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'Soul sisters': Never too late to get degree

May 8, 2018

Members of Gila River Culture and Language Teacher Cohort support each other as they earn ASU master's degrees

In the 1950s, after the Indian Relocation Act was enacted, Priscilla Espinoza’s family moved from the Gila River Indian Community in the far southeast Valley to Southern California.

She met her husband, Phillip, there. They raised three sons. And they felt the sting of discrimination and racism that was commonplace to her people in those days. They became activists, joining the Brown Berets, a group modeled after the Black Panthers in the 1960s.

Espinoza was marching with them in Los Angeles during August 1970 when newspaper editor Ruben Salazar was killed. Salazar was struck by a tear-gas canister fired by a sheriff’s deputy.

“I was there, marching and dodging tear gas,” she said. “It really did make an impact, and a lot changed in Southern California. Because of that big march they started getting more minority teachers, and there was a big push for equal education.”

She put her own higher education, however, on the backburner. Through it all, she never forgot her place among the Akimel O’otham people in Arizona.

“I never lost my identity when I left,” Espinoza said. “I take it with me wherever I go.”

After Phillip, to whom she was married for 42 years, passed away seven years ago, the 69-year-old great-grandmother of two and grandmother of six felt a pull from home and a push from her late husband, who had told her to “keep going, keep living.”

“He was my greatest supporter,” she said.

Now she is among five women from the Gila River Indian Community who call themselves the “soul sisters.” Now, they are graduating grandmas and mothers — and remarkable role models for the people of their community and beyond.

Edwardine Thomas

“We incorporate the O’otham language in our visits because a lot of the parents do not know our language. So they learn along with their kids.” — Edwardine Thomas

Ranging in age from 36 to 69, Espinoza, Edwardine Thomas, Nina Allison, Marcella Hall and Starleen Somegustava have completed work on master's degrees in interdisciplinary studies as members of the Gila River Culture and Language Teacher Cohort, a partnership between Arizona State University’s Center for Indian Education and New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, and the Gila River Indian Community Tribal Education Department. The first-of-its-kind program trains future teachers on their home reservation with a focus on tribal history and keeping alive the Akimel O’otham language.

The group has formed a tight bond.  

“We have all been through a lot of stuff together,” said Thomas, a 56-year-old grandmother of four. “These are my sisters. We’ve gone through a lot of stuff. We’re still going through a lot of stuff. Every week we come to class and we lean on each other.” 

All have experienced similar challenges while pursuing their education — from getting back into good study and attendance habits, to feeling a sense of responsibility for their immediate and extended families that is such an important piece of their culture, to balancing work and school, to solving the mysteries that are laptop computers and PowerPoint presentations.

Perhaps the greatest challenge was simply believing that, despite their age and responsibilities, they could achieve an advanced degree from ASU.

“I’ve been going to school off and on since 2014, starting at South Mountain (Community College), and I would say this year has been the most stressful year ever,” said Hall, 36, a cultural instructor for fifth- through eighth-grade students at Sacaton Middle School, about an hour south of Phoenix. She has a daughter and is caring for a niece and nephew.

“I’m handling it, and it’s hard,” she added. “Coming here and letting the ladies know and having their support, it gets easier.”

Espinoza and Thomas are the elders of the group. Each happened upon the cohort by happenstance.

“I always tell people I’m a lifelong learner,” Thomas said. “I’ve been going to school since after high school. I went to college for one year but had to drop out, just for family things. I had to take care of my siblings. So I had to work.”

She has worked for 26 years at the Blackwater Community School in Coolidge. When she attended an in-service teacher training program at the Wild Horse Pass Hotel and Casino, it led her back to school.

“There were people there from South Mountain (Community College), and they asked if any people were interested in obtaining their degrees,” she said. “So that’s where it started.”

Priscilla Espinoza

“I’m so proud of who I am and proud of what I represent to the people here. They trust me because they know I’m a member of the community, too. So my heart is full.” — Priscilla Espinoza

Now, she is the only member of her family to earn a college degree. Her work at Blackwater focuses on making home visits to people in the community and working with parents and children to reach child-development milestones in gross and fine motor skills and language.

