Dean’s Medalist uses music, education to advocate for Native Americans in Arizona
Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.
Libraries and hip-hop might not seem the most obvious pair. But for Arizona State University alumnus Alexander Soto, both are platforms to illustrate the struggles facing Native Americans in Arizona and to forge a path forward.
As a member of southern Arizona’s Tohono O’odhamToday’s Tohono O’odham Nation, which translates to desert people, sits just west of Tucson, but the tribe’s ancestral homeland spans southern Arizona and much of the northern Mexican state of Sonora, where a few thousand tribal members still remain. Nation, the issues he’s studied within the program are intimately familiar.
Growing up in Phoenix and making frequent trips farther south, Soto saw firsthand how border security crackdowns impacted his tribal land and the people living on it. Listening to rising hip-hop stars inspired him to put his thoughts to paper.
“Groups like Public Enemy, N.W.A. and The Roots spoke to issues within the African American community,” he said. “I was a Tohono O’odham experiencing similar injustices in Phoenix, but also had this other experience with the border — I wanted to speak to all of that as a hip-hop artist.”
That was the impetus behind Shining Soul, a hip-hop trio founded by Soto and two friends that sought to shed light on indigenous and Chicano perspectives in Arizona.
The group became a powerful vehicle for social justice advocacy during Soto’s early years at ASU in 2010.
“Native American people sometimes feel as though we are an invisible population within American society,” said Michelle Hale, an assistant professor in the American Indian Studies program and a Laguna, Chippewa and Odawa citizen of the Navajo Nation. “Alex Soto’s message and music reminded people everywhere that we are here, and thriving.”
Over the next several years, Soto kept producing music, gained an associate degree from Phoenix College, and found a new passion in what started as a job at the Phoenix public library to pay the bills.
“I started working there to support myself and my music, but then it also turned out to be one of the first places Shining Soul held rhyme-writing workshops for youth,” he said. “For us, it was a place where hip-hop could be presented in an institutional format, while also helping young people understand what they are capable of.”
Soto continued to work in public libraries across the Phoenix area and then transitioned to facilities with ASU Library.
In the fall of 2017, he returned to ASU to complete his bachelor’s degree. Courses in the American Indian Studies program helped tether the border realities Shining Soul had conveyed to the historical policies that shaped them. An internship working with tribal and elementary school libraries in the Phoenix area’s Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community allowed him to further understand the facilities as tools for tribal sovereignty and empowerment.
The experience also helped solidify Soto’s plans after graduation.
“Libraries in Native communities can be used firstly as a library like anywhere else, but also as a cultural center offering everything from story time in our native language, to job-finding services and even hip-hop workshops,” he said. “I realized all the passions I've had in my life can be funneled into library work.”
Soto will enter a master’s degree program later this year in library sciences through the University of Arizona’s Knowledge River program, an initiative focused on training librarians concentrated on Latina/o and Native American cultural issues.
He answered a few questions about his journey at ASU and the impact of The College’s American Indian Studies program, below.
Question: What's something you learned while at ASU in the classroom or otherwise that surprised you or changed your perspective?
Answer: Coming back to school after time away actually gave me some privilege in the academic space. I had the chance to experience a lot of what we're reading about firsthand, and I was able to articulate that during discussions. It made me realize it's a process to get to a point where you want to take action.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: As a first-generation college student, it was always going to be ASU in a lot of ways just because it was the local school. I had always planned to do the community college to ASU pipeline.
l also realized there's a long history of Native scholars in the American Indian Studies program. I think it provides a way to see how historic laws still impact tribal nations to this day. Having this degree allows you to become an expert in the field and be able to challenge these laws when needed.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while you were at ASU?
A: Wow, really they all did in their own way! But I guess it goes back to James Riding In. I took two of his classes while at ASU the first time, and our paths always crossed through activism outside of school. I think he did an amazing job of showing the importance of knowing the law, but also knowing that we have to think outside the box to find ways to agitate the system. He taught us to empower ourselves first on our own and let the laws catch up with us.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you'd give to those still in school?
A: One reason I left in 2010 was because I lost the funding of my tribal scholarship and didn't want to take out loans. So I would tell those who do have the financial support of scholarships, definitely take advantage of it and don’t take it for granted. And if you're not ready for school, it might be best to step away until you’re focused and ready.
For minority communities, especially Native communities, I’d just say to put yourself out there. This campus is yours. You can go to the library, you can inhabit places that are not traditionally looked upon as a Native space. Forming relationships with non-Native friends also made me a more diverse person. Working in town and in libraries, I've always had a mix of people around me, and I think that really helps your development, both professionally and as a student.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you do with it?
A: As an O’odham who has roots in Mexico, I would use that money to buy our land back from the Mexican government. Tohono O’odham on the U.S. side have a reservation system, those on the Mexican side do not. There is now an entire group of people there who look like me, speak the same language and have the same customs, but are technically Mexican citizens because they're divided by the border. If we had some substantial money we could have designated land on both sides and set up infrastructure for schools and libraries.
I think that would be important because it would connect sides. Doing it would also indirectly address a lot of bigger issues surrounding the border. For us, it’s a matter of community and being connected. Highlighting that will hopefully make people realize this is not an immigration issue, this is a matter of an entire people being divided — just like East and West Germany or North and South Korea. I'd really like to bring attention to that as an example of what we are doing to indigenous people.