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ASU partnership helps to re-energize the teaching of Pima culture, language

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

Gila River cohort trains Native American teachers on their home reservation

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

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

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

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

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

Coursework and capstones

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

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

The capstone is separated into two projects:

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

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

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

The players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Indian nations face social, spiritual challenges from unhealed trauma

ASU professor to discuss wounds of genocide among American Indian communities.
Killsback among 8 ASU faculty to speak at Genocide Awareness Week event at SCC.
April 13, 2017

ASU expert to talk about 'Broken Treaties, Broken Pipelines' at Genocide Awareness Week at Scottsdale Community College

Genocide has been a thread through humanity, stretching back centuries and into modern times.

Several Arizona State University experts will talk about mass killings at "Genocide Awareness Week: Not On Our Watch" at Scottsdale Community College. The event runs April 17–24.

This will be Scottsdale Community College's fifth Genocide Awareness Week, which gathers survivors, scholars, politicians, activists, law enforcement and artists to delve into the history and ramifications when one group of people tries to destroy another.

Leo Killsback, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at ASU, will give a lecture titled “Broken Treaties, Broken Pipelines: The Fight For American Indian and Indigenous Rights in the 21st Century.”

KillsbackKillsback culturally and spiritually identifies as a Cheyenne person as he is a practitioner of traditional ceremonies and a member of traditional Cheyenne ceremonial societies and guilds. He is an author, scholar and student of American Indian culture, history, spirituality, traditional law and decolonization. Killsback teaches a graduate course, American Indian and Indigenous Rights, and an undergraduate course, Human Rights and Cultural Resource Law. answered questions for ASU Now:

ASU Assistant Professor Leo Killsback

Leo Killsback is an assistant professor at ASU. Photo by Cheryl Bennett

Question: What will your lecture be about?

Answer: My lecture, as with my research, connects the historical injustices that the U.S. committed against Plains Indians with the current injustices related to social inequality, threats to American Indian sovereignty, and the fights to protect treaty rights and indigenous rights.

Q: How does your talk relate to the theme of genocide awareness?

A: Throughout the colonization of western Native America, the U.S. committed horrendous acts of genocide against Plains Indian peoples through violence and later through assimilation-based policies. Today, many of these same Indian nations continue to face social and spiritual challenges stemming from the unhealed wounds of trauma. Meanwhile, their lands, water sources and air are under constant threat from exploitation and pollution. For a lot of Plains Indian nations, the wars against imperialism never ended.

Q: Your talk is titled, “Broken Treaties, Broken Pipelines.” Do you believe that the recent attention on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests has changed attitudes towards Native Americans’ rights?

A: The attention of the Dakota Access Pipeline has certainly brought American Indian and indigenous rights to the forefront in a manner that the world has never seen before. I think that the attitudes of the non-Indian public towards American Indian and indigenous rights will continue to change for the better. Some people, however, in some parts of the country have become more aggressive in their negative treatment towards Indian peoples in response to the #NoDAPL movement. Nonetheless the movement is strong, resilient and will continue with peace and prayer as core principles.

Q: Did the protests renew enthusiasm among Natives themselves for pursuing justice?

A: American Indians have resisted colonialism and injustice for years, but the current movement has quickly become part of a much larger global community. The Standing Rock Sioux Nation, its citizens and the water protectors who defied the Dakota Access Pipeline represent a 500-year effort to protect Mother Earth.

Killsback will speak at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Other ASU experts and their lectures are:

  • “Violence and State Repression in the Midst of Refugee Crises,” by Thorin Wright, assistant professor, School of Politics and Global Studies, at 1:30 p.m. Monday
  • “Mass Atrocities and International Justice,” by Clint Williamson, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues and now a professor of practice in the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and senior director for Law and National Security at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
  • “Genocide in the Renaissance: A New and Terrible World,” by Sharonah Frederick, assistant director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at ASU, 9 a.m. Wednesday.
  • “Genocide: Problems with Comparison,” by Volker Benkert, assistant professor of history, and Jason Bruner, assistant professor of religious studies, at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
  • “Building the Rule of War: Accountability after Violence,” by Milli Lake, assistant professor, School of Politics and Global Studies, at noon Wednesday.
  • “Anti-Jewish violence in Postwar Poland, 1945–46,” by Anna Cichopek-Gajraj, assistant professor of history, at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

