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Unique ASU student group works to preserve Native language, culture.
Studies show Native students do better academically with sense of identity.
April 21, 2017

Gila River cohort trains Native American teachers on their home reservation

Native American communities across the U.S. face pressures most of mainstream society never considers, but a unique group of ASU students is helping solve two of the most pressing issues on their reservation: the preservation of identity and language.

Studies have shown that Native students who have a strong sense of their culture and language from an early age do better in school. Still, indigenous languages in North America are disappearing as tribes grapple with how to integrate while maintaining a sense of identity.

To that end, the Gila River Culture and Language Teacher Cohort has emerged from a partnership between the Arizona State University Center for Indian Education and the Gila River Indian Community Tribal Education Department, a first-of-its-kind program that trains future teachers on their home reservation with a focus on tribal history and keeping alive the Akimel O’otham language.

After the group’s eight members graduate from ASU next month, they will be uniquely poised to help young members of the Gila River Indian Community maintain “a sense of being and who they are,” said Deborah Chadwick, project director of the Center for Indian Education and head of the cohortThe Gila River Culture & Language Teacher Cohort is also supported through the collaborative work of New College, the Gila River Tribal Education Office, Gila River Culture Coordinator Anthony Gray and Gila River Indian Student Support..

Here’s a look at the group, what they’ve done and what they hope comes next. 

Coursework and capstones

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Starleen Somegustava reviews her group's capstone project, which focuses on traditional language proficiency, with instructor Deborah Chadwick during the cohort's Tuesday evening class.


The three-year program for Gila River Indian Community teachers offers standard courses, including science, philosophy, sustainability, gender roles and border politics. It also features curriculum that covers career development, eco-community ethics, tribal history and culture, history of American Indian Education, basic and conversational communication, reading, writing and speaking.

The capstone is separated into two projects:

O'otham Culture and Language Materials — Students have collected and curated materials for use in Pima culture classes. They have also created a database for the resources, which any teacher on the reservation about a half-hour south of Phoenix can access.

Compilation/Evaluation of Parent Language Surveys — Students are analyzing data on parents' language knowledge. They'll create a plan for future Akimel O'otham language classes for the community.

After graduation, five members of the cohort will continue on another year to earn their master’s degrees at ASU's New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

The players

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Gila River cohort members work on their capstone project with project director Deborah Chadwick at Casa Blanca Community School.


Nina Allison (BA/MA) — Teacher for Gila River Indian Community's Early Education. "I'm the first in my family to go to a university, and I'm happy with what I've accomplished. I want to teach students what I know, extend their language and establish a classroom where my students are totally immersive."

Hudunigsihbani Antone (BA) — Teaching assistant at St. Peter Indian Mission School, Bapchule, Arizona. "I thought once I was a mom, that was it. This degree is really for my kids. It's also a big stepping-stone for other single moms. It means I have more opportunities, and I will help create more opportunities for others."

Priscilla Espinoza (BA/MA) — Parent educator for Family and Child Education in the Bureau of Indian Education, Casa Blanca Community School. "I heard about the program and thought, 'It's my turn.' I spent many years raising my family and felt it was time to do something for myself. The degree will allow me to continue to help my community and my people. I have the gift of gab, and I'll use it to motivate others."

Marcella Hoover (BA/MA) — Culture teacher at Sacaton Middle School, Sacaton, Arizona. "When the program was initially offered, my first thought was, 'I can't believe I'm actually going to a university!' Once I get the degree, my plans won't really change much. I will continue to be there for my students and the children of our community."

Arlanna Jackson (BA) — Administrative assistant for Gila River Indian Community Tribal Education Department. "Teaching is something I've always wanted to do, and I have the passion for it. I want to help revitalize through songs. Our language is important because it identifies who we are as a people."

Donovan Kyyitan (BA) — Teaching assistant at St. Peter Indian Mission School, Bapchule, Arizona. "My initial reaction to this offering was, 'Finally! Do it now and jump on board.' I want to see our language prosper in the classroom where it's fully in our native tongue with no English."

Starleen Somegustava (BA/MA) — Culture specialist with the Gila River Indian Community's Head Start Program. "Once I get my master's, I would like to teach culture and language in high schools because it's not currently being taught at that level."

Edwardine Thomas (BA/MA) — Parent educator for Family and Child Education in the Bureau of Indian Education. "I'm going to continue to work with both students and parents because a lot of them are not fluent. My ultimate wish is to open a day care with full immersion."



Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, President’s Professor, director of the Center of Indian Education and ASU’s special adviser to the president on American Indian affairs, said that “one of the most pressing issues for tribal nations and communities today is the protection, reclamation and strengthening of their tribal languages and concomitant cultures.”

He added that ASU President Michael Crow wants the university to “support tribal nations in achieving futures of their own making.”

With this in mind, the cohort that came together three years ago is working their plan to help preserve the culture and language in their Native community of about 20,000.

Anthony Gray, cultural coordinator for the Gila River Indian Community, said he has seen an uptick from Native youth who want to know more about their history and language.

"They recognize that culture and language grounds them and gives them roots," Gray said. "As long as those roots are strong, we'll stay resilient and always be here."

He called the Akimel O’otham language "a gift."


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Mentor Samuel Catanach (right) discusses the group's capstone project with students (from left) Priscilla Espinoza, Hudunigsihbani Antone and Arlanna Jackson during their Tuesday evening course at Casa Blanca Community School.


Samuel Catanach, a graduate student with ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and one of two academic mentors serving the cohort, said interacting with the group has also been a gift.

"There's a broad age range of the cohort members, and it's really been cool to see how everybody is working together and seeing the older ones do particularly well," Catanach said. "I learn just as much from them as they do from me."

The mentors are ASU graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. They meet weekly with the eight students. They tutor them in writing and organizational skills, and they work with course instructors in providing additional student support on major assignments.


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Edwardine Thomas (left) couldn't be happier to show off her graduation robe Tuesday evening at Casa Blanca Community School.


Two celebrations are better than one, and the Gila River Culture and Language Teacher Cohort will be recognized twice.

The first graduation ceremony will be take place on May 4 on the Gila River Indian Reservation. In addition to Brayboy, dignitaries will include Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, Lt. Gov. Monica Antone and Marlene Tromp, dean of the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

Students will receive their diplomas at ASU's American Indian Convocation on May 10 at ASU Gammage on the Tempe campus.


Top photo: Cohort leader Deborah Chadwick and Donovan Kyyitan are getting ready for graduation next month. Kyyitan says he wants to lead classes in his native language with no English. Photos and video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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ASU's Public Service Academy has worked to train civilian leaders since 2015.
ASU political expert Richard Herrera says Obama keeps with tradition.
April 24, 2017

Former President Barack Obama speaks publicly for first time since leaving office

In his first public comments since leaving the White House, former President Barack Obama on Monday called for an increase in civilian leadership while avoiding any criticism of his successor, Donald Trump.

The message of engagement aligns well with ASU’s efforts from the Center for Political Thought and Leadership, the Center for Race and Democracy, the Civic Economic Thought and Leadership, the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, and the Public Service Academy.

Obama's avoidance of political critique falls in line with tradition of outgoing presidents staying mum on new administrations.

For this combined Q&A, ASU Now reached out to a pair of university experts to help contextualize it all: Brett Hunt, founding executive director of ASU's Public Service Academy, discusses engagement and leadership; and Richard Herrera, associate director and professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies, expands on the role of ex-presidents in public life.

Question: What did you think when Obama called for the next generation of leaders in his comments Monday in Chicago?

Brett Hunt: President Obama correctly identified a civilian leadership crisis in this country, and that should be no shock because we don’t train leaders to take on big challenges.

The military and several corporations do a great job of this, but on a national scale we don’t do anything to train the next generation of public and civic service leaders.

We shouldn’t be shocked when we have a crisis in Washington, D.C., in regards to the budget or those in Congress, because we haven’t trained the leaders that are capable of taking on those challenges. That’s why we disproportionately lean on the military for leadership, because they do train leaders.

So I applaud former President Obama’s recognition of the issue, and look forward to training the next generation of leaders.

Q: At ASU’s Public Service AcademyTraining the next generation of new leaders has been the primary charge of the Public Service Academy since its inception in 2015. The program was launched in part on the idea that "we've grown apart as a nation" and need to find ways to "get us back together," Hunt said. The Public Service Academy is a unit inside the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. , that is precisely your mission — to train the next generation of leaders. How did ASU get on this path?

Hunt: ASU President Michael Crow, in conversation with news legend Tom Brokaw, helped to identify the issue during an interview asking what can military leaders do for the country beyond their service.

ASU took that kernel of an idea and correctly identified that the nation needed leaders engaged in serving the nation in many different cross-sector capacities — private, public, nonprofit and military.

Two years ago, we debuted the Public Service Academy, which started with zero students and now has over 250 students.

Q: How are things going so far?