“We incorporate the O’otham language in our visits because a lot of the parents do not know our language,” she said. “So they learn along with their kids.”

She said her ultimate goal is to establish a full-immersion school in the Gila River Indian Community that all of the soul sisters might someday work at.

To that end, the women will join forces this summer to bring together members of the community’s seven districts for a camp that would immerse participants in the O’otham language and culture. 

“We’re going to try to do it for three weeks and see how that goes,” Thomas said. “The rest of my cohort members are going to be in on that, too.

“It’s going to be limited to about 10 families per district, and hopefully this will be like a steppingstone for other people to come and join our group, because we’re open to anyone helping us — other community members that are fluent in language or dances or basket making.”

When Espinoza returned to the area to be near one of her sons living in Maricopa, she paid a visit to the Gila River Indian Community Governance Center to complete some paperwork. She and her husband had hoped to retire in the community.

“I had retired from a school district in California, where I was a special education (instructional assistant),” she said. “I was at the governance center to talk to a lady about my paperwork. I wasn’t looking for a job. This young lady was putting up flyers that said ‘special needs (teacher) urgently needed.’

“I said, ‘I used to do that for years.’ Long story short, they interviewed me that day, got my paperwork and hired me on the spot.”

She was asked to work with a young boy with cerebral palsy, who couldn’t walk or talk.

“He could only say ‘mama’ and ‘no,’ ” she said. “I put all my energy into this little boy. ... 

“I would see him every morning and say, ‘Good morning, what is your name? My name is Priscilla.’ I said that over and over for six months. One morning I said, ‘Hi, buddy,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Hi, ’scilla!’ Oh my gosh, I knew then that this is it.”

Gregory Mendoza, who was Gila River Indian Community governor at the time, told her he had gotten a report about her work with the young boy, who now uses a walker.

“He said, ‘I want you to get into this program we have going on, this cohort. We want you to get your degree. We need people like you to help our people here.’ So that was it,” Espinoza said.

“I’m so proud of who I am and proud of what I represent to the people here. They trust me because they know I’m a member of the community, too. So my heart is full.”

The women in the cohort — many of whom are able to participate because of private giving — agree that they are motivated most by what they represent for their families and community members. Espinoza said the cohort members hope their successes will “snowball.”

“When family members see each one of us, the five of us, I think it will trickle down,” she said. “It will snowball, pick up momentum. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

Members of the Gila River Culture and Language Teacher Cohort

“I told myself I had to get back on track. You do it for your kids. You do it for your family. You’re that role model. You’re that example.” — Nina Allison (left, pictured with fellow cohort member Marcella Hall)

“I tell my students, ‘Don’t be a statistic,’” Hall added. “We have a lot of high school dropouts, and not many of our people are going to college. I say, ‘Make your people proud. Make your family proud of you. We need our people in our communities sitting in the seats we are in as teachers, as educators, as tribal council members. You are all going to be filling our seats.’”

Allison, a mother of four and grandmother of three, briefly stopped her studies in the program when a nephew was killed in a car accident. He had just graduated from high school. 

The desire to set an example for others kept her from giving up.

“I didn’t do homework. I didn’t do readings. That was a struggle for me,” she said. “... I told myself I had to get back on track. You do it for your kids. You do it for your family. You’re that role model. You’re that example.

“You have ups and downs and have struggles, but you go on.” 

Thomas tells young people to get their education while they’re young instead of waiting like the members of the cohort.

“If I could turn back time, I wish I would have stayed in school and finished (college) after high school,” she said. 

“(I tell them) ‘You can do it. Just set your priorities straight and know your family will always be behind you.’” 

The Akimel O’otham language

In 2009, the Gila River Indian Community adopted an orthography — a system of written words — for their Akimel O’otham language. Keeping that language alive is part of the mission of the Gila River Culture and Language Teacher Cohort. 