Genocide Awareness Week also will include a talk by a survivor of the Holocaust, lectures about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, a presentation on current hate crimes by the Phoenix Police Department and a memorial service. Find details here.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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Q&A: Native American, ASU poetry professor writes about sustainability

ASU English professor Natalie Diaz "can't not talk about sustainability."
Natalie Diaz's work described by NY Times as 'ambitious' and 'beautiful.'
April 6, 2017

Renowned poet Natalie Diaz says life in the Fort Mojave Indian Village informs her work

Arizona State University has long been a leader in conservation, offering the first comprehensive degree on the concept through its School of Sustainability. The university has worked to engage indigenous communities, with a groundbreaking doctoral program for Native scholars and mentoring and college readiness programs for high school students who grow up on reservations. And it’s become known for cross-disciplinary studies, with faculty and students receiving encouragement and opportunity to merge subjects in search of new ideas.

To those ends, ASU has hired a nationally renowned poet who grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village near the California-Arizona-Nevada borders and now teaches about sustainability on Native American reservations through her poetry.

“I can’t not talk about sustainability,” said Natalie Diaz, an assistant professor in ASU’s Department of English. “I grew up on the Colorado River, and our tribal name means ‘the water runs through our body and land.’”

Diaz became an academic after life as an athlete, which she says continues to inform her thinking and writing process. She attended Old Dominion University, playing point guard on the women’s basketball team, reaching the NCAA Final Four as a freshman and the Sweet Sixteen her other three years. After playing professional basketball in Europe and Asia, she returned to Old Dominion, and completed an MFA in poetry and fiction in 2007. Five years later she penned her first book of poems, “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” which The New York Times described as an “ambitious … beautiful book.”

Diaz is finishing her first semester at ASU and recently spoke to ASU Now about poetry, language, sustainability, the Dakota Access Pipeline and how her days on the basketball court continue to inspire her.

Question: You’re a person who has always had a foot in both societies. Reflecting back, what was it like for you growing up on the Fort Mojave Reservation?

Answer: Most modern Natives have a foot in both worlds. The reservation is a paradox. It’s a place where we weren’t supposed to survive. But many of us did survive, and it’s one of the reasons why our traditions have been protected.

I think there’s a certain honesty that I have with my work and myself. It feels complicated sometimes to make certain negotiations in the business world and even in academia. That has a lot to do with being in the desert, which is in your face and wide open. A lot of people see this as resiliency and strength — yes, that’s true — but the other side that people don’t often see is that there are certain things I’m vulnerable about and that has actually helped me.

The fact that I can be vulnerable means that I’m willing to look at things or that I’m willing to ask myself questions where I don’t have the answers a lot of the time.

Q: The NCAA tournament just wrapped in Phoenix on Monday. Did it evoke memories of your playing days?

A: My little sister is a high school coach and she and her husband both went to the tournament. She texted from the championship game and wrote, “I can’t believe you were here. This is crazy. I can’t even hear myself.” When she said that, I felt it in my body, and there was a flood or charge in my chest when I thought about being there.

What I miss the most about basketball is the way you can trust the body in ways in other worlds I move in like literature and academia, those systems of trust aren’t there. There’s a different gauge.

In basketball, you always know if you’re doing well. You know if you’re winning or losing. There’s no BS'ing. Basketball makes you honest.

I miss the physicality of it but in a lot of ways, that’s how I do my best writing. As soon as my heart rate gets moving, that’s when I have a lot of my best ideas. It’s really the way my body works — it still works as an athlete’s body.

Q: Your work as a poet is interesting in that there’s a big focus on sustainability.

A: I can’t not talk about sustainability. I grew up on the Colorado River and our tribal name means “The Water Runs Through Our Body and Land.” It’s an awful and strange consideration when the river is gone. What will our name even be?

It’s strange to me that there’s so much tension surrounding Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline because what’s happening there is happening in so many different places around the country.