Hunt: The first thing I want to point out is the idea that millennials only think of themselves and are inward-looking is not correct in our experience. What we see are young, innovative people who don’t see barriers make outstanding leaders.

We have taken a model that essentially didn’t exist before this and built a four-year leadership development program that brings together academic components with leadership where students are put in charge of small teams working on real issues in a community. We’ve seen enormous and positive growth in many of our students.

We’ve also seen where it’s really hard, because this doesn’t exist anywhere else and we try and provide context for our students as they go out and engage in their leadership journey. We’ve had some successes, and we’ve had some setbacks; but we contemplate on all of these and use them as examples in the program.

This summer we have students taking off all over the world in internships and programs where they will develop their skills as a leader.

Q: Given how divided we are as a nation, how do you develop those skills in a nonpartisan way?

Hunt: We really focus, as the military does, on serving the nation and the obligation to serve the nation beyond trying to assign some political tilt to that.

We have students from all over the political realm, but their obligation is to build leadership capacity to deal with challenging issues that cross sector and are complex and inter-connected by a single solution.

What we see in these complex challenges is that they are not going to be solved by a political party or organization or a government but by leaders. Leaders who intuitively and instinctively who bring a nonpartisan solution to these complex issues. That’s what we train our students to do.

Q: What defines a strong leader?

Hunt: A strong leader has to be respectful but bold and character-driven. Being able to take everyone’s opinions into account but understand that it’s their decision to make, and they have to live with the consequences — good or bad — of their decision. They must have core values and live with those every day. 


Herrera, meanwhile, explains what we should expect from Obama based on tradition.

Question: Some expected Obama to speak out on President Trump's harsh criticism of his eight years in office or to bash the Republican agenda, but he didn't. Why do you think he went that route?

Richard Herrera: The best way to address that question is to say that perhaps there is an expectation from a lot of Democrats, but I’m not sure there’s an expectation or a wish on the part of Republicans to have the former president do anything other than stay in vacation mode. The expectations are being built more from Democrats than anyone else.

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ASU Professor Richard Herrera

To answer your question, I believe Mr. Obama will follow in the footsteps of other presidents: When they do choose to talk about political issues — and they don’t always — but when they do, they tend not to invoke the current name of the president. They tend not to attack certain policies tied to the current president. They tend to talk about their own policies. They tend to talk about things they’d like to see but not get into the sort of back and forth with a sitting president.

Q: Why is it important for former presidents not to comment on a current administration’s term?

Herrera: It’s an unspoken protocol sort of like when a president-elect is not supposed to start engaging in policy work before they’re actually sworn into office. You actually saw some of that criticism when the Reagan and Trump administrations began. There was some criticism that they were intruding upon the governing process of a sitting president. So that’s what it looks like — somebody with a lot of political leverage is intruding upon a democratically elected president’s administration and is largely seen as out of bounds.

Q: Why do you feel there's an expectation from Democrats for Obama to speak up?

Herrera: There is no leader in the Democratic Party with the same stature as former President Obama, but they also don’t have either majorities in the House of Representatives and Congress.

They have a minority leader in both, but they don’t have a majority leader, a speaker of the House. So there is a void there. In that sense, they are sort of rudderless.

That could be part of why Democrats are wanting Obama to emerge as their voice because they don’t have one right now. None of the political leaders in the Democratic Party have the megaphone that the former president has, so that is what they’re seeking.

Where do they find their megaphone because they’re being drowned out?

Q: Do you envision Obama working behind the scenes to help prop the Democratic party back up again?

Herrera: Yes, I believe so.

My guess is that he’s going to lend his name, legacy and reputation to those efforts being made — for example — to those who are trying to make a difference in social and political issues such as congressional redistricting.

He'll lend his name and weight to those sorts of issues that he sees as helping not just Democrats but Americans who are hoping to be more directly heard in elections.

He’s committed to issues of inequality, so where there’s groups who are looking to advance those causes, he’s going to lend his weight. I don’t necessarily see him taking a leadership role in a founding organization that necessarily does that. I don’t see him forming something like the Clinton Foundation, but lending his weight and voice to other efforts that are already ongoing.

Q: What should the role of an ex-president be?

Herrera: There are no rules because there are not a whole lot of former presidents, and it’s a small club. Most former presidents take a lower profile. They tend not to engage with current presidents.


Top photo: Brett Hunt, director of the ASU Public Service Academy, discusses outreach with Jessica Eldridge, manager of public service opportunities for the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. Photo by Paul Atkinson/ASU