Native American students explore advanced degree horizons at Graduate Pathways conference

June 14, 2019

As a transgender woman and first-generation student from the Navajo community of Teec Nos Pos in northeastern Arizona, Arizona State University alumna Trudie Jackson is used to forging her own way.

Today, she holds concurrent bachelor’s degrees in American Indian studies from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and public service and public policy from the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, and a master’s degree in tribal leadership and governance from The College’s American Indian studies program. But the road hasn’t been easy. Trudie Jackson graduated with a master's degree in tribal leadership and governance from The College's American Indian studies program.   Trudie Jackson graduated with a master's degree in tribal leadership and governance from The College's American Indian studies program. Download Full Image

Trudie Jackson, an alumna of The College's American Indian Studies program's master's degree track.Trudie Jackson, an alumna of The College's American Indian Studies program's master's degree track.

“Native students balance being in a Western educational institution and coming from a tribal community,” she said. “Part of going to school is just learning sometimes you had to make sacrifices — you may not be able to engage in a ceremonial event back in your community, for example, because you have a paper due.”

Learning to navigate those challenges is what led her to attend Graduate Pathways ahead of her master’s degree track a few years ago. Organized by American Indian Student Support Services (AISSS), the biennial conference helps Native American undergraduates and alumni learn more about advanced degrees and application processes.

Now pursuing a doctorate at the University of New Mexico, Jackson returned to campus this month to share her experiences with a new generation of postsecondary-bound indigenous students at the 2019 Graduate Pathways.

After graduating with a master's degree in tribal leadership and governance from The College's American Indian studies program, Trudie Jackson wants to help others do the same.

Alumna Trudie Jackson speaks to a room of fellow Native American students considering graduate paths.

“You may encounter professors who have never had a Native student, but that’s actually where you have the chance to share your knowledge,” Jackson said, speaking to a crowd of around 50 students, alumni and faculty mentors at the conference. “I believe one way I contribute to academia is through my own experience as an American Indian transgender woman; that perspective is not always reflected in the scholarship we read, and that’s what inspires me to keep going.”

Paving the way

According to AISSS Acting Director Laura Gonzales-Macias, more than 3,000 Native American students were enrolled at ASU in 2018, many of whom are in The College’s 23 schools and departments. Over 500 are working toward doctorates or master’s degrees.

She said the number is continuing to grow and already significant, particularly by national standards — Native Americans make up less than 1% of U.S. college students and are represented even less in graduate programs.

Several initiatives aim to bring more young people into the fold and support them once they arrive, but fewer exist at the graduate level.

Graduate Pathways was designed to bridge the gap.

“There are many challenges involved in being a Native American student, one of them being that often you are the only one in the course,” said Gonzales-Macias, who is also an instructor in The College's American Indian Studies program. “I think it is particularly important at the graduate level for these students to hear what the climate is like for indigenous students and how they can continue navigating such a large institution.”

The two-day training includes resume and personal statement workshops and one-on-one mentorship sessions with faculty from the degree programs students are interested in. Perhaps most importantly, Gonzales-Macias hopes participants walk away feeling like they’re not alone. It is a sentiment she remembers being a vital step of her own psychology graduate track at The College, in 1992.

“Coming to ASU back then, it was not as diverse a place as it is today,” she said. “I was far from home and family, a first-generation student and by then, continuing onto my doctorate — connecting with fellow Native graduates was my saving grace.”

Lasting connections

Now in its fifth year, Gonzales-Macias says the program comes full circle when alumni like Jackson return to give today’s prospective graduate students a unique insight into what’s next.

“Bringing back former participants lets new students see that someone else has been in their shoes,” she said.

That was the case for Rodney Aguilla, a Tohono O’odham tribal member who came to Graduate Pathways to learn more about advanced programs in fields spanning American Indian studies, law or teaching.

Rodney Aguilla, a senior in The College's American Indian Studies program, came to Graduate Pathways to learn more about advanced degree options.

Rodney Aguilla, a senior in The College's American Indian Studies program, came to Graduate Pathways to learn more about advanced degree options.

Growing up in Three Points, Arizona, southwest of Tucson, Aguilla saw getting an education as a way to give back to the sister who raised him.

“My sister always told us that education is the key to the world,” he said. “She literally saw me go from dropping out of high school, to getting my GED, and finally, to coming here — she did a lot to help push that forward.”

He transferred to ASU from Tohono O’odham Community College last May to pursue a bachelor’s degree in American Indian studies and a minor in history, both from The College.

He said being homesick and away from family made coming to ASU difficult at first. Hearing from current graduate students at the conference made him feel like he was on the right track.

“I think as Native students, we all kind of have that extra weight on our shoulders to come back and do something for our tribe,” he said. “Meeting other students and learning from their experiences really helped, I hope to one day be here too, putting on these programs for others who come after me.”

Writer, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


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ASU alumnus and ASU Gammage take on the 2019 Tony Awards

June 6, 2019

Native American designer created a unique gown for high profile Broadway red carpet

Glitz, glam and a rich sense of community will be represented on stage at this year’s 73rd annual Tony Awards in New York City on Sunday, June 9.

And thanks to two members of the ASU family, those qualities also will be on the red carpet.