What’s become more visible is the fact that natives have been fighting to keep their lands — many of our lands are the last wildernesses. Look at the Colorado River. It’s got 19 different dams and doesn’t reach the gulf anymore. At some point it will just be agricultural runoff.

What non-Native Americans will learn from all this is how to fight for your land. How to fight for your existence in a way that finally feels urgent. It has always felt urgent to indigenous people. It’s always been there for us. We were born into this constant struggle to not just exist or survive, but to live and to flourish. Natives have done this in many ways.

What we’re starting to see is just a small ripple but it will continue to build momentum. And it’s going to take all of us — every citizen of the United States — to fight for these things in a way that we’ve never had to do that. It’s going to get much worse before it gets better.

Q: Your work with language revitalization is also well noted, but are you seeing signs of success?

A: One of the signs of success is do people want to know more about it? One of the toughest things with young natives is they do have a foot in both societies and they live in a modern world where it’s not always encouraged or embraced there. It’s tough to engage a teen in a language they feel doesn’t work on the outside. It has to be able to evolve. For example, if you see a teen texting in their native language, that’s a sign of success.

Time is an interesting accordion in language work. I have a teacher named Hubert who I’m now able to have a conversation with in our native language, and one day I was really keen on myself and said, “Isn’t it amazing that in a short period of time we’re able to hold this conversation?” He said, “You’re looking the wrong way. Look at how much you don’t know.” And then, the accordion got smaller (laughs).

Q: April is National Poetry Month. What does it mean to you?

A: To be honest, it doesn’t mean a lot. I know for everybody else it means we should be listening to poets right now. And for the most part, I do think our country has been listening to poets more as thought leaders and resistors.

This shows that language is what determines who you are, what you're against, what you’re for and language has a real energy to it. The American language is very violent and has an awful track record, but it also has the power to do positive things. It can bring people together, it can heal, it’s also how we get all of our ideas.

People are looking for places to feel and that’s really what poetry is. It operates under a different time frame, a different power structure. The power of a poem is that for the duration someone reads it, they’re willing to feel something. It doesn’t mean what you’re going to feel is always comfortable but that's how I live. It’s in me and with me all of the time. I don’t need National Poetry Month to tell me I’m a poet.

It’s the same reason why I don’t participate in Native American History Month. I’m a Native American 12 months a year.

Navajo veteran explores engineering pathways, mentors Native students at ASU

March 23, 2017

Every student takes his or her own route to a college education. Some have more twists and turns — and, frankly, years — than others, but every journey is enhanced with mentorship.

Navajo doctoral student Marcus Denetdale grew up in Farmington, New Mexico. He wasn’t an overly motivated teenager, and didn’t see himself pursuing the typical high school to college route. Marcus Denetdale poses next to blossoming bushes on the Tempe campus. A veteran, student organization leader and new program manager for Construction in Indian Country, doctoral student Marcus Denetdale has done it all in pursuit of his third degree from Arizona State University. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU Download Full Image

After high school he joined the United States Air Force and served for four years as an avionics technician working on F-15s.

When he ended his service, he embarked on his “odd jobs phase”: waiting tables, working at a natural gas plant, assisting in a funeral home and locksmithing.

But one night in Farmington, 30-year-old Denetdale bumped into Peterson Zah who asked him a question that changed his course: “Have you considered applying to Arizona State University?”

For a Navajo, there’s no one better to have a conversation with about attending college than Peterson Zah, the first president of the Navajo Nation, who has led numerous efforts to bring more Navajos to college. He served as special adviser to ASU President Michael Crow on American Indian affairs and earned an honorary doctorate from ASU, his alma mater, in 2005.

Since that conversation in 2009, Denetdale has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from ASU, enrolled in a doctoral program, held ASU staff positions in ASU’s Graduate College and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and has been an active member and president of ASU’s Tempe-based Student Veterans Association.

To say he’s merely “gotten involved” is a clear understatement.

Currently pursuing a doctorate in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, his research focuses on identifying the motivations, catalysts and barriers that Native American students face in their pursuit of an engineering education.

He works closely with tribes to sort and analyze their data concerning students and potential students and the pipeline in which they reach engineering fields.

“We want to identify what factors play a role in Native American students completing a bachelor’s degree and, from there, what propels them to attend graduate school or decide what career route they’ll pursue,” he said.

