Riley Smith: Steward of Native Waters
Updated: Aug 21
Someone once said, “In every drop of water, there is a story of life.” A drop of water in Riley Smith’s life would tell many stories: stories about music, boats and dogs, Native American heritage and land, pollution, sea stars, and educational empowerment. However, Riley Smith’s drop of water is more than stories. It’s work and dedication to being a lifelong steward of the water with a Native American perspective and focus.
Riley’s story came to me by way of Dr. Sarah Cohen, a professor at San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) Estuary and Ocean Science Center. Riley graduated from SFSU in 2013 with a B.S. in Biology (marine ecology focus) and a B.A. in American Indian Studies. She worked in Dr. Sarah Cohen’s Marine Evolutionary Ecology Lab on a study of Leptasterias, a small six-rayed sea-star, looking at their population structure at different river or water effluents around California's north and central coast. Her participation in this project was through a fellowship with the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE), a program designed to prepare students from underrepresented groups for graduate programs and careers in science.
A native of Pacifica, California, and a nature lover since childhood, Riley is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, from the Southern Idaho Fort Hall Reservation. Her academic and professional pursuits reflect her background: combining Native American studies and biology in a focus on pollution on tribal lands and its effect on tribal natural resources. So, given these interests, her reasons for choosing to study sea stars for her RISE research project might not seem obvious.
The hooks that drew her toward Dr. Cohen’s lab were the opportunity to do independent research with a large, supportive lab, and a study site at a beach near a dump. Well, it wasn’t actually the dump that drew her in (although this won’t be the only dump site in her career). The study site was Mussel Rock Beach in Riley’s hometown of Pacifica, California, which she knew from childhood as the site of Mussel Rock Transfer Station, or simply the city dump. (It closed permanently in 2016.) The Leptasterias sea star population at this beach had been declining, perhaps, Riley wondered, as a result of water contamination from the dump. This was the scientific question she would address in her project, a direct link to her interest in the effects of pollution on natural resources.
While this project provided Riley a new opportunity for research, she didn’t come into it completely green. Before she came to SFSU, she had already acquired an academic transcript of classes in sciences, anthropology, and Native American studies from several schools. During a break in her studies, she also gained experience working with animals, water, and community service through multiple positions at The Marine Mammal Center: first as a volunteer, then full-time in the education department as part of AmeriCorps for one year, and then again as a part-time employee and volunteer. Her experiences here not only fulfilled her childhood desire of working with animals, they also solidified her sense of belonging in the field of marine conservation, and motivated her to return to SFSU and finish her degree.
Back at Dr. Cohen’s lab at SFSU, having completed her research project, the next crucial step in her development as a scientist in the RISE program was to present her project results at a major scientific conference. Riley did so at two conferences nationally recognized for supporting the representation of Native Americans in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies and careers: the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). These two conferences were pivotal in her career, both for the scientific experience and for the connections to other Native American scientists who were already doing what she dreamed of: building bridges between traditional knowledge and science.
After graduating from SFSU, Riley pursued a Master of Biology degree at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where she focused on tribal environmental work, water quality, and pollution. She joined an environmental endocrinology lab where she investigated the impacts of arsenic and uranium pollutants on the health and development of mosquito fish, connecting these ideas with water quality issues resulting from a long history of mining in Arizona, impacting nearby Navajo Nation and Hopi lands. She just graduated this July, but like her undergraduate career, the pursuit of her master’s degree involved a few strategic and valuable detours.
Early on in graduate school Riley connected with the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), an organization that supports environmental protection of Native American natural resources. They offered her a position working on waste and hazardous chemicals on tribal lands all over the US, organizing training events, workshops, and conferences, and identifying solutions for pollution on and around reservations. Then, through her connections at ITEP, she was offered another job. The West Coast was calling her back, so she didn’t hesitate to accept the position of Water Quality Specialist with the Makah Tribe on their reservation in Neah Bay, Washington in the northwesternmost point of the Olympic Peninsula.
A typical day at work involves the many skills she has developed in her myriad academic and professional experiences: monitoring one or more of the 60 freshwater and marine sites for toxins and bacteria; testing for contaminants on a Nationally Priority Listed Superfund site located on the reservation (click here to learn what a Superfund site is, including this one that was a Makah Air Force Station dump site, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) remedial program in Indian Country); conducting lab analyses; collaborating with colleagues (including some former SFSU classmates) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington; advising on local and regional water quality projects, including an oil spill response project.
But before this profile turns into a dry digest of an impressive, interdisciplinary career trajectory and dedication to clean water, I want to dig a little deeper into who Riley Smith is. It’s not that easy. She is soft spoken, thoughtful, and succinct in her conversation, piquing my curiosity. So I dive into some personal questions.
What’s her favorite part of her job? She jumps at any chance to be out on a boat! Doesn’t matter where. She is proud and happy to have recently learned how to drive a boat. In fact, when not on the job, she loves to be on the water, kayaking, swimming, or just sitting on a dock on Neah Bay.
What is Riley Smith passionate about? No surprise here: Native American culture, science, and environmental resources, specifically, the restoration, revitalization, and application of traditional knowledge in mainstream scientific practices. She loves the chance to work with the tribe’s Cultural Research Team and Makah Museum on projects that highlight traditional knowledge, such as the use of traditional fish hooks for halibut that result in very little bycatch, and identifying plants and animals used for ceremony, cleansing, and other cultural practices that aren’t considered in the EPA’s Superfund ecological risk assessment process.
What might her future hold? As a true scientist, she expects to continue learning and keeping up with new methods always coming out in this field. Eventually she’d like to return to California to be close to family, and continue working in tribal water quality, sustainable practices, and resource management.
After the interview, as I reviewed what I had learned about Riley, I found much to admire. She shares her stories in such a humble and understated manner that you might assume her journey has been straightforward. But this assumption would miss the way she carved out her own path academically and professionally, while maintaining a sharp focus on nature and a dedication to clean water and Native American traditions. Each of her experiences connects by an unbroken thread of determination, gathering strength that will surely lead to increasing successes for herself and those who benefit from her work.
Her answer to my last question, “What are some things you love to do when not at work?” paints a beautiful picture to end with: sitting on the edge of an idyllic bay with pristine water, with her dog Chinlee at her side (Navajo: Chʼínílį́, meaning "flowing out," a reference to the location where the water flows out of the Canyon de Chelly), and playing Otis Redding’s “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” on her ukulele.