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack — the executive director of ASU Gammage, ASU's vice president for cultural affairs and a Tony Awards voter since 1995 — will attend the red carpet wearing a custom-made gown created by ASU alumnus Loren Aragon.

Aragon is the designer and artist for ACONAV, a Native American-owned and -operated couture fashion brand based in Phoenix. He has dedicated his brand to both the empowerment of women and representation of Native people.

Loren Aragon

“We’re a really different realm of fashion and we bring a lot of different things to the table as far as aesthetic,” he said. It is all culturally fueled.” 

Aragon graduated from ASU with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2004.

His previous designs have been featured at Disneyworld for its 2018 exhibit, "Creating Traditions: Innovation and Change in Native American Art," and at Phoenix Fashion Week. 

Aragon was asked to design a custom dress for Jennings-Roggensack, Arizona’s sole Tony Awards voter. 

“Being able to represent Native fashion and our culture, the Acoma Pueblo, on this type of platform is something that is unbelievable,” Aragon said. 

The color of the dress, a vibrant red, is an homage to ancestry and an awareness of the missing and murdered Indigenous women movement, according to Aragon. The geometric shapes on the dress represent the pottery art culture of the Acoma Pueblo. 

“I want viewers to see that Native fashion is definitely thriving and making its mark in the greater fashion industry, Aragon said. 

Jennings-Roggensack said she is absolutely thrilled to be representing Aragon’s work and message on the red carpet in New York City. 

“When I looked at Loren Aragon’s work I thought, ‘This is it,” she said. I want all of the communities all over the world to see it.” 

Jennings-Roggensack said she could not have asked for a designer who better represents not only ASU’s goal of innovation, but someone who also represents his culture and heritage so deeply. 

“I feel like I’m wearing something that is bigger than I am, she said.

Top article: Colleen Jennings-Roggensack and Loren Aragon on the ASU Gammage stage for the final dress fitting. Photo courtesy ASU Gammage

Marketing assistant , ASU Gammage

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ASU student veteran to attend 75th anniversary of D-Day

June 4, 2019

David Tepper documents the lives of Native Americans and veterans

It’s June 6, 1944.

Charles Norman Shay, an American Army medic and a Penobscot Indian, is among the first wave of soldiers to storm Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. German steel falls like sleet across the sand. He’s carrying a bazooka and heavy equipment. His clothes and boots are waterlogged.

"It was very difficult to make any headway," he said years after the battle. "Any headway you made was very slow. I eventually was able to get into water that only went up to my ankles … the first thing I did was head for one of the barriers that the Germans had constructed."

Shay turned to help wounded comrades struggling in the surf. He pulled one after another out of the ocean while German machine guns blazed into masses of men. His courage that day earned him a Silver Star for heroism in ground combat. Shay was one of about 175 Native Americans who fought on Omaha Beach that day. About 500 American and Canadian natives took part in the epic invasion of Fortress EuropeA propaganda term used during WWII to denote the Nazi-occupied portion of continental Europe..

Seventy-five years after D-Day, Shay will return to Omaha Beach to be recognized for his bravery and receive a Freedom Medal from French president Emmanuel Macron.

Arizona State University engineering student David Tepper will travel to France to document the historical occasion as well as continue his work photographing Native American veterans.

Tepper, a 55-year-old Navy veteran who is majoring in information technology, is also a professional photographer. He began taking pictures of Native Americans about 15 years ago and has traveled to more than 60 reservations to document their lives. 

ASU Now caught up with Tepper on the eve of his departure to discuss his life, work and what he’ll be doing on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. 

Grey haired man

Charles Norman Shay

Question: Why and how long have you been documenting Native Americans, particularly veterans?

Answer: I’ve been documenting Native Americans and Native American veterans for about 15 years but I feel like I’ve been preparing for it all my life.

I was born and raised in Rome, Italy. I was born near the Jewish ghettos of WWII. During WWII, 50,000 people lived in 1 square mile. They could leave during the day to work, but had to return by nightfall. That was a form of reservation — at least it was to me. When I was young, spaghetti Westerns movies were in vogue. I watched them all. I rooted for any Native American that came across the screen. Fast forward a number of years. I participated in a photography workshop in and around the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. There were a few photographers from Italy and I became their translator. During that trip, we met some Native Americans and they had an enormous impact on me. In particular, one gentleman was taken as a child, sent to Philadelphia to attend a Catholic school. He was so gentle, and not bitter at all. Even though he never went to college, he remains one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met. It was his dignity that impressed me most. So, I kept returning to Pine Ridge, meeting more people, going to various ceremonies, sweat lodges and various cultural events.

As a veteran, the word spread that I am photographer that honors Native American veterans. I give them prints of any images we make. Through word of mouth I came to meet and photograph a number of the (Navajo) Code Talkers (and) WWII, Korean War, Vietnam and other veterans.

Q: I would assume you have had to build a level of trust over time given that what you do is such an intimate act?

A: I have been fortunate enough in my work. People respond to my work, and to my intentions. I explore, I don’t exploit. My intentions are quite simple. I make images with people that they are proud of. I sit with them, get to know them. I don’t set up any equipment such as backdrops, strobes and cameras until we know each other. Sometimes I cook for them, sometimes I bring a gift. It is impolite to ask someone to make their picture — or any favor for that matter — without giving something in return. Making a portrait is a collaborative effort. They have to trust me in order to reveal themselves to me and to the camera. Only then is a proper portrait made.