In the end, the goal of his research is to know how to create a program that successfully mentors these students and helps them reach their goals.

Denetdale was recently appointed program manager of the Del E. Webb School of Construction’s Construction in Indian Country program, housed within the Fulton Schools. The program helps attract, retain and financially support Native American students studying construction management at ASU, and provides a great platform for Denetdale to engage in mentorship and to enhance his research studies.

The program also organizes design-build projects for students to obtain on-the-job construction management leadership experience on Arizona reservations.

“For me to move forward academically, it took mentors checking in during every step of the way,” Denetdal esaid. “I had mentors say, ‘Have you considered a master’s degree?’ ‘Have you looked into undergraduate research?’ ‘Have you thought about harnessing this passion toward a doctoral dissertation?’”

Within Construction in Indian Country, Denetdale said, “Advisory board members and I are constantly talking to and encouraging our students. We want them to know we have jobs for them, that their community needs them and that we will do everything we can to financially support them.”

The program is currently gearing up for the Construction in Indian Country National Conference on April 17–19, which brings together students, tribal officials, representatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the construction industry.

“Students meet internship providers; tribal leaders meet subcontractors who can support their community; and all the funds raised from our golf tournament provide scholarships for our construction students,” Denetdale said.  

Denetdale is currently helping to manage discussions with Chapter House officials in Tuba City, Arizona, regarding the possibility of Construction in Indian Country taking on a handful of new design-build projects for the local community.

Amidst all this, Denetdale decided to step down from his position as president of ASU’s Student Veterans Association on the Tempe campus to focus more fully on his work with Construction in Indian Country.

But he feels indebted to the network and support the veteran community provided to him when he enrolled as an older, non-traditional undergraduate student, and he will continue his involvement as a co-advisor and as a member of ASU’s Alumni Veterans Chapter.

Looking to the future, Denetdale plans to stay involved with student affairs and the administrative side of higher education.

“I want to help that student who has the motivation and aspiration to attend college to overcome the barriers they face, and I want to influence policies and provide solutions to help the student experience go well for all students, regardless of where they come from and how they got there,” he said.

Though he’s taken a lot of different steps in his journey to become a doctoral student at ASU — from service in the Air Force to odd jobs to staff positions — he said, “My story at ASU can be anyone’s story.”

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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New ASU study shows that mentors matter

March 1, 2017

Center for Indian Education finds hardships and opportunities can be offset by holistic and culturally responsive mentoring

Arizona State University has hit upon a new solution to help Native American men and boys overcome the host of obstacles that block the path to socioeconomic success for so many: Get outside the classroom to encourage education.

The answer comes from a recent ASU study funded by RISE for Men and Boys of ColorAn advocacy group associated with the University of Pennsylvania. that found rampant generational hardships and lack of opportunity could potentially be offset by holistic and culturally responsive mentoring in all areas of life.

The study prepared by the Center for Indian Education could encourage the creation or expansion of the types of mentoring programs that ASU has implemented for years.

"Mentorship is important because it grounds both mentor and mentee, and makes them matter to one another," said Bryan McKinley Jones BrayboyBrayboy is also Borderlands Professor of Indigenous Education and Justice in the School of Social Transformation, associate director of the School of Social Transformation and affiliate faculty with the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, American Indian Studies and the Department of English., director of the Center for Indian Education and co-lead on the study. "This ties the present to the future. Part of our work is not to lament the past but to think about what's possible."

ASU development programs aimed at Native communities include the SPIRIT orientation program, which helps Native students adjust to college life; INSPIRE, a youth camp at ASU’s Polytechnic campus; and RECHARGE, a college-readiness conference. Aside from teaching classroom skills, the programs highlight overall health and well-being and help students connect with people who support them on the path to success.

Through these efforts, ASU has a growing American Indian student body. About 2,600 Native students attend ASU, which in May saw its largest graduating class of about 360 — a number that is expected to grow.

The study found confirmed often-grim statistics that show overrepresentation in school arrests and referrals to law enforcement along with a dramatic underrepresentation in higher education. Indigenous communities also face the highest unemployment rates across the nation — as high as 90 percent on some reservations — as well as elevated rates of poverty.

