Shiprock resident named a Dreamstarter

Project will examine if heavy metals are in soil along San Juan, Animas rivers

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Sunny Nez will use the grant she received from the Dreamstarter program to study heavy metals left in the San Juan and Animas river from the Gold King Mine spill.

SHIPROCK — Shiprock resident Sunny Nez will use a grant she is receiving from a national organization to study contaminants released into the San Juan and Animas rivers from the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill.

Nez, 18, was named a recipient for the Dreamstarter program on March 1. She will receive a $10,000 grant to implement her research this year.

Dreamstarter is a program under Running Strong for American Indian Youth. Grants are distributed to 10 native youth who work with community nonprofits to implement their proposals.

Nez's project will examine the levels of heavy metals and metalloids in soil along the San Juan and Animas rivers by growing onions in soil collected from sites along the two rivers, as well as sites at the confluence and in Utah.

She explained that onion root is good for toxicity monitoring in soil as well as monitoring the quality of plant life.

The study will include water quality analysis.

Related story: Study continues monitoring Gold King Mine spill aftermath

Nez said the analysis builds on science projects she completed while a student at Navajo Preparatory School.

"Science as an overall subject is important. No matter how you look at it, you're going to approach science throughout life," Nez said.

To share her love of science and to teach community members, she will recruit middle and high school students to help collect data.

Related story: Navajo Prep group earns $10K for Gold King Mine spill study

Nez, a full-time student at the University of New Mexico, is taking this step to help others because she understands the number of classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics is limited in public schools.

She also wants students to know they are not alone in enjoying science.

"Just because somebody says you can't do it, it doesn't mean you can't. I think giving them that exposure gets them to think: This is something I can do when I graduate high school," Nez said.

Tina Gray is a project manager for Capacity Builders Inc. and will mentor Nez as she competes her project.

Capacity Builders has a technical assistance program for farmers and ranchers called Earth Mother Agricultural Initiative. Nez's project fits in with the initiative, Gray said.

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The grant will help Nez in further developing her work, which she will present to chapters impacted by the spill, Gray said.

Billy Mills, an Oglala Lakota tribal member who won a gold medal for the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 summer Olympics, co-founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth in 1986.

"Each year, our Dreamstarters inspire me with their incredible talent and limitless passion. This class represents the next generation of Native scientists, environmentalists and water protectors. I believe in them, in their dreams and in the future they are building for all of us," Mills said in a press release.

This is the fourth year for the Dreamstarter program. Nez is one of three Navajos selected for the grant.

Also selected were Michael Charles from Monument Valley, Arizona, and Rose Quintana from Spanish Fork, Utah, according to the organization's press release.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at