National Drought Mitigation Center


Collaborative internship provides wealth of natural resource management experience

June 24, 2024

Joneena John, second from right, is shown here with members of the Santa Ana Natural Resources department and NDMC social scientist Kelsey Varisco (far right).

By Emily Case-Buskirk, NDMC Communications Specialist

A spring internship spanning numerous organizations provided Joneena John, recent Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute graduate, a wealth of experiences in working with the land and landowners. 

John graduated from SIPI this spring with a double major in liberal arts and in natural resource management.  

She calls her decision to study natural resource management the “best decision" she could have made. During her time as a student, she got to learn more about the agricultural, rangeland management and ecological facets of natural resources.  

Her 10-week spring semester internship with the NDMC, assisting with the Drought-Smart Indigenous Agriculture project, reinforced the lessons she learned in the classroom. 

The Drought-Smart Indigenous Agriculture project has engaged with local partner organizations and farmers of the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos on improving agricultural drought resilience. NDMC staff involved in the project include: 

  • Tonya Haigh, social science coordinator 

  • Deb Bathke, education/outreach coordinator 

  • Cody Knutson, planning coordinator 

  • Kelsey Varisco, social scientist 

  • Tonya Bernadt, education and outreach specialist 

During her internship, John assisted with soil collection for the Drought-Smart Indigenous Ag project and worked with the Santa Ana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The soil tests will be used to plan on-farm projects that build soil health and drought resilience. 

Joneena John collects a water sample to assist in surface water quality assessment for the Santa Ana Department of Natural Resources.“I assisted with soil collection, interviewed farmers with their concerns, provided principles of soil health and how to improve soil,” she said. “And I had the opportunity to work in various fields within the department. I did tap into a little bit of range, a little bit of agriculture, a little bit of wildlife—so it was a really good experience.” 

For the Santa Ana DNR, John assessed surface water quality, collected data on wood rat population and habitat for the department’s Range & Wildlife Division, and even helped lay out concrete for an irrigation canal. 

John, who is from the Navajo Nation, finds it very fulfilling to apply her knowledge and skills in natural resource management to help Native communities and lands.  

“I lived on the reservation when I was younger and moved to urban places,” she said. “A calling came back as I got older in life, to give back to the land, and realizing there has to be something more meaningful to life; there has to be something else out there.” 

Through her interactions with farmers, she learned more about local drought and soil conditions. 

"Overall, they were very curious, what kind of nutrients they had in their soils and where to go from there," she said. “Some weren’t able to grow anything, some had patches of bare land, and some were just getting started and didn’t know where to start.”  

Varisco said John helped the Drought-Smart Indigenous Ag project in various ways, especially by bridging organizations and building relationships. 

“Jo was a great person to work with on this project. Her internship enhanced the project through her capacity to meet directly with farmers and work on surveys and questionnaires about their experiences,” Varisco said. “This information complements the soil test lab results.” 

NDMC is building on the work John helped to start by creating individualized fact sheets for farmers to continue helping them understand and improve their soil health.  A new SIPI intern is working this summer to continue with the work John started, and also begin new projects.  

Throughout the experience, John said she was inspired by Santa Ana’s dedication to the land. 

“They have designated places specifically for wildlife, they’re constantly attacking drought issues, they’re attacking erosion, they’re attacking these environmental issues for their land and for their future,” John said. “I was very impressed with how organized they were and how far they have come from the very beginning.” 

John learned that “the land can be more resilient to drought than we know” when people invest in soil health. 

"Education is really the key to understanding all of that and we can fight drought and we can have healthy soils," she said. 

This fall, John will attend Navajo Technical University to study natural resources and environmental science. The classes and internship affirmed her decision to continue studying and working in this field. 

“My (classes) played a key role for me, and at the same time it solidified my decision to continue this route,’” she said. “When I got into the internship and worked with Malcolm and the people at Santa Ana Pueblo, I enjoyed that so much, I enjoyed the field work of being outside, I enjoyed the wood rat surveys and the wildlife aspect. I found my calling and I appreciated my time there.” 

John expressed gratitude to her collaborators for the experience for allowing her to work on Santa Ana land. 

“I want to thank everyone at NDMC, they provided great resources and they’re wonderful people,” she said. “And everybody at Santa Ana Pueblo. They allowed me to be involved in this internship and allowed me to be on their land and work with the people. I’m very grateful for all of that.”