But rather than stop there, the study actively sought solutions.

“Rather than ask why they aren’t successful in school, the question needs to be, ‘How can schools be more successful and beneficial to our Native boys and men?’” said Jessica Solyom, an assistant research professor in the School of Social Transformation and co-lead on the study.

The study’s conclusion calls on academic institutions and researchers to be more conscious that Native American men and boys are in turmoil and to engage in capacity-building work. Specifically, schools and researchers should seek to understand Native communities, acknowledge specific traumas, instill a greater sense of self-confidence and engage early and often. It also asks for authors, journal editors, conference reviewers and presses to be “mindful and intentional” in seeking, cultivating and encouraging submissions on ways to assist young American Indian males.

The conclusion also says community groups should develop mentoring and culturally specific development programs that engage family and mentors, strengthen students’ motivation to go to college, and build self-esteem.

Brayboy said the findings will be used by policy organizations and foundations to help guide them in their philanthropic goals.

“We’re not defining the field, but we’ve definitely outlined it,” Brayboy said. “We’re setting the table for creating better opportunities for Native peoples in the future.”

Top photo: From left: JD PhD in justice studies Nicholas Bustamante, doctoral student Colin Ben and JD PhD in justice studies Jeremiah Chin assign tasks for the group during a weekly meeting at the Center for Indian Education on Feb. 1. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

ASU incubator boosts Native American entrepreneurs

Inno-NATIONS supports business owners and enterprises from indigenous communities across Arizona

February 28, 2017

Looking to create opportunity, the American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI) in collaboration with ASU’s Entrepreneurship + Innovation has developed an inter-tribal initiative called Inno-NATIONS, which champions indigenous entrepreneurship and economic development across Arizona.

“The goal is to support up-and-coming Native American entrepreneurs and ignite enterprises to fuel sustainable tribal economies by rejuvenating and modernizing traditional trade networks,” said Traci Morris, AIPI director and Inno-NATIONS founder. scarf print Detail of a scarf print from the Beyond Buckskin Boutique. Photo courtesy of Download Full Image

Morris said by spearheading innovative partnerships and leveraging resources from ASU, tribes and community organizations, she hopes that Inno-NATIONS will create a “collision community,” causing a ripple effect of economic change in tribal communities.

The first collision takes place with the inaugural learning lab series, “Beyond Buckskin: Beyond Online” on March 1 followed by “Protection in All Directions: A Fashion & Resistance Awareness Event” on March 4. The latter will include discussions, multi-media discussions and a fashion show highlighting local Native American designers including Jared Yazzie of OxDX.

Both events are free and take place at The Department in downtown Phoenix.

Inno-NATIONS will also launch a three-day pilot cohort with approximately 20 Native American businesses starting in June.

“Beyond Buckskin” features Jessica Metcalfe, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Dartmouth graduate and entrepreneur, who grew a small online store into a successful boutique on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

The store promotes and sells Native American-made couture, streetwear, jewelry, and accessories from more than 40 Native American and First Nations artist, employing tribe members from the Turtle Mountain community.

ASU Now spoke to Metcalfe to discuss her work.

Head shot of

Jessica Metcalfe

Question: We’ve seen Native American fashion emerge and evolve. How did you get into the business?

Answer: I was writing my master’s thesis in 2005 and my advisor at the time had told me about some research she had done, which looked at Native American fashion in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. She had wondered if I was interested in picking up where her research left off. I looked into it and found that there were these breadcrumbs, little bits here in there, that something had been going on in the past 60-70 years, but hadn’t been looked at as a collective movement.

Through my doctoral dissertation, what I discovered was that Native American fashion has gone through waves of acknowledgements by the broader public, but what we’re experiencing now is perhaps the biggest wave yet.

You have designers like Patricia Michaels out at New York’s Style Fashion Week and the Native Fashion Now traveling exhibit touring the country, so there’s really a lot of exciting things happening lately. It’s coming from a collective movement. Designers basically grouping together to share costs but also to put together more events to cause a bigger ruckus.

Q: How did you build your online store into a brick-and-mortar business?

