Community Visions of the Salt River: Collaborative Meaning-Making through Game Play
Outcome Type
Print Media
Project Team
Zoe Gentry
Savage Hess
Beckett Sterner
Jennifer Keahey
Nancy Grimm
Michele Clark

Let us tell you a story about the Onk Akimel, otherwise known as the Salt River. For centuries, this river fed the Akimel O’odham, the Piipash, the Yavapai, the Ndee, and the ancestral Hohokam—nurturing perhaps the most vibrant human community in the Southwest. Then it vanished. Settlers came and dammed the river. The pueblos, willows, and arterial canals were buried beneath the asphalt, fading memories of another time… … Or so the story goes, anyway. It’s a cautionary tale, but one-sided. It tells us: “Humans are greedy.” “Deserts are wastelands.” “The stewards of this land are long gone.” Now we'll tell you a different story. Each year, the prickly pear produces so much fruit that no animal can possibly eat it all. By fall, the desert will have gorged itself-- and yet heaps of the plump, red fruits are left behind to ferment in the sun. Humans share the bounty, too. Prickly pear was long cultivated by the ancestral Hohokam, and it’s cultivated today by their O’odham contemporaries. This plant tells us something radically different: “The valley is full of food, and there is enough to go around. Humans enrich the natural world.” We can imagine a different future for the Salt River Valley, but doing so will challenge every settler narrative we’ve known. If many of us can’t conceive of a hospitable desert, then what hope do we have of being good stewards for the world’s most biodiverse one? What’s the point? What can we even do? Our answer in this project is that we play games and tell stories. As two of the oldest and most powerful ways to learn, games and storytelling are key to Indigenous pedagogy. Our collaboration will produce a modular board game that teaches the cultural heritage and natural history of the Salt River. We will partner with the Phoenix Indian Center, which works with Native youth, to guide the game’s development as a storytelling aide and Native language-learning tool.  Two students involved in this project have developed a prototype of the game. In it, players assume the roles of different animals along the Salt River–colorful characters like the coyote, the grackle, and the tarantula hawk wasp. They have one simple goal: Survive together. But there’s a twist. The Salt River is not a static resource, but an animate character that can alter the playing board through “event” cards. In addition to ecological events, such as floods and monsoons, these cards also depict social events, like stream restoration and urbanization. They encourage players to reflect upon different relationships between humans and nature, both exploitative and reciprocal. By interacting with the Salt River’s inhabitants and reading their original names, players will learn the importance of Indigenous science and tell their own stories of the river. To ensure accessibility to marginalized communities and Native Nations, the game will be available for free as a print-and-play PDF. Players will create their own copies of the game with their own materials or reimagine the game to teach the histories of other Native ecosystems.

Team Biographies

Zoe Gentry is an artist, writer, and undergraduate student studying Environmental Science. Her research is intimately linked with her creative work, which explores the Sonoran Desert region and its many rivers. Lately, she’s been studying the history of damming and diversion in the Southwest, people-plant relationships, and the narratives that settlers form about deserts. Previously, she interned at the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area, where she studied monarch butterflies and river restoration. Since then, she’s had a finger in every pot. She’s done freelance illustration work for Mount Saint Vincent University and deviantART, as well as independent fundraising for various organizations here in the borderlands, including human rights and environmental advocacy groups. Currently, she’s an ESSA research fellow working on the “Diversifying visions of the future of the Rio Salado – A community-centered approach to Rio Reimagined'' project. She's over the moon to give back to the river a little bit of what it gave to her.

Dr. Michele Clark is a plant ecologist and the project manager for the Urban and Stream Ecology Lab and the Earth Systems Science for the Anthropocene (ESSA) Graduate Scholars Network. Michele leads the ESSA network to equitably address environmental challenges and to re-envision a just and inclusive graduate education system. Michele is co-PI and manager of the Racial Equity in STEM award titled “Immersive, Interdisciplinary, Identity-based Team Science Experiences for Indigenous Graduate Scholars” funded by the National Science Foundation.  
In her research, she studies the plant-human relationship and uses ethnoecological approaches to explore how people understand and relate to environments undergoing rapid ecological change. She is passionate about addressing representation in STEM and leads faculty and graduate student sessions in the Mutually Enriching Mentorship program. 

Beckett Sterner is a philosopher by training and currently collaborates with several scientists at the Biodiversity Knowledge Integration Center in the School of Life Sciences. The driving question for his research is: what knowledge do we need to work together while differing in fundamental ways? Urgent global challenges such as biodiversity loss or climate change depend on research and decision-making processes that are highly decentralized yet must be coordinated worldwide and moreover frequently operate under incompatible or changing assumptions. Sterner leads several grant projects focused on bridging biodiversity science to action. For example, his NSF CAREER grant, Knowledge Infrastructure in the Red List of Threatened Species, uses a combination of historical archives, published literature, and conceptual analysis to document how the Red List’s methods for modeling extinction risk rely on a specific conception of scientific objectivity that was borne of early conservationist efforts to contest the destructive effects of Western colonialism while avoiding direct criticism of government actions or policies. In 2021, he also received a Graduate College Teaching Innovation Fellowship for a project developing a new art & science course with ASU Professor Liz Lerman on creative tools for saving biodiversity.

Jennifer Keahey is assistant professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Senior Sustainability Scholar at Arizona State University as well as associate of the internationally recognized Center for Fair & Alternative Trade. She employs qualitative, participatory, and Indigenous research methods to examine alternatives to development, with particular focus on alternative food, trade, and energy movements. As a multi-paradigmatic scholar grounded in critical, decolonial, and feminist knowledge traditions, she examines questions pertaining to sustainability, heritage, and social justice.

Nancy B. Grimm is an ecosystem ecologist who studies the interactions of climate change, human activities, resilience, and biogeochemical processes in urban and stream ecosystems. In the urban realm, Grimm was founding director of the Central Arizona–Phoenix LTER and now co-directs the two transdisciplinary research networks: UREx and NATURA. With collaborators and students, her research centers on nature-based, technological, and governance solutions that can build resilience to a future with increased frequency and magnitude of extreme events. In streams, Grimm studies how hydrologic and climatic variability influence ecosystem processes such as stream metabolism and nutrient dynamics, and more recently, the impacts of a novel desert disturbance (wildfire) on stream processes through hydrologic connectivity of upland to stream-riparian corridor. Grimm was president of the Ecological Society of America and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the Ecological Society of America, the Society for Freshwater Science. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has made >200 contributions to the scientific literature with colleagues and students.