A sampling of words from the language:

  • Soith (pronounced: so yeth) — love
  • Sha pai masma (pronounced: sha pie masama) — How are you?
  • Sape (pronounced: saw pa) — fine
  • Tho epom ñei (pronounced: do umpam nyeh) — will see you again
  • Je’e (pronounced: j’uh) — mother
  • O:g (pronounced: awg) — father
  • Ga ga’a (pronounced: ga ga ah) — paternal grandmother
  • Lu lu’u (pronounced: luu luu ooh) — maternal grandmother
  • Vosk (pronounced: vawsk) — paternal grandfather
  • Ba ba’a (pronounced: ba ba’a) — maternal grandfather

Written by Bob Young; this story originally appeared in the summer issue of ASU Thrive magazine. Top photo: (From left) Priscilla Espinoza, Marcella Hall, Edwardine Thomas, Nina Allison and (not pictured) Starleen Somegustava have formed a close relationship through the Gila River program. Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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New magazine, ASU initiatives help Native students reach a ‘Turning Point’

October 31, 2017

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2017, click here.

At a university that prides itself on inclusiveness and diversity, Arizona State University got a surprising wakeup call when it recently met with more than 1,100 Native American students about their college experience.

Many of them said they felt lonely, invisible, disconnected from other indigenous students, and didn’t know how to navigate ASU’s sprawling campus, or how to access resources available to them.

“In many ways, I think ASU is doing lots of things right regarding our work with Native students,” said Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, President’s Professor, director of the Center for Indian Education and ASU’s special adviser to the president on American Indian Affairs. “In our conversations, it became evident that we — collectively — need to do a better job of creating a welcoming environment for Native students. We can — and will — do better in the future.”

The initial effort, a first-of-its-kind magazine geared specifically for Native American students written by an all indigenous staff, will find its way into the hands of ASU’s native student population in two weeks, perfectly timed for Native American Heritage Month, which starts Nov. 1.   

It’s just one of several efforts ASU will launch in the upcoming year, efforts aimed at easing the burdens of Native American students, building connections and community, breaking down stereotypes and providing a new path forward.

“We move at a fast pace, and sometimes we miss things that help students feel like they belong at ASU,” Brayboy said. "That is what this magazine, and our other efforts are trying to convey.”

A cultural difference

It’s not uncommon for freshmen to feel lost and lonely when they come to college, but for indigenous students, they face specific challenges most others do not.

It can be tough living away from their home communities for the first time. They’re underrepresented and surrounded by people who aren’t familiar with their traditions, culture or history.

The same holds true for “urban Indians,” an increasing population of Native people who live in cities, who often report feeling unseen or stereotyped. 

That's why ASU has made it a priority to improve their college career through a suite of new initiatives that addresses how higher education works, how to engage other Native people on campus, how to navigate academic support services, how to get the most out of ASU, and how to build toward a meaningful future to serve their tribal communities.

Magazine cover

'Turning Points' magazine

ASU junior Brian Skeet said it was a rough transition going from a high school graduating class of 20 people to a university that counts more than 70,000 students on its campuses.

“I was definitely overwhelmed and felt a real disconnection when I came here,” said Skeet, a Navajo who hails from Tuba City, Arizona. “I thought ASU was a cold place and was not conscious of Native students.”

That all changed about a year ago when Skeet joined the staff of "Turning Points," a new magazine and guide to Native student success.

Skeet said once he started compiling information for the first publication, he was surprised by how many resources are available to Native students. He said after a while he reversed his decision about ASU.

“It was such an eye-opener for me that ASU had all of these wonderful programs in place,” Skeet said.

Brayboy said "Turning Points" not only contains useful information, but it is intended to assist Native scholars in recognizing the many things ASU does for its student body in supporting their success.

“Sometimes those resources are invisible; we want to make them visible,” Brayboy said.

The magazine will be published twice a year with a circulation of 3,500 copies, which will be mailed to prospective college students and distributed to approximately 2,800 Native students on four of ASU's campuses.  

It’s just one of many ways for Native students to connect and build community, said editor Amanda Tachine.

“Connection is a worldview in how Natives are brought up, and leaving the reservation in a way is loss of self,” said Tachine, a Navajo post-doctoral scholar who works in the Center for Indian Education, where the magazine is headquartered.

“I hope that a student can pick up this magazine and it could spark their hope and know that they belong here, and continue their journey through college.”

ASU 101

Efforts to raise college enrollment among underrepresented groups are central to ASU’s goal of increasing the number of college graduates in Arizona.