A: I first launched a blog in 2009 as an outlet for my dissertation research, and wanted to share it with more people and to also get more stories and experiences. My readers kept asking where could they see and buy these clothes? At that time, there wasn’t an easy way to access functions like a Native American Pow Wow or market in order to do that.

I had established a rapport with designers through my research and writing. They saw what I was doing through the blog and then a question popped into my head. “How would you feel about creating a business together?” There were 11 initial designers who said they needed the space, and I worked with them to sell their goods online. We just now opened our design lab on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. We are creating a system where we can meet demand and maximize a need in Indian Country.

We employ Native Americans from ages 15 to 22. There aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for people that age on the reservation. They either work at the grocery store or the gas station. One of them is interested in film and photography and so they run our photo shoots. Another person is interested in business entrepreneurship, and they get to see how an idea goes from concept to execution.

Q: The subtext is that this isn’t just about fashion but, history, representation and cultural appropriation?

A: Our clothing is just more than just objects. It’s about how the material was gathered, what the colors represent, what stories are being told and how does that tie into our value system. One of the things I often discuss is the Native American headdress. Our leaders wear them as a symbol of their leadership and the dedication to their communities. These stories are a way to share our culture with non-Natives and protect our legacy for future generations.

Q: Why is it important for Native American businesses to branch out into other cultures?

A: Native American people desperately need to diversify their economic opportunities on and off the reservations. Up until recently, people haven’t thought of fashion or art as a viable career path.

A recent study conducted by First Peoples Fund that found a third of all Native American people are practicing or are potential artists. That is a huge resource we already have in Indian Country and we need to tap it and develop it, and push for Natives in various fields to look at themselves as entrepreneurs and launching businesses.

Now, Native American people have an opportunity to make a positive impact in their local communities by reaching people through their art and sharing our culture with the rest of the world.

Reporter , ASU Now


ASU American Indian Policy Institute launches Inno-NATIONS initiative to support Native American businesses

January 31, 2017

The American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI) at Arizona State University, in collaboration with ASU’s Entrepreneurship + Innovation, The Department co-working space, Maricopa County Small Business Development Center and The Visionary Magazine, announces the Inno-NATIONS Tribal Business Collision Community — an inter-tribal initiative championing tribal entrepreneurship and economic development across Arizona.

“This community we are building is really needed in Arizona and in the country. There are no other spaces like it,” said Dr. Traci Morris, AIPI director and Inno-NATIONS founder. “In fact, there are few tribal incubators in the country. We see the need, and the Phoenix Valley has a very large urban Indian population with a strong commitment to tribal business owners and is surrounded by tribes with tribal enterprises. Now is the time and this is the place.” Native American businesspeople The Inno-NATIONS Tribal Business Collision Community promotes entrepreneurship for Native American businesses. Download Full Image

By spearheading innovative partnerships and leveraging resources from ASU, tribes and community organizations, game-changers at Inno-NATIONS hope the “collision community” will cause a ripple effect of change in tribal communities. The goal is to support up-and-coming Native American entrepreneurs and ignite enterprises to fuel sustainable tribal economies by rejuvenating and modernizing traditional trade networks.

“One of our biggest priorities at ASU is to help diverse entrepreneurs succeed through culturally relevant programming,” said Ji Mi Choi, ASU associate vice president for strategic partnerships and programs. “Inno-NATIONS will support Native entrepreneurs to foster solutions that meet the needs of their communities and create economic impact.”

The inaugural Inno-NATIONS cohort will be housed at startup coworking hot spot The Department in downtown Phoenix on March 1 and 4, with the three-day pilot cohort starting in June.

“This is such an exciting and unique endeavor for Indian Country,” said Nathan Pryor, chair of the AIPI Advisory Board. “Native people have always been entrepreneurs; Inno-NATIONS will provide the means to grow more formalized tribal businesses through dynamic and contemporary means. We are overwhelmed from the positive support that Inno-NATIONS has received from ASU as we launch this new economic opportunity.”

Within a year after launch, plans are in place to expand and relocate the “collision community” to a culturally relevant space housing several anchor tribal businesses, a “maker” space, business incubator and coworking space.

For more information on the Inno-NATIONS program, steps to apply or become a partner, visit, email or call 480-965-1055.