I also want to point out that I don’t use the words "shoot," "capture" or "take." Words are important, and those verbs are associated with guns. I am not making a statement against guns, just that photographers ought to have their own vocabulary.

David Tepper

ASU engineering student David Tepper (upper right) with Umoho tribe members Rudi Mitchell, Happy Keen and Octa Keen. Courtesy of David Tepper

Q: You have visited approximately 60 reservations over the years. What have you seen and what have you learned on these visits?

A: What a question. I have seen many things. The good, the bad and the ugly. I have seen dignity, kindness, charity, empathy and a wonderful sense of humor. I have seen drunkenness, loss of hope. I have seen gangs, abject poverty. Through all this, I have seen the resiliency of spirit. The pride in one’s own culture/heritage. I have seen that indigenous people have a sense of home. That is something that resonates with me, as I’ve never felt a sense of home as some of these friends I’ve met. I am honored to have made lifelong friends with people I’ve met on reservations. There are spiritual leaders that I admire very much. I have been to a number of ceremonies that I would never photograph. I have been to a number of sweat lodge ceremonies. They are wonderful. I have even been to a sweat with a Catholic priest. He knew all the songs and participated completely. It was a powerful experience.

I once had a video conference with a professor. He wore a “mock” baseball jersey that made fun of the Cleveland Indians. His jersey said “Caucasians.” That is the sense of humor that represents Native Americans to me.

Q: What are your thoughts and feelings regarding Native American veterans and why they join the military given the government’s history and treatment of Native Americans?

A: There are many reasons that Native Americans join the military. I do not feel qualified to answer why Native Americans join the military. What I can answer is that the Code Talkers and other WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War Native American veterans are proud of their service. They have an air of dignity. They are quiet and humble. They know their contribution to our country. They know how to say thank you when they are honored, and without using too many words. Without fanfare. I think we can all learn that lesson.

For the second part of your question, I think it is a travesty how some people have been treated. I think the Johnny Cash song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” says it best. Our country has many problems, and systemic racism is on the top of the list. It is my hope that in some small way my images show that no matter who we are, where we come from, how we ended up here in our country, we are all American.

Q: Tell me why you’re headed to Normandy and what you’ll be doing there?

A: I have been hired by a delegation of Native Americans — about 80 veterans from various tribes — to travel to Normandy, France, for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The Native American veterans will also be carrying Eagle Staffs to many of the functions surrounding the 75th anniversary. Eagle Staffs are very important to Native Americans. It represents who they are. A number of these Eagle Staffs will be represented in France. Only two years ago were they allowed to be carried in the activities surrounding D-Day anniversaries. In fact, only a few years ago, Eagle Staffs were officially recognized in our country.

I am also going to France to honor a WWII veteran I have photographed. Charles Shay, WWII D-Day veteran and Penobscot Indian Elder is being presented with the Freedom Medal by French President Macron. I am honored to know him, and to be at his ceremony and make his picture. 

Top photo: Abandoned German army bunker at Normandy, France. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Reporter , ASU Now


Giving voice to Native American activism in Phoenix

May 29, 2019

In 2016, what began as a grassroots effort against the Dakota Access Pipeline drilling project in North Dakota grew into a sweeping movement gathering thousands of protesters from around the country to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Several states away, Napoleon Marrietta, a member of the Phoenix area’s Gila River Indian Community, was engulfed in another Native-led battle, against a highway extension project in Phoenix. Napoleon Marrietta, a graduate student in The College's American Indian Studies program, grew up not far from the Tempe campus on the Gila River Indian Community. After completing concurrent bachelor's degrees in social justice and American Indian studies, Napoleon Marrietta is set to graduate with a master's degree from The College's American Indians Studies program this fall. Download Full Image

The 22-mile Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway stretch was designed to ease traffic congestion. But its path cut through a portion of South Mountain, a range highly sacred to tribes across the Valley. When Standing Rock was taking off, Marrietta and other activists were in the middle of a legal battle to stop the freeway construction in its tracks.

But where Standing Rock galvanized Native Americans nationwide, the fight for South Mountain didn’t move far past Phoenix.

That difference is part of what propelled a return to academia for Marrietta, now a graduate student in The College of Liberal Arts and SciencesAmerican Indian Studies program at Arizona State University.

“Standing Rock had people from all over the place, including Phoenix tribes, coming together to battle this huge issue,” he said. “Fighting for South Mountain, we were grassroots, youth-led and trying to move forward with the weight of it all on our shoulders — I think my question now is why that huge mobilization sometimes doesn’t happen, even with something in our backyard.”

Urban organizing

From immigration and the border to incarceration and desert city planning, Arizona is a melting pot of issues. As the state capital, initiatives started in Phoenix have the potential to cast a wider net than perhaps anywhere else in the state. But with a metropolitan area of over 5 million residents, how does any one issue find its voice?

That’s one question Marrietta is looking to unravel in his thesis that focuses on how indigenous activists adapt and organize in the Valley’s urban sprawl.

The American Indian Studies program offers a master’s degree in tribal leadership and governance, and another in indigenous rights and social justice. After graduating from ASU with concurrent bachelor’s degrees in justice studies and American Indian studies in 2017, Marrietta saw the social justice graduate track as a chance to expand on both.

