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Loss of land and culture ties faraway groups who are forging similar paths

Lecture series finds common legacies among Scottish people, American Indians.
March 25, 2018

ASU lecture series connects legacies among Scottish people, American Indians

In most cultures, identity is inextricably tied to the land, and when land is taken, cultures can struggle to survive. But communities can change that narrative, reclaiming land and heritage, according to two professors who represent cultures that are very far apart and yet face similar paths.

The annual Roatch-Haskell lecturesThe John F. Roatch Global Lecture Series on Social Policy and Practice hosts an internationally known scholar to lecture on a topic of global and social significance to the Arizona community. The event was established by John and Mary Roatch. The Linda Haskell Memorial Master Class capitalizes on national and international talent to create an interactive forum for the discussion of current topics of concern to human-services practitioners in Arizona. The event was established by Rose and William Haskell to honor the memory of their daughter Linda Haskell, a social worker who died in 1992., held Friday in Phoenix, addressed issues of land and identity in talks by two professors — Frank Rennie, professor of sustainable rural development at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland, and Robert Miller, professor at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the director of the Rosette LLP American Indian Economic Development Program. The lectures were presented by the School of Social Work at ASU.

The Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland are far away from Indian reservations, but the two cultures share a history that involves losing their land and seeing their heritage face annihilation.

Rennie, who gave the Roatch lecture, said the Scottish Gaelic language reinforces the notion of embeddedness.

“It has a sense of ‘you belong to the land’ rather than ‘the land belongs to you,’ ” he said.

Frank Rennie, professor of sustainable rural development at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland, explained how charitable trusts have begun returning privately owned land to the people. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Rennie described the history of the area, going back to 1746, when war wiped out the highland clan culture, with the indigenous language and wearing of tartans banned. Land passed from the family clans into private hands, and many highlanders fled to the coast to become tenant farmers on plots called “crofts.” Many in the clans were hunted down and killed.

“We were not taught this story in school,” Rennie said. “We were taught about the Romans and the American war of independence but not about what happened on our own doorstep.”

Many Scots served in World War I under the promise that they would get land when they returned, but that didn’t happen. The frustrated villagers began “land raids,” grabbing bits of property over time. By the 1990s, Scotland returned its parliament from London to Edinburgh and took on the issue of land reform.

“Even to this day, the imbalance of owning of land by heritage families is so strong within Scotland that if we were to apply for development from the World Bank, they wouldn’t look at us because of the imbalance,” Rennie said.

But now, many villages have formed charitable land trusts to buy back land for their communities. The villagers still pay rent, but to the trust and not a private owner. The trust in Rennie’s village, on the Isle of Lewis, has invested in wind turbines, which produce income that can then be spent locally.

Rennie sees a direct link from that history to the results of recent votes, when Scots narrowly voted against breaking away from the United Kingdom, and voted overwhelming for remaining in the European Union.

“The sense of community is tangible, and that’s led to a drive to be more assertive on the world stage,” he said.

Miller, who is a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, found many parallels between the Scots and American Indians, including the whitewashing of history to conceal the stealing of land.

Robert Miller, a professor in the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at ASU, said that private-sector development is key for Indians to move out of poverty. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“People raised on reservations, they’re pulled back to their homeland and they want to own their homeland. There’s this sense of belonging to the land — that’s what every American Indian says,” said Miller, who delivered the Haskell lecture.

After America broke from England and looked westward toward expansion, the narrative was that the lands were available for the taking. He showed a letter in which George Washington compared Indians to animals, calling them “savage” and “beasts of prey.” But actually, the tribes had a sophisticated culture involving agriculture, trade networks and a system of public and personal property.

“Women would own berry patches that they would pass on to their daughters,” he said. “We’re not taught about that. We want to think the country was empty.”

Miller said that the United States still claims legal title to Indian lands, dating back to 1790.

“Tribes can’t sell or develop their land without permission from the secretary of the interior,” he said.

This history has led some Indians to mistrust capitalism as a way out of poverty, but Miller said that private-sector development is the best way to keep money on the reservation.

“You have to go off of the reservation to go shopping. You have to go off the reservation to find a house you would want to live in, to find food or a movie theater,” he said.

Miller works with the Navajo Nation, which has about 200,000 citizens on its reservation. Demographically, there should be nearly 2,800 privately owned businesses. In reality, there are 305.

“I worked for the Northern Cheyenne, and the only thing you could buy on their reservation was gas, so you could drive somewhere to spend your money,” he said.

Sovereignty and culture are crucial. Tribes must decide for themselves what kinds of businesses they want and separate that from politics, he said.

Miller said that there’s a “buy Indian” act from 1910 that allows the secretary of the interior to buy goods and services for Indians from Indians. Not only does he think the act should be mandatory, he thinks each tribe should enact its own “buy Indian” rule.