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ASU seeks to improve odds for future Native scholars

Nearly 500 Native students attend RECHARGE conference and learn about college.
Daylong RECHARGE conference at ASU aimed at increasing Indian enrollment.
January 25, 2017

Nearly 500 students attend RECHARGE conference, which prepares American Indian students for campus life

Statistically speaking, there’s a lot of room for improvement in the representation of American Indians in higher education: Such 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.

So ASU has made it a priority to improve those odds.

“Hearing those numbers only makes me more committed to my education,” said Holbrook High School junior Courtney Lee, a member of the Navajo Nation.

Lee traveled four hours by bus Wednesday with dozens of other students to attend the fifth annual RECHARGE conference at ASU’s West campus. The event drew nearly 500 Native students into a conversation about college readiness with topics ranging from financial aid and scholarships to wellness and careers.

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 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 has a growing Indian student body. Approximately 2,600 Native students attend ASU, which saw its largest graduating class of 362 in May.

The daylong conference, hosted by the Office of American Indian Initiatives and ASU Access, featured guest speakers, including former Congressman Matt Salmon, who became ASU’s vice president for government affairs in June, and Marisa Duarte, a professor in the School of Social Transformation and member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. It drew middle and high school students from around the state. 

“Students need to see themselves on campus, but they also need to see other Native Americans in leadership, faculty and staff roles,” said Victor Begay, academic community liaison director. “When they see others in those roles, it helps them achieve academic comfort.”

One of those role models at the conference was Kate Rosier, executive director of the Indian Legal Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and a member of the Comanche Tribe. She made a plea for students to consider a career in law.

Rosier said there are 1.3 million attorneys in the U.S., but only about 2,600 are Native American.

“We’re the least represented group and yet most affected by the law because we fall under tribal, state and federal laws,” Rosier said. “Without proper representation, we have less of a voice than we should.”

Top photo: Students listen as a financial aid counselor explains options during the RECHARGE conference Wednesday. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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Crazy-contraption innovator among professors honored by White House

Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers goes to two at ASU.
Engineering professor uses Rube Goldberg devices to teach Navajo youth.
January 13, 2017

ASU's Shawn Jordan recognized with Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for work with Navajo youth

You’ve got a candle to extinguish. You could blow it out, or you could flick a domino that clicks into a mouse trap, which slaps a board, knocking a bowling ball down a chute, where it rolls into a bucket, spilling water that douses a candle.

That latter series is a Rube Goldberg solution, and an ASU researcher has leveraged the concept to get Navajo middle schoolers interested in engineering.

For his ingenuity, 38-year-old Shawn Jordan, an assistant professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, has been honored by the White House as the winner of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. He was one of two Fulton teachers so recognized recently, among about 100 educators across the nation.

“These innovators are working to help keep the United States on the cutting edge,” President Barack Obama said in a statement, announcing the award. He added that their work shows “that federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand our knowledge” and “contribute to our economy.”

Jordan’s curriculum teaches engineering design together with Navajo culture to show students opportunities in science, tech, engineering and math. It “has the potential to inspire thousands of Navajo students to pursue careers in engineering and have a positive impact on the Navajo Nation,” he said, adding that the award was a surprise that left him “both humbled and honored.”

It’s the latest for Jordan, who at one point held the Guinness World Record for the longest working Goldberg contraption, a 125-step masterpiece of chain reactions. He has appeared on “Modern Marvels” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and he worked on the PBS show “Design Squad.” 

His work could improve diversity in STEM fields. The National Science Foundation reported that only 0.6 percent of all students enrolled in undergrad engineering programs from 2000-2009, the latest numbers available, were American Indian.

“Navajo students are hands-on learners and have been doing this type work in their everyday lives, but didn’t realize it was engineering,” said Kalvin White, administrator for the Navajo Nation Department of Dine Education. “When they realize engineering can give them an opportunity to be creative while helping their community and family needs, they see it as a real benefit.”

Kory Hedman

Assistant professor Kory Hedman works to improve energy transmission in the power grid. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Meanwhile, 35-year-old Kory Hedman, another Fulton assistant professor, also received presidential recognition. Hedman works in electrical engineering and has been involved with the Power Systems Engineering Research Center, which focuses on integrating renewable energy into the power grid. 