“I returned to gain more from the knowledge of my professors here and the efforts they have made in their communities, it made me feel like I could do something to contribute, too,” he said.

Native presence in Arizona

There are 22 tribal nations across Arizona today. Phoenix, its surroundings and ASU itself sit on the ancestral lands of many of them, including the Akimel O’odham and Pee-Posh constituting the Gila River Indian Community of which Marrietta is a part.

Growing up on tribal land just southeast of Phoenix, Marrietta immersed himself in environmental and social issues affecting his community while in high school. But he hesitates to call himself an activist. Instead, he sees his work as a response to his own experiences.

“Not having clean water sometimes, for example, or even the fact that you are growing up on a reservation, those are all issues, but you don’t really think about them that way, they are just a part of your life,” he said. “I didn’t really get into the literature and hearing similar things from other people until coming to ASU.”

Now set to graduate this fall, his research offers an academic examination of local struggles he is intimately familiar with.

Research as advocacy

Marrietta and fellow tribal, environmental and community activists spent years challenging the South Mountain freeway construction before a trial in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case in 2017.

As the project nears completion today, he said recounting the fight is a painful process. But experiencing the highs and lows of social movements from the ground level also gave him a new perspective on the topics he learned at ASU and what felt like an opening to add new narratives to the record of history.

Documenting the fight through research is a way to honor those who gave their energy and explore his own role within it.

“Defending South Mountain was something I was active in, but so many came before me on that issue and others — I am just a sliver of something much larger,” he said. “My research now is focused on connecting the contributions of elders, youth and people with varying levels of education; those experiences are different, but (it) all feeds into one community.”

More than 3,000 Native American students were enrolled in ASU in 2018, a number that has more than doubled in the last decade and is now among the highest in the country. Still, with over 100,000 students across four campuses and multiple locations, the population represents a small percentage of ASU’s overall population.

For Marrietta, who also works as an American Indian Student Support ServicesASU American Indian Student Support Services is a unit of ASU's University College. graduate pathways assistant, elevating Native perspectives on and off campus is part of what fuels his drive to continue in academia.

“Dealing with social justice issues means that everyone wants a seat at the table, so sometimes the challenge is actually just being a Native American or indigenous person in these places,” he said. “But building upon an institution requires research, which in turn helps people understand things better — by writing about these groups, I figure I can contribute in a small way to that.”

Writer, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Dean’s Medalist uses music, education to advocate for Native Americans in Arizona

May 9, 2019

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. Alexander Soto graduated with a bachelor's degree in American Indian Studies from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences this spring.  Alexander Soto graduated this spring with a bachelor's degree from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' American Indian Studies program. Download Full Image

Soto graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ American Indian Studies program. He was recognized during convocation as a Dean’s Medalist.

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.


Writer, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Geography student discovers passion and community at ASU

May 3, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Often students arrive at college with set plans on what path they want to take over the next four years. Abigail Johnson was one of those students, but as she prepares to graduate from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences this spring, she advises others to not be afraid to change up their plans. Abigail Johnson Abigail Johnson will graduate with her bachelor's degree in geography from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Download Full Image

“Follow what you think is right. There was a time that I really thought one major (journalism) was right for me and since I wanted it so bad and did an internship in it, I thought I would disappoint my family if I switched,” explained Johnson, who is graduating with her bachelor’s degree in geography from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “But when something doesn’t feel right, I think you should change your mind and really think within yourself and reflect.”

As a first-generation student, Johnson said she benefited from a number of resources in high school and while at ASU. One of those resources was AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination).

“(AVID) helps students who don’t have the tools for college, many are first-generation students. I didn’t know about the SAT, ACT and they tell you about those things and advise you to get involved,” she said.

During Johnson’s junior year at ASU, she was invited to speak to high schoolers at an AVID event.

I was so proud to be asked to speak at the conference. I loved it, just because I know what it’s like, I’ve been there in that exact same chair. It was really cool to be able to be the one to help them.”

Helping others was a consistent theme during Johnson’s time at ASU. She worked with elementary school students through America Reads during her freshman and sophomore years, frequently volunteered for events through American Indian Student Support Services and got involved with community gardening at the Polytechnic campus, which then led to work at the nonprofit organization Native Health. As an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, Johnson said this work, in particular, was meaningful.

“To be around my people and to teach them about what I’ve learned at ASU about plants, it’s very fun.”

Johnson answered some questions about her time at ASU and shared what she has planned next.

Question: What’s your Sun Devil story?

Answer: I’m from El Mirage, Arizona, and grew up going back and forth to the Navajo Nation. I’m a first-generation student so my whole life I’ve been excited to go to university. I worked hard every single day in high school; I did community service and became really passionate about those kinds of things. Eventually, I made it here and really enjoyed it.