ASU has also sought to increase the number of American Indians on campus through specialized programs, including the SPIRIT orientation program, which helps Native students adjust to college life over a two-week period; INSPIRE, a one-week youth camp at ASU’s Polytechnic campus; and RECHARGE, which started in 2012 with 90 students.

Through these efforts, ASU is raising awareness of its indigenous roots to all students, not just Native Americans.

Starting this semester, the School of Social Transformation instituted a lesson titled “Leveraging Our Place: Native Nations and ASU” in its SST 194 courses, also known as ASU 101.

“The lesson asks freshmen to share their feelings or experiences of connection to place, belonging and identity,” said K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a professor with ASU’s School of Social Transformation who is working with Tachine on the pilot lesson plan.  

The lesson will include a video produced by ASU Now featuring President Michael M. Crow, Brayboy and several Native American students discussing the fact that Arizona State University, Arizona and the United States are built on the ancestral homelands of Native peoples. 

ASU 101 courses are required for all freshmen, and instructors have the opportunity to select lessons from an array of topics. “Leveraging Our Place” will introduce ASU students to a sense of place and encourage them to consider the question: What does it mean to live on Indian land?

students posing for photo

(From left) "Turning Points" magazine's graphic designer Ravenna Curley, lead graphic designer Brian Skeet, social media specialist Sequoia Dance and intern Taylor Notah pose for a photo at Payne Hall on Sept. 1. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

'Greater Than 1' podcast

Research shows that Native American students make up less than 1 percent of all college students in the U.S., and only about 13 percent of all Natives have a college degree.

That gnawing statistic was the inspiration for "Greater Than 1," a podcast that will be launched this spring to provide connections, visibility, broad-based support and awareness facing Native college students today.

Creating awareness is Jameson Lopez’s mission, who along with Tachine and journalism major Taylor Notah, will co-produce the show.

“Native students are doing remarkable work for their communities, and their stories are not being told," said Lopez, an education and policy major in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and Quechan tribe member from Fort Yuma, California.

He said the purpose of the podcast is to have interviews with successful American Indian college students and graduates to offer words of support to those who are in college and those contemplating higher education.  

The podcast can be up to an hour long and will be widely distributed through iTunes, SoundCloud, RSS feeds and other digital platforms, Lopez said.

Tachine said through Turning Points, ASU 101, and Greater than 1, the university is acknowledging that Native college students matter and underscore that ASU is on the ancestral homeland of Native peoples.

"Fundamentally, these are central to cultivating a place where students can thrive," Tachine said. "We are grateful that ASU is valuing this important work."

Brayboy said other Native initiatives are currently being developed by ASU and will be unveiled by the end of the year.

“Our message to all our students, including American Indian students, is ‘You belong!’" he said.


Native American Heritage Month events

Here's a few of the events happening this month. Find more at the Student and Cultural Engagement site and ASU Events.

  • Native American Heritage Month Kick-off: Music, food and more. 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 1, MU North Stage.
  • Love Beads: String a necklace of small beads as a symbol of peac and goodwill. Hosted by American Indian Student Support Services. 2-4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2 at Discovery Hall 313, Tempe campus. 
  • "Indigenous Binaries: Cultural Survival in Contrast": Writer and visual artist Eric Gansworth will talk about how he uses visual art and storytelling to undercut indigenous stereotypes. 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, at the Heard Museum, 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix.
  • Native American Heritage Festival/17th annual Veterans Day Weekend Traditional Pow Wow: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, at multiple locations on ASU's West campus.
  • "Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock": Film screenings and Q&A with Standing Rock activist and filmmaker. 6-8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 13, and Tuesday, Nov. 14, at Sun Devil Market Place, 660 S. College Ave., Tempe.
  • Design Through Native Culture: Designing buildings with a traditional background. 5-6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17, at Discovery Hall, Tempe campus.
  • Cal Seciwa Feast and Fest: 6-8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 20, at Itom Hiapsi Tribal Complex, 9405 S. Avenida del Yaqui, Guadalupe.

Top photo: Graphic designer and industrial design junior Brian Skeet (left) and industrial design senior Ravenna Curley listen as Sequoia Dance updates them on the progress of the magazine during the "Turning Points" editorial meeting at Payne Hall on Friday morning on Sept. 1. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now