“Transfer limits in the power grid can prevent the use of clean, renewable energy from remote locations,” Hedman said. “While building new transmission infrascructure is a possible solution, new transmission is expensive and often comes with a great pushback based on a 'not in my backyard' philosophy.”

Hedman and a team of researchers developed optimization models and algorithms that harness the flexibility in existing transmission hardware to re-route electrical power around transmission bottlenecks.

In 2015, PJM Interconnection LLC, an electric transmission system serving 13 states and the District of Columbia, announced they would seek proposals to develop and implement his technology, estimating a savings of at least $100 million a year.

“Recognition at this level speaks very highly of the talent within the Fulton Schools and the transformative ideas and impacts produced by our faculty,” Fulton Dean Kyle Squires said. “The PECASE awards for Kory and Shawn are an incredible validation of the quality of their scholarship and effectiveness at advancing their ideas in ways that create new knowledge and the translational impacts that ultimately improve not only the economy but our society at large and quality of life.”

Reporter , ASU Now


ASU alumnus becomes special agent in the FBI

January 5, 2017

From being a first-generation college student to catching a notorious bank robber featured on "America’s Most Wanted," Arizona State University alumnus Manuel J. Johnson leveraged his interpersonal skills to build a career.

“I’m really proud of my service in the FBI. It was a great career,” said Johnson, a member of Gila River Indian Community. “But I really feel like the accomplishments I’ve had in my life happened because I stood on the shoulders of those who have come before me and sacrificed before me.” Arizona State University alumnus Manuel J. Johnson In 1987, Arizona State University alumnus Manuel J. Johnson graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Download Full Image

Born in Phoenix, Johnson was raised by his mother who inspired him to work hard and pursue a higher education. He said he always knew he would attend ASU, but his chosen field of study didn’t come so easily to him.

“Some students know exactly what they want to do when they get here; others it takes a while,” Johnson said. “I started in the business college, but as I took more courses, I didn’t have the same interest.” 

Johnson sought out an African-American studies class to draw parallels between the plight of African-Americans and his own experience as an American Indian. The course was taught by professor and chair of sociology A. Wade Smith, who worked tirelessly to improve race relations on the ASU campus.

“When I was here, there weren’t many minority professors,” Johnson said. “I identified with him because he was a minority … and always had time for me. I remember he suggested I get a degree in sociology." 

In 1987, Johnson graduated from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He started working for the Gila River Indian Community in the social services department. Then he worked for the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, an organization representing most of the tribes in the state. Johnson said dealing with law enforcement in his position piqued his interest in the FBI.

In 1990, Johnson applied to the FBI, training at the FBI Academy the following year. His first indoctrination to the bureau was as a special agent assigned to the Salt Lake City Division in the small town of Vernal, Utah. He handled federal criminal violations on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.

Johnson transferred to the Los Angeles Division as part of a resident agency in West Covina, California. He was assigned to the violent-crimes squad and pursued a range of criminal investigations including bank robberies, kidnappings, extortions and fugitive matters.

“Los Angeles was a good experience for an agent because it’s a big city,” Johnson said. “I remember getting a lead in our office about the Oklahoma City bombing. We got a DMV photo of this individual who looked like the composite drawing of suspect John Doe No. 2. It turns out it wasn’t him, but you never know in those situations.”

After Los Angeles, Johnson was transferred to Flagstaff, Arizona. He was assigned to the Navajo and Hopi reservations, where he handled violent crimes such as homicides, child abuse and assault cases.

“When you work with Native American communities, you really have to build trust,” Johnson said. “You use your people skills a lot. My understanding and educational background in sociology came in handy as I worked in various communities as a special agent.”

Johnson retired from the FBI in 2014 and went back to the Gila River Indian Community. Currently, he works in the Executive Office as the intergovernmental liaison where he fosters and maintains government-to-government relationships at all levels on behalf of the community.

“When I came back to Gila River, all I wanted to do was fit in, work with my community and help,” Johnson said. “If I can influence young people in some way to find their passion in life, then I feel like I made things a little better for somebody, for others, for the community.”

Amanda Stoneman

Science Writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering