master's student Ka-Voka Jackson is working to protect the environment
and preserve her Hualapai culture.
Jackson is working to restore native plants in the Glen Canyon
National Recreation Area. (Courtesy Photo)
As Ka-Voka Jackson knelt among the streams and wild plants of
Arizona's Glen Canyon and tilled the earth with her hands, the UNLV
student thought of the generations of Hualapai tribe ancestors who
had done the same before her.
Out came the invasive ravenna grass weeds that had grown over
the years, posing a wildfire risk as they squeeze out native plants
central to the culture, religion, and history of Jackson's Native
In went white sagebrush, a medicinal plant that Jackson's family
uses in traditional ceremonies to this day, and whose leaves and
stems are boiled into teas or used as a poultice; Willow baccharis
and arrowweed with lush green branches that, when not being used
to treat bruises and wounds (the former) or added to honey (the
latter), were woven into baskets and thatched roofs; and food sources,
such as prickly pear cactus, protein-rich Indian ricegrass, sand
dropseed, and four-wing saltbush.
Jackson's graduate program research conducted in collaboration
with the National Park Service (NPS) in Glen Canyon National Recreation
Area on the Arizona/Utah border attempts to perfect methods
of invasive plant species control and re-establish native flora,
preserving the beauty that the area's earliest inhabitants enjoyed.
"The Colorado River is so sacred not just to my tribe, but to
so many others. It was their traditional range before the Europeans
came," said Jackson, who is pursuing a master's degree in ecology
and evolutionary biology. "This project is important to keep the
culture alive. And it's not only the plants: When you have animals
that survive on plants and humans survive on the animals, it's this
"It's an interconnected ecosystem," she said, "and it's very
Jackson's connection dates back 24 years, when she was born
on the Hualapai Indian Reservation in Peach Springs, Arizona.
Her childhood was spent outdoors, camping and playing along
the Colorado River's edge. Her mother spent 25 years as director
of the tribe's cultural resources department. She'd bring Jackson
along on Grand Canyon river camping trips, in which Hualapai youth
and elders would spend as many as two weeks sculling with teams
of scientists as they combined science and culture conducting
prayers, researching water quality improvement, and conducting ethnobotany
It was natural that Jackson was attracted to biology college
courses. She experimented with botany, entomology, and geology.
She worked as a hydrologist's assistant and in an ecosystem ecology
lab researching how nitrogen isotopes can be used to trace and eradicate
sources of water pollution. But eventually she realized her true
calling lay in general ecology and plant interactions.
So, Jackson thought it kismet when her mother heard about a
position in UNLV ecologist Scott Abella's lab seeking students to
incorporate culturally important plants into their research. Despite
having no restoration ecology experience, Jackson was drawn to the
Native American aspect of the project as well as the university's
proximity to her hometown.
"We were delighted to see Ka-Voka's application to the
UNLV graduate program because she is from a local tribe and it is
a special opportunity for her to work on her tribe's ancestral lands,"
Abella said. "The Glen Canyon and Grand Canyon area is a special
place and as a protected national park unit, we want the area to
be in a reasonably natural state. We are facing a major challenge
with non-native species and resulting unnatural fires disrupting
native ecosystems. Given that the climate is dry and this is truly
a desert, finding even one or a few techniques that restore native
ecosystems would be a huge success in this type of difficult environment."
Since her fall 2016 move from Salt Lake City, Jackson has juggled
three classes and raising her now-8-year-old daughter with her boyfriend.
For the Glen Canyon restoration project, she recruited three UNLV
undergraduates to drive nearly five hours to Page, Arizona
then take a four-hour boat ride to camp in a remote desert
site for five days of planting over Spring Break.
Each day, the volunteers and their NPS assistants boated and
hiked to a different canyon to spend sunup to sundown removing ravenna
grass and replacing it with native vegetation.
Jackson, whose project includes a side study examining ravenna
grass seeds for ways to eradicate the once-ornamental plant, will
spend the summer working with the Park Service to create a GPS map
of areas where the invasive species grows and treat the plots with
herbicide. She will also return regularly to the Spring Break planting
project sites to monitor progress.
"With this restoration project, we had to take into account
what kind of plants would survive future conditions," Jackson said.
"With our current state of climate change, we inevitably will lose
species that can't survive, but there might be others that can take
their place. For example, in a low-water area, you can sub out one
native plant for another. You have to think about irrigiation, shelter
to keep animals from eating them, and aspects like which type of
soil is right for a particular plant to survive. It's making it
sustainable for the future."