Student Impact
PhD candidate Joseph Gazing Wolf holding baby owl

ASU PhD candidate’s ecological research on inequity is inspired by tribal identities

asu graduate student land tenure inequity ecological sciences racial gender discrimination disparity disparities west africa locusts buffalo
By Emily Carman on April 26, 2021

Joseph Gazing Wolf was born in a place known as Garbage City.

Manshiyat Nasser, Egypt is an industrial area just east of Cairo. The people who live there serve as the informal trash collectors of metropolitan Cairo. 

“We would go pick up the trash and bring it back home,” Wolf explained. “We would build our homes out of trash. Anything that we were able to recycle, we would recycle. Anything we were able to eat, we would use for food.” 

This is where Wolf spent the first years of his life. Then, at just five years old, he was recruited by a group of farmers from the Nile Valley to help out during the busy harvest season. 

“I had never seen a plant at that point in my life,” Wolf said. “Going to Upper Egypt, where it's just a beautiful, mystical environment along the Nile, was like a whole new world. I fell in love with it, of course, and then I kind of swore to protect it right then.” 

Thirty-four years later, Wolf is still committed to this promise as a PhD candidate in environmental life sciences at ASU. 

Research Rooted in Identity 

Wolf’s research is inspired by the experiences and identities formed by his unique upbringing in Africa and the American Dakotas. 

Wolf comes from two different tribal communities. In Africa, Wolf was born to the Amazigh people. Then, he was adopted by the Lakota people and brought to America. 

Though his experiences in Africa and America are very different, there is one aspect of his life that links both places and his research - the land.     

“I spent the first 10 years of my life as a shepherd in North Africa and then the next 25 years of my life as a buffalo rancher and cattle rancher here in North America,” Wolf said. “And during that time a few things became obvious very early.”

During his time as a herder, Wolf discovered three main social issues that now inform his research. 

First, he realized that Native Americans very rarely own the land that they work on, even on reservations.

“I worked for a few Indigenous ranchers but, for the most part, when I worked as a cowboy I worked mostly for white ranchers on Indian land,” he said. 

Second, Wolf noticed great gender disparity and discrimination when it came to land ownership among Native and non-Native populations.   

“Many of my own mothers and sisters were themselves very proficient land managers and ranchers and cowgirls,” Wolf said. “Yet, if they ever tried to get their own land to manage, they were discriminated against.” 

Finally, Wolf discovered a severe lack of educational opportunities for people living in the rural areas where he worked.    

“People that were perfectly smart, very good at critical thinking and problem solving, didn't have access to education the way people did in urban or suburban environments,” he said. 

Wolf’s research centers around these three variables; land tenure, gender/racial equity and education. Specifically, he is using his educational background in both social and life sciences to “see how those three variables interact to predict social and ecological outcomes,” he explained.  

Wolf is involved in two main research projects as part of his PhD program. Both are rooted in his Indigenous African and Native American heritage and have the potential to impact the communities close to his heart.  

Restoration of Buffalo by Native Communities 

“For the Lakota, the buffalo was our primary source of meat and fiber and housing and everything else,” Wolf said. “It was our way of life, and then they were hunted into near extinction.”

Now, many Native communities, including the Lakota, are trying to restore buffalo populations back on Native lands. But, it is not an easy task. 

Wolf works to understand the roadblocks to the rehabilitation of the buffalo, such as the cost of infrastructure. 

“You have to have a completely different way to manage the property and that infrastructure is very costly,” Wolf said. “Because dealing with an animal that's 2000 pounds, that can crush a school bus, is a tad different than dealing with a cute, little cow.”

Another roadblock is racial and gender inequity.

“Ranchers and farmers of color in general suffer a great deal of inequities with regards to making sustainable livelihood,” Wolf said. “They disproportionately own less land, they operate less land and they make less money than white producers. This is even more blatant with women farmers and ranchers.”

