2020 Indigenous Communities Fellowship


Protect Medicinal Plants

To protect, to preserve, and to honor Indigenous environments and people.

Team Lead

Richelle Thomas

Solution Pitch

The Problem

The Navajo Nation and many Indigenous communities have been negatively impacted by environmental contamination from colonial practices such as legacy mining. There is minimal to no research on heavy metal uptake in medicinal plants utilized by the Diné. This research is essential to help protect Diné culture and peoples.

The Solution

Protect Medicinal Plants is a project that was developed to address the potential heavy metal contamination that can result from legacy mining on the Navajo Nation. The project utilizes advanced analytical chemistry (ICP-MS, X-ray fluorescence) and biological techniques (plant root border cell detoxification activity) to quantify and visualize uranium and arsenic in samples. The data will be utilized to develop risk assessments for traditional practitioners to ensure public safety and community benefit. The ultimate goal is to develop safety guidelines for the use of medicinal plants with regard to heavy metals. Once this model is established it has the potential to be utilized by Indigenous communities domestically and internationally.


The Navajo Nation has over 330,000 members, 170,000 residents, over 500 abandoned uranium mines, and a 44,000 acre coal bed, in which the uranium mines and coal bed have been left unremediated. 

Market Opportunity

There are over 330,000 enrolled members of the Navajo Nation and other Indigenous communities also utilize the medicinal plants analyzed in this research. Currently, there is limited to no data available to the Diné people on heavy metals in medicinal plants and limited environmental research is being conducted on this topic. These medicinal plants are also available to the wider public, significantly expanding the at-risk population. 

Organization Goals

  • Cultural Resilience, Restoration, and Revitalization

  • Traditional Food/Medicinal Plant Preservation and Protection

  • Safety Usage Guidelines for Diné people but that can also be extended to other indigenous communities.

Partnership Goals

Protech Medicinal Plants currently seeks:

  • To formalize further partnerships with traditional healers and knowledge keepers to help inform risk assessment and public health strategies.

  • Partners who can help support in designing metrics to best measure impact and the number of lives PMP is able to affect through research and public health practices.

Solver Team

Organization Type:
Not Registered

Tucson, Arizona, United States


Working in:
Tucson, Arizona


Solution Team:

  • Richelle Thomas PhD Student, The University of Arizona Department of Environmental Science

Indigenous Communities Fellowship

Protect Medicinal Plants

Their partnership with the Wild Elements Foundation has helped Indigenous Communities Fellow, Richelle Thomas, to grow her work from a research project into a community driven public health campaign.

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