“I tell tribes to talk the talk and walk the walk.”

Rennie said that when communities have an independent income and are no longer dependent on government aid, it gives them flexibility to find new solutions.

“It reverses that colonial mentality,” he said. “You’re not just allowed to do things. You have a right to do things.”

The concept of identity is timely, according to Jonathan Koppell, dean of ASU's College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

“In 2018 America, identity is so much a part of our politics and we think of identity in largely negative terms. It’s been used by many to divide us.

“We mostly think of identity as being fixed — built off of racial or ethnic identity. I would argue that identity in the social sense can be constructed and built to achieve some of the same positives.”

Top photo: When the Scots were driven from the highlands to the coast, they lost their land and their culture was threatened, not unlike the history of American Indians. The Roatch-Haskell lectures, held Friday in Phoenix and spsonsored by the School of Social Work at ASU, addressed land and identity. Photo by Pixabay

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


Telling stories from inside the tipi

Annual Simon Ortiz Indigenous Speaker Series now part of RED INK initiative

March 20, 2018

The Juste family church tipialso tepee or teepee has been in service, helping heal the Salt River Gila community, for over 25 years.

“This tipi has a real history. A lot of people have received a lot of help,” said Henry Quintero, assistant professor in the Department of English. “Its scars tell a story of this community and what it’s been through, and our perseverance.” Henry Quintero ASU assistant professor Henry Quintero Download Full Image

That history will make its way to Arizona State University this week, where the church tipi will be set up on the Tempe campus by church roadman Glen Juste himself for the 10th annual Simon Ortiz RED INK Indigenous Speaker Series, formerly known as the Simon Ortiz and Labriola Center Lecture on Indigenous Land, Culture, and Community.

The new name follows its new director, Quintero, the editor of RED INK, an International Journal of Indigenous Literature, Arts & Humanities. The journal is just one part of a larger initiative by the same name to enhance access to higher education for Indigenous communities, as well as global access to Indigenous creative and intellectual expression and discourse among native and non-native communities on indigenous issues.

“RED INK is great, and it’s here to stay,” said Quintero, who is affiliated with American Indian Studies. “Part of what’s here to stay is sharing a kind of creative beauty that is intrinsically woven into indigenous people’s lives.”

How we understand our stories and the relationships around us underscores this year's speaker series, set to begin Thursday with a demonstration and talk on Indigenous Epistemologies of Sustainable Geometries: Stories of the Cradleboard and Tipi, and to conclude with Friday’s discussion of the development of the Native American Church and the tipi's evolution alongside.

Storytellers will include Juste (Gila River Tohono O'odham), Sarita and Mac Nosie (White Mountain Apache), and Ksaws Brooks (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation).

The annual series, now a decade old and sponsored by ASU Library’s Labriola National American Indian Data Center — home to thousands of books, journals, Native Nation newspapers and primary source materials, such as photographs, oral histories and manuscript collections — "seeks to create and celebrate knowledge that evolves from an inclusive indigenous worldview and is applicable to all walks of life."

It has featured such speakers as Linda Hogan (Chickasaw), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), Peterson Zah (Navajo), Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee) and last year’s Myron Dewey (Newe-Numah/Paiute-Shoshone).

Quintero sees the series as an act of decolonization, passed down to him by his predecessor and mentor Simon J. Ortiz, an ASU Regents' Professor, who donated his personal papers to the Labriola Center in 2013.

“It’s a testament to the Labriolas' family commitment to indigenous people and the understanding that indigenous people have a philosophy and voice as well as the ability to share and integrate our incredibly valuable knowledge,” he said. 

Ortiz encouraged Quintero to share his knowledge about indigenous plant medicine and the Native American Church back when Quintero was a graduate student at ASU. 

“He said, ‘You've got to write about this,’” recalled Quintero, who now researches Native American Church music, better known as “peyote music.”

“Peyote music is a philosophical, musical and literary system that dates back older than any of the Abrahamic traditions, and belongs to a larger tradition of indigenous plant medicines that we utilize to navigate the human experience,” said Quintero. “It’s like any other glorious representation of everything in our human experience. It’s a way of understanding interrelations with what’s around us — our earth, our families, other human beings.”

In peyote ceremonies, the tipi plays a foundational role, from the way it's constructed to the stories that are embedded and the relationships interwoven.

“Anyone can take a pill, anyone can take a drug,” Quintero said. “When it truly becomes a medicine, from an indigenous perspective, is when it integrates with your life, beliefs and culture. In this way, the tipi is a kind of ‘cultural container,’ a way of utilizing time, place and space with plant medicines to facilitate the best outcome."