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: I took GPH 111 with Erin Saffell. I walked into class and saw how passionate she was about the subject and I loved being in her class. I was taking journalism classes and realized I was looking more forward to going to that class than the journalism classes. I had office hours with her and told her I really loved physical geography and she told me to think about majoring in it and that’s when I decided to switch over.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: When I moved here I realized how being a first-generation student, I was always the one to lead my family. When I came here I met a lot of people and didn’t feel like I had so much weight on my shoulders. I think something surprising that I learned was that you really need people, and when you have the right people you can create better results than you could by yourself.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Professor Saffell. She taught me how to study and how each class is different. It can be hard as a freshman to build up the confidence to walk into office hours. I got over that barrier with her, she was very calm and I felt very comfortable in her environment. I’d ask her questions and from then on I wasn’t afraid to ask questions to other professors or TAs.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Students come here for their major but this is an opportunity for you to know yourself. Do something out of your major, like a club. For me, I love geography and maps but I had an interest in plants so I started doing those classes and I met my best friends there. Do something out of your element and nourish that. Create a hobby for yourself.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus is the American Indian Students Services room, it’s a very safe space for me. It’s in Discovery Hall and on the walk there, there are beautiful trees leading the way.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My husband is in medical school and starting his rotations so we’ll be traveling around the United States. I’m planning to intern at some urban planning firms or work as a GIS analyst.

Q: What would you say to someone considering ASU?

A: Do it, it’s a very great school. There are so many opportunities here, including employment opportunities. It’s very good for someone getting out of high school, especially when they don’t know anything because there’s a good community once you’re here.

Kirsten Kraklio

Content Strategist and Writer, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


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The College welcomes new leaders to three distinctive social science units

May 1, 2019

Whether used to explore the nuances of human evolution or to examine the political, ecological and cultural facets shaping the human experience today, the social sciences give us the tools to decipher our world.

To Elizabeth Wentz, dean of social sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University, creating academic units capable of capturing that breadth is both a challenge and an opportunity.

“We have social science faculty whose research and classes are closer to physical sciences, and others that are very much in line with the humanities,” she said. “Leading these units requires a 30,000-foot view to bring people together who conduct their work in very different ways.”

That big-picture outlook is only continuing to grow as the School of Social Transformation, the School of Transborder Studies and the American Indian Studies program gain new leadership this July.

Each unit possesses qualities that are unique to ASU. The School of Transborder Studies is the only unit of its kind in the country. The American Indian Studies program is distinguished by its autonomy from other schools and broad range of research, faculty and degree tracks. The School of Social Transformation serves as a platform where a multitude of disciplines spanning anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and social justice come together under one roof.

“These are three very interdisciplinary schools where faculty from many backgrounds come together around particular themes like inequality and the social, political, historical and cultural drivers behind it,” Wentz said. “We wanted to find leaders who fit into that field and also aligned with the access and impact-minded mission of the ASU charter.”

With 13 total units, the social sciences account for the largest division in The College — which is itself the largest academic body at ASU — and incorporate components of anthropology, sociology, justice studies, urban planning, communication and more.

Wentz said identifying how all those components fit into the larger ASU ecosystem keeps them in a constant state of evolution.

“Social sciences are all over the university, and while we can define ourselves by discipline, we can also define ourselves based on the problems we solve,” she said. “These new leaders present a chance to launch their schools into a new era.”

Stephanie Fitzgerald, American Indian Studies

Stephanie Fitzgerald will take over the helm as director of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' American Indian Studies program.

Stephanie Fitzgerald is a Cree tribal member who comes to the American Indian Studies program after overseeing a similar unit at the University of Kansas. Her research explores the relationships between indigenous groups, land tenure, climate change and tribal, state and federal law.

She is the author of “Native Women and Land: Narratives of Dispossession and Resurgence” and the co-editor of “Keepers of the Morning Star: An Anthology of Native Women's Theater,” among other publications.

While other universities have indigenous and Native American studies programs, they are often integrated into umbrella departments like English, anthropology and history. By contrast, Wentz said dedicating an autonomous unit to the American Indian Studies program allows interdisciplinary academics and research to thrive.  

“Our physical position in the United States with the number of tribal nations here really demands that we have an independent program at ASU,” Wentz said. “Stephanie Fitzgerald brings an incredible level of scholarship, but also an appreciation for the expansive goals of the program.”

Fitzgerald also highlighted the unit’s size and focused platform as being key aspects that brought her to ASU.

“This is a vibrant program with strong support from the public and the ASU administration, in a state with 22 tribal nations,” she said. “I see coming to ASU as a chance to continue building that up.”

Pardis Mahdavi, School of Social Transformation

Pardris Mahdavi will take the helm as director of the School of Social Transformation at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Pardis Mahdavi is a medical anthropologist whose research has focused on sexual and gender politics and their interaction with labor migration and social movements across the Middle East and Asia.

She is the author of several publications on the subjects, including her first, “Passionate Uprising, Iran’s Sexual Revolution,” in 2008, and her most recent, “Crossing the Gulf: Love and Family in Migrant Lives,” in 2016.

She comes to ASU from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. As part of The College, she hopes to help drive global platforms forward through international research collaborations and dual-degree programs.

“One of the things that drew me to this program is that it has transcended the idea of interdisciplinarity,” she said. “People inside The College are doing something that I consider to be a next-level intersectionality among the studies.”

Mahdavi will succeed Bryan Brayboy, a professor in the School of Transformation who has served as its interim director over the last year.

