Dr. Comfort holds Affiliate Status at the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society. Visit his media page to learn more about his work: http://www.ryancomfortmedia.com.