Traditional teachings around indigenous culture, the tipi and the cradleboard, a protective baby carrier, will be part of this week's events that are open to the public. 

Through these valuable teachings and new avenues of scholarship, Quintero said we begin to understand this time and space we’re living in now, differently.

"ASU is the place for RED INK and for indigenous studies," he said. "Many indigenous scholars see President Crow's commitment to the 2020 initiative as active decolonization for the benefit of the ASU and international community, but also, in a larger sense, as being the innovation that changes everything in that gentle, good way."

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist, ASU Library

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ASU professor lauds new Navajo Nation law on cyberbullying

March 14, 2018

Law criminalizes electronic activity that aids in stalking or harassment; intent is to reduce violence and suicide

Social media is indiscriminately ruthless and knows no boundaries — even in remote places such as Indian country.

Last month the Navajo Nation signed legislation to include cyberbullying into the tribe’s criminal code. In short, the bill criminalizes electronic activity or communication that aids in stalking or harassment, or contributes to death. The intention is to reduce violence and suicide rate on the vast reservation, a territory that occupies portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico.

ASU Now enlisted Angela Gonzales, a professor of justice and social inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, to shed light on this new development. Her research integrates the fields of sociology, American Indian/indigenous studies and community health. She said poor connectivity notwithstanding, “internet and mobile technology is an omnipresent reality in reservation communities.”

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Angela Gonzalez

Question: How prevalent is cyberbullying in Indian country?

Answer: I'm not aware of any statistics about the amount of cyberbullying experienced by American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) youth. This, however, is less about access to the internet or mobile phones and likely more about the underrepresentation of native people in nationwide studies on the issue. Infrastructural issues that limit broadband access in the home has created a communication void that mobile phones have filled. The availability and widespread use of mobile phones on reservations has certainly opened up the possibility for cyberbullying among native youth. In a recent study, I surveyed native parents about issues of concern for their children. Cyberbullying and sexting were among the top three concerns reported.

Q: Are reservations usually slow to respond to technology as it impacts its clients, and is the Navajo Nation being forward-thinking about this particular issue?

A: I don't think it’s a matter of tribes being slow to respond to the negative ramifications of technology such as cyberbullying, but more a matter of limited human, technical and financial resources to address such issues. This is particularly true for rural reservation communities that rely on federal funds to develop, update and replace basic community infrastructure that most Americans take for granted. When it comes to communication technology, the low population density on many rural reservations makes internet companies reluctant to invest in upgrading their equipment to provide better connectivity. But poor connectivity notwithstanding, internet and mobile technology are an omnipresent reality in reservation communities. The Navajo Nation's new law updating the tribe's criminal code by adding cyberbullying to sections that address harassment, stalking and manslaughter, is an important move that I hope other tribes will follow. Cyberbullying, like other forms of harassment, affect not only native youth, but adults as well and having this codified into law sends a powerful message to offenders and empowers the community to intervene when this type of behavior takes place.

Q: One of the components of the bill is a public education outreach, including the schools. How vital is this aspect of the bill?

A: Public education outreach is critically important, both in the schools but also in the broader community. Cyberbullying, like domestic violence, doesn't just affect the victim, but it affects the entire community.  A thoughtful, culturally responsive outreach and education program grounded in cultural values of respect for self and others and the power of words — whether spoken or texted — to both harm and health may help to reinforce traditional norms beyond the issue of cyberbullying.    

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ASU School of Social Transformation professor selected as AERA Fellow

February 21, 2018

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) has selected Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, President’s Professor of Indigenous Education and Justice in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, as a 2018 AERA Fellow.

Brayboy is among 10 other new fellows announced by AERA on Feb. 21. Bryan Brayboy Professor Bryan Brayboy Download Full Image

AERA, the largest national research organization specifically focused on the scientific study of education and learning, established its fellowship program in 2007 to recognize and honor scholars who make substantial research achievements. The 2018 fellows were nominated by their peers, selected by the AERA Fellows Committee, and approved by AERA’s elected governing body.

Brayboy’s research focuses on the role of race and diversity in higher education, and the experiences of indigenous students, staff, and faculty in institutions of higher education. He has been a visiting and noted scholar in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Norway. His work has been supported by the U.S. Department of Education; the National Science Foundation; the Ford, Mellon, Kellogg and Spencer Foundations; and several other private and public foundations and organizations. He and his team have, over the past 17 years, prepared over 155 Native teachers to work in American Indian communities and over 15 American Indian PhDs.

At ASU, Brayboy is senior adviser to the president, director of the Center for Indian Education, associate director of the School of Social Transformation, and co-editor of the Journal of American Indian Education. From 2007 to 2012, he was a visiting President’s Professor of Indigenous Education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Brayboy will be inducted along with the other 2018 fellows on Saturday, April 14, at the 2018 AERA Annual Meeting in New York City.