“The aspiration of social transformation and the global perspective it hopes to reach is huge,” Wentz said. “Bryan BrayboyBryan Brayboy also serves as the director of ASU's Center for Indian Education and the special adviser to the president on American Indian Affairs, a position created by ASU President Michael Crow to oversee university initiatives related to Native American and indigenous issues and programs. has really been a steady hand in opening up the pathway to get this unit to a collaborative place I believe Pardis Mahdavi wants to continue to shape.” 

Irasema Coronado, School of Transborder Studies

Incoming School of Transborder Studies Director Irasema Coronado.

Irasema Coronado comes to ASU from an endowed professorship in the Department of Political Science at the University of Texas in El Paso.

Raised in the border-hugging city of Nogales, Arizona, she has spent over 25 years studying cross-border resource management, water rights and environmental policies, in addition to immigration, asylum and deportation in the Arizona-Sonora region.

Coming to ASU was a chance to continue that work and help increase the impact of the School of Transborder Studies.

“This is the only doctoral program in the country for border studies, which is my specialty,” she said. “I also believe research should be measured by the difference it makes in people’s lives, and I think The College and this school exemplify that.”

Developed in 2011, the School of Transborder Studies looks at the borderland as a concept in itself. Whether it’s the international line between the U.S. and Mexico, or the boundary separating North and South Korea, faculty and students within the school explore the ecological, historical and social components that make these areas unique.

“There are people doing fabulous research on Mexican American issues, and the School of Transborder Studies itself emerged from a form of Chicana/o studies, but that’s not necessarily doing research on the border itself,” Wentz said. “Irasema Coronado is truly a border scholar, and that is really what she brings to the table.”

Top photo: Armstrong Hall on the Tempe campus is the new headquarters for The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. With 13 programs and schools that transcend traditional studies, the social sciences are the largest division within The College. This summer, three of its units will welcome new leaders. 

Writer , College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Interdisciplinary studies graduate from Hopi Nation finds passion to serve Native youth

April 26, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Nu áaqawsi yan matsiwa,
Nu kyashwungwa pu pew katsinwungwa.
Nu Oraivit ank’Ö. ASU interdisciplinary studies graduate Daniell Albert Interdisciplinary studies graduate Daniell Albert is passionate about cross-cultural sharing and understanding. Download Full Image

Daniell June Albert is from the Hopi Tribe in Northern Arizona. Her Hopi name is áaqawsi, which translates to Sunflower, and she is Parrot and Kachina clans from the village of Old Oraibi, Third Mesa. 

Albert is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in interdisciplinary studies, with concentrations in special events management and in communication. She chose these concentrations to support her determination to make an impact with youth in Indian Country about opportunities and resources related to education.

“I found a passion in helping Native students, in bringing the resources to them and educating youth about what the 'outside’ world looks like, including the opportunities that are out there for them.

“Ideally, after graduating I would love to move back to the Flagstaff area, to work with my hometown’s American Indian youth population, providing optimized content and events that bring outside resources and/or local references that are useful in maintaining and recruiting an impactful youth networking system," Albert said.

She has special interest in developing events and programming focused on high school completion, knowledge of the many pathways to higher education and opening opportunities that can help students “balance the two worlds of cultural and modern relations.”

Albert has found that through her dedication to interdisciplinary studies, she has also been able to connect with others who want to learn more about her culture, and the cultures around them. For Albert, the best part of her major is how it allows her to express herself: “My favorite part is the creative aspect, because I get to share stories through my artwork and make connections to my culture.”

After graduation she will continue to make connections to other cultures, as she will be going to Beijing for a summer internship with the public relations and marketing company Pingo Space.

“They give a mobile platform to Chinese clients who are wanting to gain new knowledge of different cultures, perspectives and experiences from around the world without leaving their homes," Albert explained. “The company’s name originates from the Chinese Píng xíng guómeaning parallel worlds. I hope to share my own culture, perspective and experiences with the company and create events that can highlight the focus of the company.”

She recently shared reflections with ASU Now about some of her college experiences and dreams for the future.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

Answer: One thing that I have learned while at ASU was the acceptance in leaving my comfort zones and moving away from my village but gaining the confidence in sharing who I am as a person as well as the heritage and culture that I carry with me from within. Growing up, I felt myself pushing aside who I am from the cultural point of view, but once I was at ASU — which stands on the home land of the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Pee Posh (Maricopa) peoples — I felt the need to step back and realize that I am among the 2% of Native Americans at the university and I need to be one who makes an impact for all tribes and indigenous people.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because they showed a real commitment to all, but not limited to, the 22 tribal nations in Arizona. They embrace the respective lands that the university resides on, as well as making connections to the tribal communities and committing to the success of American Indian students. The university works to cross disciplines, integrate indigenous knowledge and engage the ASU community in welcoming the cultures that are developing on and off the campus.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: The one who taught me the most important lesson while at ASU is not a professor but a student herself, working toward a PhD (who) serves as director of the Office of American Indian Initiatives. Annabell Bowen focuses on the recruitment and retention of American Indian students and reaches out to tribes far and near. She taught me the true meaning of being indigenous and brought to my attention the lack of resources that are out there for many Native students in the schools. She told me during a program we were doing together that, “as long you impact one student, you are changing their mindset to plant the seeds of the future.”

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: The best advice I’d give to those still in school is to not forget where you come from and the stories you carry with you, because that’s what make you stand out from the rest of the world, especially as a Native student. You can impact the reservation by allowing yourself to pick up every open opportunity and embracing your culture; we can balance the two worlds. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus was the Office of American Indian Initiatives, located in Discovery Hall. It is the hub for all American Indian students and it is a great place to find new friends and cultures just like your own. It has become a home away from home. I would like to thank the staff, faculty and endless friends who have made the place a special place to be.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would help the education system and schools under the Bureau of Indian Education, to guide the work in rebuilding the academic structure and hazardous buildings, to bring them back up to or above standards. The majority of schools under the BIE are held to a low standard. Students then lack the proper education and life skills to make an impact within the modern world.

Written by Sophia Molinar, ASU Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication senior; student marketing assistant, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts

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Storytelling gives Navajo poet a way to 'glitter'

The transition from poetry to music was natural for ASU prof Laura Tohe.
Laura Tohe's work reflects her Navajo heritage and her personal family stories.
April 18, 2019

ASU Professor Emerita of English Laura Tohe honored with award ahead of the international premiere of her second libretto

The acronym DOWM is a trope many scholars of Western canon are familiar with. It refers to the argument that the body of literature, music, philosophy and art that represent Western culture is disproportionately dominated by the work of “dead, old white men.”

Looking back on her life, Arizona State University Professor Emerita of English Laura Tohe sees evidence to support this.

As a child growing up in the remote community of Crystal, New Mexico, in the Navajo Nation, Tohe relished trips to the library, the main form of entertainment in a household with no television. She devoured works by Edgar Allan Poe, Nancy Drew mysteries and “Batman” comic books — a literary weaning on stories about white people, written by white people.

“When I was about 12 years old, I wanted to be a writer,” Tohe recalls. “But I didn't know how I could do it. … I thought only white people could be authors.”

Later, at the University of New Mexico, she took a writing course with Rudolfo Anaya — author of the renowned Chicano coming-of-age novel “Bless Me, Ultima” — who encouraged Tohe to look to her own family’s stories for inspiration.

“This light bulb went off in my head and I realized, ‘You know, he's right. I've always been surrounded by storytellers,’” she said.

Today, Tohe is an award-winning, critically acclaimed poet who has written and co-authored five books, several essays and two librettosA libretto is the text used in an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata or musical., the most recent of which, “Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World,” will premiere at the Rouen Opera House in France on Tuesday, April 23.

The premiere comes on the heels of her participation in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, City-County Library’s Festival of Words in March where she was honored with the Tulsa Library Trust’s “Festival of Words Writers Award,” joining the ranks of such past recipients as Leslie Marmon-Silko, Vine DeLoria Jr. and Joy Harjo.

The award is the first and only such given by a public library to honor an American Indian writer. Teresa Runnels, coordinator for the library’s American Indian Resource Center, said Tohe was chosen as this year’s recipient because of the variety and scope of her repertoire.

poet Laura tohe

English Professor Emerita Laura Tohe, Navajo Nation Poet Laureate, poses for a portrait at her Mesa home. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The purpose of the award, Runnels said, is “to give recognition to American Indian writers in the hope that more will come along, because there’s not a whole lot. And also to recognize the hard work that these writers go through to tell their stories.”

Tohe attended the daylong festival in Tulsa with her son, Dez Tillman, who accompanied her on guitar for a spoken word performance of some of her rain-themed poems. Before that, they were welcomed by a traditional drum group and a chorus of Pawnee Public School children singing renditions of The Beatles’ “Let it Be” and the theme song to “Rocky” in their native tongue.

Tohe called it “an incredible, moving and beautiful experience,” adding, “I'd never been honored quite that way before.”

Having a poet as a mother never fazed Tillman when he was young, even though he often went along with her when she led writing workshops and taught at the university. It wasn’t until he became an adult that he realized she was doing something special.

“It’s really cool to see her blossom on this journey,” he said. “It’s like she’s been planting seeds since I was a kid, and now it’s all coming to fruition and she’s being recognized for her work as one of the main voices for Native people in this country.”

Tillman sees his mother as an inspiration for American Indian writers to join in and add their part to the narrative of Native people in America. And he’s not wrong; as the Navajo Nation Poet Laureate, for the past two summers Tohe has participated in a weeklong writing institute for Navajo youth at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico.

“For the younger generation of Navajo writers, this is their first real opportunity to have teachers who are Navajo, who are published, who are giving these workshops, and they’re embracing that and participating in it,” she said.

Like Tohe’s most recent publication, “Code Talker Stories,” an oral history book about the remaining Navajo Code Talkers, almost all of her work is influenced by her cultural history, and much of it is influenced by her family.

Visits with her relatives were always punctuated by stories.

“When you visit family, that’s the first thing you do, is start telling stories, even if it's something minor, like, ‘On my drive into Gallup I saw a prairie dog standing on the side of the road,’” she said. “This is a way that we share our lives with each other, through storytelling.”

The first creative writing piece Tohe wrote in college relayed a story her mother told her and her siblings on childhood trips from the reservation into town for supplies. It was the tale of a brother and sister who, neglected by their parents, turned into prairie dogs; hence the animal’s human-like penchant for standing on its hind legs.

Animals often play a role in Tohe’s work. The upcoming presentations of the oratorio “Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World,” a sort of small-scale opera for which she wrote the text, will feature live animals, including an owl and a wolf.