To conduct his research, Wolf collaborates with the Tanka Fund, an organization that hopes to restore Native, sustainable agriculture through a buffalo-based economy. Wolf works with several of his mentors at the Tanka Fund to help provide resources to people who are interested in restoring the buffalo population. He conducts surveys, interviews and observations, guided by Native ranchers, as they work through the process of buffalo restoration.  

“We go to, say, Yellowstone and grab a herd of buffalo,” Wolf explained. “We bring them in and then we go through the entire operation with them to see what troubles they are having, what roadblocks they run into. Infrastructure issues? Money issues? Market issues? Things like that.”

Restoring the buffalo is not only important to Native American culture, but also to the restoration of sustainable livelihoods and food sovereignty for Native people, according to Wolf. 

“Our food system needs to be restructured in order for these types of ecologically healthy, indigenous food systems to be re-established,” Wolf said. 

This is where Wolf’s background in ecology comes in.

“I am able to look at the effects bison have on plant community structure, on wildlife habitat, on soil characteristics and things like that,” he said.

Wolf hopes this research will help eliminate food insecurity in Native populations. The key to this, he has found, is women. 

“If I want greater food security, I want healthier ecosystems and communities, then what I'm going to do is invest in the women of that community,” Wolf said. “That's what research shows is generally the best investment. Why? Because anytime you invest in women, that investment pervades the entire community. When a woman is empowered, she shares that empowerment.”

Unfortunately, Wolf has found that women are granted less investment opportunities than men, among other inequities. But, he hopes by highlighting the effectiveness of women ranchers through his research, he will be able to change this. 

“If our societies focus on investing in women, that will have a dramatic outcome with regards to food security and food sovereignty for tribal nations,” Wolf said. “And food security for everybody, really. Once you empower one community where women have leadership, it also influences other communities. It can have a reverberating effect all throughout humanity.”

Preventing Locust Infestations

Wolf is also beginning to study the impact that women can have on preventing locust outbreaks in West Africa and other parts of the global south.

“A single locust outbreak event can have a lifelong impact on a lot of lives,” Wolf said. “They create kind of a devastating overall effect and, sadly, the people that suffer the most tend to be women and children.”

Catching locust infestations in the early stages is crucial for mitigating their effect on vulnerable populations and food systems.

“If we can track when their eggs are being laid, as opposed to wait until they're so enormous that they block out the sun, then we can stop them,” Wolf explained.

To do this, Wolf is working with his mentor Dr. Arianne Cease and ASU’s Global Locust Initiative (GLI) to help continue their development of an early monitoring and reporting system led by women from rural areas.

“What we're trying to do is utilize that natural brilliance that women have. They're much better communicators. They're much better at monitoring and being dedicated to something,” Wolf explained. “So, they monitor traps and other instruments in the field so they can notice right away when the populations are beginning to increase and then relay that information so action can be taken right away.”

Wolf wants to take this research even further, however. 

“I don't want them just to be the monitors out in the field. I want these women to be the land owners and land managers themselves,” he said. “That's how we go from being a reactive system to being a proactive system.” 

One of GLI’s next steps in these efforts is providing women farmers with millet seed, which will hopefully improve their chances of acquiring their own land. Wolf and his GLI mentors believe that increased land ownership, especially by women, will help fight food insecurity in West Africa and beyond.  

“Ultimately, we want to empower these countries to grow their own food in a sustainable manner and have a sustainable livelihood so that they don’t have to rely on Western aid,” he said. “And, I believe, the way that's going to happen is by empowering women and youth specifically.”

Wolf plans to complete his PhD by 2024. He says his research will continue to be motivated and inspired by the communities and women who have supported him in the past.  

“I wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for compassionate women stepping in and feeding me when I was starving, or clothing me when I was cold, or sheltering me when I was homeless,” Wolf said.  “To this day it’s my mothers and sisters that primarily make it possible to express my potential and do the work that I do, even here at ASU.”