Communications specialist, School of Social Transformation


ASU scholar focuses on Native leadership, advocacy in the US South

Novel use of archival sources earns professor Denise E. Bates coveted research grant

February 6, 2018

For Arizona State University professor and historian Denise E. Bates, primary sources such as original archival documents and oral interviews form the bedrock for her scholarship in indigenous leadership.

So for Bates, the news that she was one of 30 scholars chosen to receive a 2017–18 Princeton University Library Research Grant — supporting travel and living expenses for up to a month’s work in the archives — felt something like winning a historian’s version of the lotto. ASU professor and historian Denise E. Bates outdoors at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus ASU professor Denise E. Bates, a scholar of American Indian studies and leadership studies in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, has been awarded a prestigious Princeton University Library Research Grant. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now Download Full Image

“I plan to spend much of April immersed in the Mudd Manuscript Library’s public policy papers and records of the Association on American Indian Affairs,” said Bates, assistant professor of leadership and interdisciplinary studies in ASU’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts.

“The not-for-profit association is one of the oldest Native American legal advocacy groups in the U.S., but the role that the organization’s collaborations played in the development of the Southern Indian Rights Movement remains largely an untold story,” she said.

“I’ll be looking at the relationship-building and reciprocal learning that happened between the AAIAAssociation on American Indian Affairs and Southern Indian communities from 1953 and 1980,” Bates said, “a time of intense activism and political strategizing and maneuvering by Native leaders, and a time when the AAIA was regularly approached to help meet diverse tribal needs on a national-level.”

How did Southern tribal communities communicate and strategize with the AAIA as they pursued their goals toward further developing their tribal nations? How did the organization decide which communities to work with, given they couldn’t serve all that contacted them for support?

These are a few of the questions she will focus on as she studies the collection, which contains all of the AAIA’s administrative records, meeting minutes and internal correspondence between staff members and their legal consultants. Recently, the papers of the late William Byler, who served as executive director of the AAIA from 1963 to 1981, were turned over to the Mudd collection, which further expands the resources Bates will have available in her pursuit.  

Working with some of the collection from afar through photocopy requests, Bates has already glimpsed some of the challenges the organization’s staff and legal partners faced.

“For example, the AIAA non-Indian lawyers, who were based in New York City and had worked primarily with tribes in the West, were well versed in federal Indian law but knew nothing about tribal politics in the South,” she said. “As they started to dip their toe in the Southeast region they were in a persistent state of discovery and learning from tribes they worked with, to better understand the nuances of the region’s politics, how each Southern state handled Indian affairs, and the unique characteristics of each community.”  

The intellectual adrenaline Bates finds in archival work is enormous. 

“There’s nothing like having access to archival documents, like meeting transcripts, that provide a largely unfiltered narrative,” she said, “letting the words bring out the story, finding where the voices are, witnessing an unfolding of people’s assumptions, perceptions and revelations and understanding what shaped them.” 

Building collaborations, launch-points for public history

An advocate and practitioner of community-based history, Bates has focused her scholarship on opening up greater conversation and understanding of the complex history of Native communities in the U.S. South by bringing Native voices, experiences and influences to the forefront.

Interested in a career in history since she was a child, Bates earned a master’s degree in American Indian studies and a doctorate in history at the University of Arizona before joining ASU’s faculty of Leadership and Interdisciplinary Studies in 2007, first as a lecturer and, since 2015, as the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts’ first tenure-track professor of leadership and interdisciplinary studies.

She is part of a small but growing community of scholars focused on the Native U.S. South, and looks forward to seeing the sub-field grow even more at professional academic conferences in the coming years.

“In the 20th century, leaders of Native communities of the South were forced to navigate political and social barriers constructed primarily along lines of race and class — all while confronting inconsistent and politicized federal Indian policies and practices,” Bates said.

“With nearly 100 tribal communities located in the region — 10 federally recognized, 45 state recognized, and dozens of others with no formal political status — there is a rich array of organizational structures and leadership approaches that warrant exploration for insights into scholarly and applied arenas,” she said.

In doing extensive archival and oral history work over more than a decade, she has built a network of collaborators among tribal communities across the South, and each project has led organically into the next.

Her collaborations with the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana have grown into an especially strong partnership, foundational to her first two books: “The Other Movement: Indian Rights and Civil Rights in the Deep South” and “We Will Always Be Here: Native Peoples on Living and Thriving in the South.”

The first book highlighted Southern Native activist work toward tribal sovereignty and nation-building during the civil rights era, and the second shared more than 40 personal narratives and essays that Bates compiled working closely with Native leaders throughout the region, she said, “to document their historic and contemporary successes and struggles in areas that range from cultural preservation to economic development.”  