“Nahasdzáán” translates to “Mother Earth” in Navajo, and according to their culture, the “glittering world” is the age we are presently living in. The piece confronts the Earth’s current state of climate change-induced distress and the need for it to heal.

“Animals are an integral part of this world that we live in and Native peoples have always revered them as relatives,” Tohe said. “Humans have caused a lot of destruction to the air and water and to the ground, and we need to stop and also look at how this affects not just humans but the animals as well.”

“Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World,” is her second libretto, having been commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony in 2008 to write the text for “Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio.”

The transition from poetry to music was a natural one for Tohe.

“Poetry is a lot like writing music,” she said. “You have to listen to the sound of the words, and you're concerned with line length and with the rhythm of the language.”

The realm of music is one she intends to explore further, through future collaborations with her son. Right now, they’re looking to record Tohe reading her poetry against a backdrop of original music composed by Tillman. They hope to have something completed within the year.

Top photo: ASU Professor Emerita of English Laura Tohe at her home in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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ASU Pow Wow makes triumphant return to Sun Devil Stadium after 33 years

April 14, 2019

Annual event draws thousands of spectators representing 100 Native tribes from around US and Canada for 3-day gathering

Thousands of people jammed Sun Devil Stadium this weekend to cheer for their home team, but it wasn’t for a football game or sporting event.

They were cheering for dancers and singing groups from Apache, Hopi, Navajo and other tribes who came from as far away as Canada to participate in the 33rd annual Pow Wow at Arizona State University, held April 12–14.

It was the first time the eventThe word “powwow” — which is spelled as both one and two words — comes from the Algonquin word “pau wau,” which was used to describe medicine men and spiritual leaders. It is a social gathering held by many different Native American communities to meet, dance, sing, socialize and celebrate their culture. had been held at the stadium since its inaugural year in 1986, according to ASU’s Annabell Bowen.

"We're very excited to bring the Pow Wow back to Sun Devil Stadium because over the years we've grown so much and our site has become too small," said Bowen, director for the American Indian Initiatives Office. "The stadium brings a new excitement level to this event."

Bowen credits its new partnership with ASU 365 Community Union for the timely move; the initiative is trying to utilize the venue more than the eight days a year the football team has home games.

“We’re in our pilot year right now, and we’ll end up hosting over 70 events this first year,” said Victor Hamburger, senior director of strategic initiatives for ASU Cultural Affairs. “We should be able to increase stadium utilization by (up to) 500% this year.”

Hamburger added that the university sees the stadium as a cultural hub and will host meetings, farmers markets, conferences, movies, meals, concerts and more. He said the ASU Pow Wow will be the largest ASU 365 Community Union event held this year at the stadium.

That’s music to Tahnee Baker’s ears, an ASU alumna and ASU Pow Wow coordinator.

“We outgrew the space at the ASU Band Practice field several years ago, but we continued to make it work because that’s all that was available,” said Baker, who approached the ASU 365 Community Union committee in December 2018 to host the event at Sun Devil Stadium. “To bring it to the stadium allows more people to celebrate our culture.”

Continuing the ASU Pow Wow is important to Baker, whose father, Lee Williams, started the tradition at the university and served as coordinator for decades until his passing in 2013.

“For him, this was a way to let American Indian students know there was a place for them on campus and to be proud of who they are,” Baker said. "He would be very happy to know this event has not only carried on but has grown in size and stature."

The contemporary Pow Wow is a link to the past that helps maintain her Navajo heritage, said Paige Sandoval, whose 8-year-old daughter, Rae Bighorse, danced several times this weekend.

“We grew up on the powwow circuit, and our entire family danced and sang at these events,” Sandoval said. “I'm now passing that tradition on to my daughter.”

Tempe resident Albert Polk, who is Apache and Quechan, also dances whenever he can.

“I’m always working, but I dance when I have time off,” said Polk, who performed in the Men’s Grass dance, which originated in the warrior societies in the Northern Great Plains. “It’s nice to see family and friends. I also come for the food.”

In addition to approximately 300 dancers and singers wearing traditional regalia and paying homage to their ancestors, the weekend-long event also included the crowning of Mr. and Ms. Indian ASU, as well as vendors selling Native American jewelry, crafts, clothes, rugs and traditional fry bread.

Calandra Etsitty was one of about 50 vendors on hand. She drove six hours on Saturday from Many Farms, Arizona, in the Navajo Nation to sell and promote her Winston Paul line of products, which includes custom jewelry, makeup bags, traditional skirts and reconstructed garments. She liked the venue because of its size and space, and also because it exposed her 2-year-old business to a new demographic.

“It’s an older crowd and I like that,” Etsitty said. “It’s good for our elders to know we’re doing something good and productive with our lives.”

Mekwaike Ojibwe tribe member Lara Lasley was dressed in lavender-colored regalia on Saturday. The 17-year-old said she made the trip from Lake Elsinore, California, to participate in the “Fancy Shawl” with about 20 other tribe members.

Lasley has participated in the ASU Pow Wow in the past but had never seen the inside of Sun Devil Stadium before.

“I didn’t mind being at the old venue,” she said, "but this is a step up.”

Top photo: Participants of the Grand Entry at the Pow Wow at ASU. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now