Joseph Gazing Wolf (Lakota/Amazigh; he/him)

This section of the site is focused on showcasing ESSA scholars (students, alumni, faculty, and community members) making a positive impact within their research community, centering on diverse ways of knowing in their research, and sharing their knowledge and expertise. If you have a research product, event, or opinion you would like to share please contact

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Joseph Gazing Wolf (Lakota/Black Seminole/Amazigh) is a second-year Ph.D. student at Arizona State University. Wolf developed his research interests as a tribal shepherd in the Nile valley and as a buffalo range rider in the Northern Plains of the U.S. When he considers transforming graduate education, he considers environmental health and well-being, interconnected identities in scholarship, and environmental equity in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Recognizing the increasing barriers that students of color face, Wolf uses his interdisciplinary research approach to uplift and center the voices of marginalized people in his scholarship. Joseph Gazing Wolf is a recipient of an ESSA summer graduate grant. Through conversation and coffee, this interview was co-written by Joseph Gazing Wolf (ESSA scholar) and Michele Clark (ESSA Project Manager). Have a story you would like to share about your involvement in ESSA-related research? Contact Want to learn more about Wolf’s work, contact him here:; Twitter: @shunkaha3

Healing scars on the land with Joseph Gazing Wolf

By Joseph Gazing Wolf and Michele Clark on April 6, 2022

Land fragmentation and fractionation have been one of the primary factors contributing to the extreme levels of poverty in Indian Country. For example, based on existing data, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota has historically been the poorest county in the U.S. Throughout U.S. history and today, Indian communities have been the most impoverished communities when compared to any other ethnic or racial group. Among other scholars, Wolf has found that one of the main culprits for these inequities is the impact on land sovereignty that the Allotment Act and other efforts of displacement have had in Indian Country. Wolf refers to these colonial efforts at Indian eradication as ‘land scars’, which for him also include the economic, cultural, educational, and social impacts on the land and the Indians who live relationally with it.

As an ecologist, Wolf has been working across disciplines with economists and land tenure experts, such as Dr. Bryan Leonard in the School of Sustainability, to look at specific tribal communities (e.g., Standing Rock) and their history of land tenure, who owns or holds title and management authority to the land. They aim to understand what impacts land fragmentation has had on economic development, biocultural restoration efforts (e.g., buffalo reintroduction), ecosystem health in general, and food security in Tribal communities. Wolf always works with and within tribal communities and under their guidance, as well as with the LandBack movement.

“The goal with any research that I do is to take a recommendation or product back to the community to argue their case in court for land consolidation efforts or to help guide their management efforts,” Wolf states. By using data acquired from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the United States Department of Agriculture, tribal governments, and landscape-level ecological data (e.g., NEON), Wolf constructs maps to determine if land tenure fragmentation predicts present-day economic development and ecosystem function. Wolf also documents the various successful efforts that Tribes have taken to regain the title and/or management authority over their ancestral lands.

“Land tenure is a complicated issue in Indian Country, precisely because of these colonial land scars. Land theft and fragmentation prohibit capable and hard-working people who take care of the needs of their communities from managing the land in a way that meets their community’s basic needs.” Wolf and his team even look at the history of deeds to determine how land tenure has changed at the individual parcel level across time.

Wolf aims to aid in policy and management recommendations for tribal ecologists, land managers, and lawyers who may be able to utilize the results of his research to implement effective LandBack and biocultural restoration programs. Wolf suggests, “it is something tangible that could demonstrate how the history of this landscape has led to present-day inequities.”

…the land holds the scars

Land scarification is a term often used to describe the agricultural practice of mechanically tilling and breaking up soil. But Wolf describes land scarification as the acts exhibited on the land that holds the history of a place. “The land holds the memory of what was done to it and to the ones who stewarded it,” he says. Inevitably, the continued scarification via economic exploitation, environmental injustices, and native species eradication never allows the land to heal. “The land holds the scars of genocide against the Indians. By using this term and acknowledging the harm that has been caused to the land, we can start to heal. From an Indigenous perspective,
the land is alive, and you have harmed us by harming mother nature, and it is evident in the scars across the landscape much like the scars that we hold on our bodies.”- Wolf

…where to begin healing?

“The fact that I’m a part of a community of scholars in ESSA that have a shared vision for what academia could be, gives me hope. Being in a community of students going through the same process as me and then having mentors of different phases in the academic journey makes the journey of graduate school less mysterious and less scary. These types of spaces don’t exist across academia because the institution has traditionally prided itself on whom it excludes. Not so here at ASU.” Referring to some of the funding models and comments he has received on the use of survey and interview techniques in research, the entire academic community is ill-equipped to release the reins of Western science. “Funding entities have expressed that seeking input or knowledge from Tribal Elders wasn’t an actual science and couldn’t be funded. ESSA is open to the idea that relationship building takes time and that those relationships are the primary focus of the interviews, not just stripping people for their stories and treating them as data points.” Initiatives like ESSA contribute to the fundamental structural change where students can be required to explore other ways of knowing. The ESSA funding model requires students to work collaboratively and to provide remittances to community partners.

Do these barriers and silos in academia deter our ability to heal?

In short, no. Though Western science has contributed to the exploitation of Black and Brown bodies and narrowed the region of knowledge (othering people of color, women, excluding entire systems of knowledge) a new wave is beginning to take hold. As a scholar, Wolf is working to break down the walls within scientific journals, funding agencies, and institutions to consider how to authentically work with Indigenous communities. As a second-year Ph.D. student, he has already been invited to join the editorial board of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (Ecological Sciences of America journal) and has given numerous talks about decolonizing our approach to science. “Each individual step is getting closer to our goal of breaking down these barriers and embracing a new way of knowing and sharing knowledge” states Wolf.
Wolf seeks advisement from land tenure experts like Dr. Bryan Leonard in the School of Sustainability at ASU and Dr. Brian Robinson at McGill University in Canada. Wolf’s
collaboration with ESSA began through connections with ESSA faculty mentors like Dr. Melissa Nelson and Dr. Arianne Cease. Most of all, Wolf’s work is at all times guided by his tribal elders/leaders, members of impacted communities, and the priorities of Indian Country in general.