The work for those books led to a third, “Basket Diplomacy,” which is a study of a century of Coushatta tribal leadership and is now under contract with the University of Nebraska Press.  

“It grew out of two years of intensive research and 300 hours of interviews on Coushatta agency between 1884 and 1985. It is a history of tribal political and business leaders making really savvy decisions and alliances, with the intent to establish cultural and economic stability for future generations,” Bates said. “I’m especially interested in taking a longitudinal approach, identifying areas of continuity across multiple generations and capturing a cultural and historical understanding of leadership.”

On Feb. 8, Coushatta tribal leader and activist Ernest Sickey, who served as tribal chairman from 1973 to 1985, is presenting a public lecture at ASU titled “Tribal Nation-Building in the U.S. South.” His visit, which Bates coordinated with sponsorship from a number of ASU units, also includes a luncheon discussion hosted by the Indian Legal Program of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. 

“Mr. Sickey is a superstar in the evolution of Indian affairs and the movement promoting Indigenous rights in the Southeast,” Bates said. “Under his strategic leadership the community was the first to be recognized by the state of Louisiana and the tribe was reinstated to a federally acknowledged status after being terminated in 1953. The state’s Inter-tribal Council and Office of Indian Affairs are a direct result of his work. And today the Coushatta Tribe is one of Louisiana’s top private employers.”

She is collaborating with Sickey and other tribal leaders on a number of projects to transform the academic scholarship, governing documents and oral histories into instructional and public history materials that can be readily accessed and used.   

“With the Coushatta Tribe, for example, we’re developing a digital learning platform to encourage civic engagement and leadership among tribal youth,” Bates said.

“I feel very strongly that history belongs to the community,” she reflected. “It’s important that this knowledge not just go in scholarly journals and books. Young people are hungry for access to their own history.

“It’s a joy to help pull it together and make it accessible for all to connect with,” she added, “but I’m just a facilitator.”

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Code Talker 101: ASU professor, storyteller offers insight on history

November 30, 2017

Once sworn to secrecy about their cryptic contributions to U.S. military battle, some former hidden heroes are now decoding the details of their efforts for historical posterity.

The last living members of the World War II Navajo Code Talkers are calling for the creation of a national museum to honor the memory of their elite band of brothers. It’s a recognition many, including Arizona State University Professor Laura ToheTohe is a professor in ASU's Department of English and the author of several books, songs and plays. In 2015, she was honored as the Navajo Nation Poet Laureate in celebration of her work as a poet and writer. , say is long overdue.

“Outside of the tribal community, Navajo Code Talkers are deeply admired,” said Tohe, whose father was himself a Code Talker. “People are curious about their contributions and how they used the Navajo language to save many lives.”

Under special classification by the military, Code Talkers were forbidden to talk about their covert service in the first and second world wars until the program was declassified in 1968. However, even after declassification, it still took years before the Code Talkers began to find their place among retold stories of American patriotism.

Tohe shed some light on that history in her 2012 book “Code Talker Stories,” which details the war experiences of these soldiers. And, with the recent honoring of a group of Code Talkers at a White House ceremony where the petition was made for a new museum, Tohe shared more background with ASU Now on the history that has elevated recognition for Code Talkers in recent years. 

Laura Tohe

Question: Who are the Code Talkers?

Answer: The Code Talkers were Marines from several tribal nations who used their native languages to devise a military code during WWI and II. Among them are the Hopi, Comanche, Choctaw, Creek, Chippewa, Meskwaki and Lakota Code Talkers. The Navajo Code Talkers are the most well-known. They used the Navajo language to devise a secret code during WWII to send sensitive messages over the radio waves that was never deciphered by the Japanese. It was quick, accurate and saved many lives in the South Pacific where they fought in many battles.   

Q: Describe the life of a Native American man during WWI and WWII. What would be the incentive or motivation to serve in those wars when they were not considered citizens of the United States during those years?

A: Life on the indigenous homelands were difficult. Based on my grandmother’s stories, disease was rampant in the schools on the Navajo reservation during part of WWI. She saw many of her classmates succumb to the disease in school. During this time, Native peoples still spoke their native languages and may have learned English in school, if they attended. Because of poverty, lack of economic sustainability on the homelands, continuance of warrior traditions, patriotism and an enduring belief in protecting America, indigenous men enlisted or were drafted. 

I was surprised to find in my research for my oral history book that admiration for the military uniform also led some to enlist when the recruiters came to their schools. While indigenous peoples enlisted in the military in great numbers, and still do, they were not given citizenship until after they returned from military service. The Navajo Code Talkers did not have voting rights in Arizona until 1948, after WWII ended. 

Q: How were Code Talkers received inside their tribal communities after their service?

A: Native people have always honored their warriors since before contact. A warrior’s role was to protect, guard and engage in battle with the enemy when it was needed. The Code Talkers took on these responsibilities that earned them all the recognition they receive for their bravery and courage. They returned home as honorable soldiers to their families who were happy and grateful to have them home. The Navajo Nation honors them every year during Navajo Code Talker Day in August and at tribal gatherings throughout the year. They are regarded as the heroes of the Navajo Nation.

Q: Thanks to books like your “Code Talker Stories” and movies like 2002's “Windtalkers,” we are finally getting a more in-depth look at the contributions of the Code Talkers. What other stories would you like to see told about Native Americans in relation to their contributions to American war efforts?

A: I would like to see a film made about the Code Talkers told from their perspective and not Hollywoodized. It should be told with a genuine and truthful sense, acted by Navajo characters and written by a Navajo screenwriter. I’d like to see this film with English subtitles and told with the Navajo sense of storytelling. This film should be made with cultural sensitivity and one that is Navajo-centered. I think this film would appeal to a tribal and mainstream audience.  

Relaying tactical information in their native languages by radio and telegraph, Native American Code Talkers were on the front lines of battles in World War I and helped the U.S. to victory during World War II. They were awarded a Certificate of Recognition by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 and received a Congressional Gold Medal in 2001. 

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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ASU alum bolsters Native American health research in nation's capital

November 29, 2017

Native Americans have distinct health-care needs.

And now they have a new leader in health research who aspires to usher tribal nations across the country into a new era of medical discovery, treatment and support.

David R. Wilson, an Arizona State University doctoral graduate and a Native American, is the first director of the Tribal Health Research Office at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, which was established in 2015.

In addition to overseeing a current research budget of $130 million and several hundred health initiatives for Native Americans, one of his first collaborative efforts is helping to support an ambitious national health initiative designed to develop more tailored prevention strategies and treatments based on individual differences in lifestyle, environment, and biology.

“It’s precision medicine and precise treatments for individuals across America,” Wilson said, who is referring to the All of Us Research Program, the largest medical research program on precision medicine.

The historic effort’s goal is to gather data over many years from 1 million people in the United States with the ultimate goal of accelerating research and improving health.

Under Wilson's guidance, his office is working with the All of Us Research Program to increase their efficacy when conducting outreach to tribal communities nationwide.

Wilson said getting tribal communities to engage in an initiative like this takes a nuanced and sensitive approach. As a member of the Navajo Nation, he is acutely aware of historical issues involving research and tribal communities.

“We have to be cognizant that when we do this type of work, we recognize the different cultures, traditions and governments of individual tribal nations,” Wilson said. “We also have to be able to incorporate their ways, their thinking into this approach and provide to them the benefits of high-level research.”

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David R. Wilson (right) introduces the Tribal Health Research Office to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye in Window Rock, Arizona, in June. Photo courtesy of the National Institutes of Health

Wilson says he has always been curious by nature, growing up in Manuelito, New Mexico, near the Four Corners region.

“The thing about growing up in a remote area is that you can’t always buy something new when something breaks down, so we were always encouraged to fix things,” Wilson said. “I’d pull something apart to see how it worked and then put it back together again. I’ve learned that I like many others learns best by hands-on experience.”

Working under his father, who was a master mechanic, Wilson fixed brakes and transmissions when he was a teen working for a car dealership in nearby Gallup, New Mexico, where he applied that same philosophy.

He originally started his academic career as an engineer. He said he struggled financially, academically and personally.

“A lot of Native American students have trouble identifying who they are because they’re usually the only indigenous people in those programs,” Wilson said. “It’s only natural to ask, ‘Am I in the right place? Do I deserve to be here? Am I an imposter?’ ”

He says that feeling never wore off, but he was able to better understand what he was feeling through emerging research in the area of STEM and diversity. At the end of a long and grueling sophomore year, Wilson signed up for an internship opportunity at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado. There Wilson studied the Colorado Silvery Blue Butterfly and why their eggs are laid singly on flower buds and young leaves of the host plants. 

“The experience of chasing butterflies for eight weeks was like the flick of a switch,” he said. “After that, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Wilson graduated in May 2007 with a doctoral degree in molecular and cellular biology from ASU, drawing parallels to “a unicorn” by one faculty member.

“Dr. David Wilson is a Native man, with a PhD in a heavy-duty science field, leading a national organization to create positive health futures for Native communities, and leading by example,” 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 many ways, he’s a unicorn — a mythical creature of unparalleled wisdom. ASU should be very proud to have played a role in his intellectual and professional development. He’s doing amazing work in an important arena. That he remains humble and grounded makes him even more special.”

Despite the accolades, Wilson said his academic experience wasn’t without its challenges. He said the new concepts of things you couldn’t see with the naked eye were often hard to grasp, the workload was heavy and the constructive criticism was emotionally rough.

“It’s hard to receive constructive criticism when you’re young and developing, and you don’t understand the overall goal of its purpose,” Wilson said. “Through time and experience, you begin to understand your instructors and mentors are trying to help you become a better writer, scientist and problem solver.”

One of the instructors who continually challenged Wilson was his doctoral mentor, Yung Chang, a professor and immunologist in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. Wilson credits her with preparing him for the rigors of a career in research.

“David was a very special student in that he quickly assumed a leadership role in the lab, a very hands-on learner,” Chang said. “He was persistent and goal-oriented and had aspirations to do big things. He was a dreamer, but he never gave up. He was a great problem solver.”

Since then he has been solving problems on behalf of Native American health: as a senior research scientist at the National Institute of Aging in Baltimore, Maryland; as a public health adviser in the Office of Minority Health at the Department of Health and Human Services; as a legislative analyst in the office of the director at the Indian Health Service; as an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health’s Center for American Indian Health; and in January 2017, the first named director of the Office of Tribal Health Research.

Wilson credits his meteoric career rise to his doctorate degree from ASU.

“My PhD gave me a whole new perspective on my career moving forward,” Wilson said. “There were no more expectations of me. I had surpassed everyone’s expectations of me, so whatever I did from that time forward was going to be fun.”

Fun, in this instance, means coordinating more than 250 health initiatives — ranging from substance misuse to mental health to workforce development to diabetes — on behalf of Native Americans throughout the country.

He said his biggest goals in his new position are to take a systematic and scientific approach to problem solving, to offer up effective research to tribal communities and to be a father, mentor and role model for Native peoples to the best of his abilities.

“That is a priority of this office, and we have the capacity to do this,” Wilson said.

Top photo: David R. Wilson is the first director of the Tribal Health Research Office at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He credits his success to Arizona State University, where he received his doctoral degree in molecular and cellular biology in May 2007. Photo courtesy of the National Institutes of Health

Reporter , 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


Standing Rock journalist, filmmaker to speak at ASU indigenous series events

October 27, 2017

Myron Dewey (Newe-Numah/Paiute-Shoshone), an award-winning filmmaker, citizen journalist and educator, is the featured speaker in Arizona State University's Simon Ortiz and Labriola Center Lecture on Indigenous Land, Culture, and Community for fall 2017.

With Josh Fox and James Spione, Dewey co-directed the documentary film “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock,” which chronicles the #NoDAPL peaceful protests on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Myron Dewey / Courtesy photo Myron Dewey co-directed the documentary film “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock,” which chronicles the #NoDAPL peaceful protests on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Dewey's drone footage adds both immediacy and perspective to the film, making him “one of the most closely followed journalists to come out of the movement” (IndieWire). Photo courtesy Myron Dewey. Download Full Image

ASU will host two screenings of “Awake” — the first on Nov. 13 at Sun Devil Marketplace, 660 South College Avenue in Tempe and the second on Nov. 14 at the Heard Museum, 2301 North Central Avenue in Phoenix. Both events begin with a reception at 6 p.m., followed by the film at 6:45 p.m. Dewey will be present for a Q&A after the screenings, which are free of charge and open to the public.

Dewey is from the Walker River Paiute Tribe, Agui Diccutta Band (Trout Eaters) on his father’s side and Bishop Paiute Tribe on his mother’s side. He holds AA and BS degrees from Haskell Indian Nations University and an MA from the University of Kansas. He is founder and owner of Digital Smoke Signals, a social media and film company, for which he is an expert drone operator, youth media trainer and language preservation app builder.

Committed to what he calls “indigenizing media,” Dewey aims to bridge the digital divide between mainstream and native communities.

Henry Quintero, faculty advisor for Red Ink journal and an assistant professor of English in indigenous literature at ASU, believes Dewey is succeeding at this, primarily because Dewey’s work exists outside traditional confines of space and place. He “has transformed and Indigenized American journalism,” Quintero said.

Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, “Awake” has been called “powerful” by the Hollywood Reporter and “an evocative wake-up call told as a visual poem” by IndieWire. The film does not follow a single protagonist but instead forms a “pastiche” of narrative, mostly indigenous, voices. Dewey’s drone footage adds both immediacy and perspective to the film, making him “one of the most closely followed journalists to come out of the movement” (IndieWire). For Dewey’s efforts, “Awake” won the Special Founders Prize for Citizen Journalism at the 2017 Traverse City Film Festival — a festival founded by legendary documentarian Michael Moore.

“Standing Rock and its opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline is one of the most significant events that has occurred in recent history in Indian Country,” said James Riding In, associate professor and interim director of American Indian Studies at ASU. “Myron Dewey’s film footage shot mostly from his drones represents an important development in journalism and the coverage of real-time events. His film is a testament to Indigenous resistance to abuses committed against people and the environment.”

The Simon Ortiz and Labriola Center Lecture on Indigenous Land, Culture, and Community at Arizona State University addresses topics and issues across disciplines in the arts, humanities, sciences and politics. Underscoring indigenous American experiences and perspectives, this series seeks to create and celebrate knowledge that evolves from an inclusive indigenous worldview and that is applicable to all walks of life.

ASU sponsors include the American Indian Studies Program, ASU Library, Department of English, Labriola National American Indian Data Center, Office of American Indian Initiatives, and Red Ink Initiative. The Heard Museum is a community partner.

For more information, visit the series website.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

senior marking & communications specialist, Department of English


ASU student represents her heritage in summer internship

October 20, 2017

Arizona State University student Andrea Smolsey went swimming with the frogs — or rather smelling with the frogs — this summer during a six-week internship at the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, Illinois, in which she helped develop an odor library for frogs to investigate the decline in amphibian populations.

Smolsey, an undergraduate in American Indian Studies and the School of Life Sciences, has been interested in molecular biosciences and biotechnology since high school. Andrea Smolsey, an undergraduate in America Indian Studies and the School of Life Sciences Andrea Smolsey, an undergraduate in American Indian Studies and the School of Life Sciences. Download Full Image

After conducting a meticulous bacterial transformation experiment her junior year of high school, she expanded her research by relating her findings to diabetes. As an Apache, Smolsey was happy to personalize the project’s scope to her community because Native Americans have a greater chance of developing diabetes than any other U.S. racial group, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I was able to focus on a minority ethnic group, which was interesting,” said Smolsey. “The implications were profound and purposeful to give back to my people. I don’t know what else I would enjoy as much as this.”

Her passion for research followed her into college. Smolsey has conducted research in a few labs as an undergraduate at ASU. The skills she has gained came in handy when Laura Gonzales-Macias, associate director of the American Indian Student Support Services, recommended her to apply for an internship.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Construction Engineering Research Laboratory has developed a student internship and mentoring program at their facility in Champaign, Illinois. The program gathers research to enhance the Army’s ability to design, build, operate and maintain its installations and contingency bases while ensuring environmental quality at the lowest life-cycle cost.

During her summer internship where she focused on developing the odor library for frogs, she worked toward figuring out what types of odors a frog can smell as a means of building a chemically-mediated conservation effort.

“They don’t know what kind of chemical binds to receptors and what outcome it produces,” Smolsey said. “Once they find out there is a reaction to a scent, they can test if certain smells attract or repel the frogs. And the idea behind that is, certain frog species are declining so they want to non-invasively facilitate movement of these species through chemically mediated conservation efforts.” 

group photo

Left to right: Kenro Kusumi, associate dean of research and graduate initiatives; Kirankumar Topudurti, deputy director of the Construction Engineer Research Lab; Andrea Smolsey; and Paul LePore, associate dean for student and academic programs.

During her time in Illinois, and as one of the youngest students in the lab, Smolsey ran into a few challenges that helped her grow.

“Most of the other interns were undergraduate seniors who were about to graduate or had just graduated, so they kept saying how young I was and how ahead I was. There was a disconnect there, but I got used to talking with them.”

Smolsey was also one of the only Native students involved in the research. When questions about her heritage were brought up, Smolsey said she was not surprised.

She grew up on a military base with people from many different backgrounds. She had to hurdle many instances when people would ask about her heritage without being culturally sensitive. Regardless, Smolsey would answer the questions as a proud Native American.

“We just expect it sometimes,” said Smolsey. “I’m all for educating people about my heritage so I don’t mind, but it was interesting that it still happened. It’s a weird thing. You feel uncomfortable being asked these questions, but at the same time you’re prepared.”

Despite having to overcome these hurdles, Smolsey persisted.

“We need native people in these environments. I don’t see a lot of representation of natives in lab coats and goggles, specifically in that research area,” she said. “It takes a lot of strength to do, as a native person. I was given the opportunity to do research and have pictures representing myself, my family and this community very respectfully.” 

She is thankful for her experience to not only participate in relevant and meaningful research, but to educate others and represent her community.

“I say only positive things came out of doing it,” she said. “I gave a presentation at the end, where I introduced myself in Apache, which I thought was amazing. You never hear about a research presentation starting in Apache, but it was done and I was the one who did it.”

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies