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It was seeing herself reflected that made the college decision for Maria Walker.
The high school senior had been all set to go to Columbia University on a full scholarship, but then Tribal Nations Tour visited her school in the White Mountain Apache community. The outreach program brings Arizona State University students to schools throughout the state with large populations of American Indian students.
That spring 2017 visit made all the difference for Walker.
“It was heartwarming to see other Native Americans from ASU, who were successful and took the time to share their stories with us,” said Walker, now a senior in ASU's College of Health Solutions. “It made me realize that if I went to ASU, I’d be studying with fellow Native Americans and be taught by Native staff who could help me along the way.
"I decided that I’d rather have a community at ASU rather than travel across the country and not know anyone or have the support I have now.”
Walker is part of a growing number of Native American students at ASU, which reached almost 3,500 — 2,874 undergraduate and 596 graduate students — this fall. That number appears to be the largest among U.S. colleges and universities, according to ASU Now's research. ASU also is one of the nation's leaders in degrees granted to American Indian students on an annual basis; for the 2019-20 academic year, 663 Native American undergraduate and graduate students earned 679 degrees here.
American Indian students make up less than 1% of all college students in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and only about 13% of all Native Americans have a college degree. Those numbers are starting to change, and ASU — whose Tempe campus sits on the ancestral homelands of many Indigenous peoples, including the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Xalychidom Piipaash (Maricopa) — is striving to do its part.
"There is so much potential here, and indeed, potential that is already being realized in very big ways," ASU President Michael M. Crow said. "There is unbelievable energy to be found by asking, 'Where is there opportunity to grow in understanding?' ASU is making it a priority to serve Native American students, and in turn, these students are enriching the ASU community."
What follows is how ASU got here, and how it is working collaboratively with tribal nations to help them become stronger and more vibrant by building capacity. This work is accomplished through community engagement, research and offering place and space for American Indian and Alaska Native students, faculty and programs to create futures of their own making.
Sixty years ago, when ASU opened the Center for Indian Education, the university had 17 Indigenous students enrolled at the university. Peterson Zah, the last chairman and the first president of the Navajo Nation and a consultant to ASU's Office of Tribal Relations, first attended the university in 1959. He said getting to ASU was an adventure and an education in life.
Zah packed his luggage — a brown paper sack — placed his clothes and whatever possessions he owned in it, and hopped in the back of a pickup truck, commandeered by his uncle with his aunt riding shotgun.
“On the way down from the reservation, we stopped at a store in Payson to eat and gas up,” Zah said from his home in Window Rock, Arizona. “I could barely read or speak English, but I noticed a sign in the window that read, ‘Any good Indian is a dead Indian.’ I asked my uncle what that was about. He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘People are just that way around here.’
“I asked him, ‘What am I going to school for?’” Zah said.
Soon he would find out — to help build capacity for his people and other tribes. When Zah graduated in 1963 with a degree in education, he had several jobs. He taught high school in Window Rock, worked as a construction estimator for the tribe, did a stint with the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer program, and helped the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe build the one of the earliest major Indian casinos in Ledyard, Connecticut. In 1995, Zah was hired and tasked by then ASU President Lattie Coor to look for innovative ways to increase the number of American Indian students at ASU, which numbered 672 at the time.
Twenty-five years later, that number is far more substantial.
“I have always marveled at the number of American Indian students receiving their degrees every year in December, and especially at spring graduation in May,” said ASU Regents Professor Donald Fixico, one of the nation’s preeminent American Indian history scholars. “It is impressive to see all of the families, relatives and friends that fill the auditorium. At last, ASU has reached a milestone by graduating more Native students than any other university in the United States. This says a lot — that ASU is a university that welcomes and supports American Indian students.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit tribal communities particularly hard in 2020. Long-standing health disparities have left American Indian people more vulnerable to the pandemic. Relatives and family members have died. Reservations have implemented weekend-long lockdowns and curfews. Inadequate infrastructure in water, housing, education, health care delivery and limited or no broadband accessibility has been exacerbated, and funding for scholarships have taken a big hit.
But that didn’t stop American Indian students from seeking their education. This group has historically been driven by a sense of community and purpose, according to Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, President’s Professor, director of the Center for Indian Education and ASU’s senior adviser to the president on American Indian affairs. Native students often get a degree to pay it forward, by going back to their community and helping to strengthen and sustain it.
Students like Mariah Black Bird.
The 27-year-old is a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and she is enrolled in ASU’s Indian Legal Program in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
With financial burdens growing up, the death of her father when she was 14, and coming from an impoverished tribal community, Black Bird has had a lot of obstacles to overcome. But she knew education was her pathway to a brighter future.
“There were a lot of sacrifices that had to be made. I sold my car, worked summers and my mom let me borrow her car to come down to Phoenix,” said Black Bird, who is on an ASU scholarship, which she says covers about 75% of her costs. “Sometimes I don’t get to have a social life because I have to study, or I need to stick to a budget because things are tight. But I know it’s only temporary.
“I look at our history and know that even though we’re no longer battling it out at Wounded Knee or other famous sites, we’re still fighting. … I want to try to help my tribe any way I can, and our weapon of choice has to be education.”
That’s a statement that resonates with Megan Bang. As the senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation and as a learning sciences professor at Northwestern University, Bang believes that higher education degrees for Native peoples is of the utmost importance for tribes and also advances the possibility of a just United States.
“The success at ASU is remarkable on multiple fronts, and the multitiered work is critical to appropriately recruiting and serving Native students,” said Bang, an Ojibwe tribe member and renowned researcher who serves on the Board on Science Education at the National Academy of Sciences. “ASU has also made substantial investments in Indigenous faculty and staff, Indigenous research and dedicated centers, support for students to engage in and with each other around important communal and cultural practices, and long-term partnerships with Indigenous communities, amongst other remarkable efforts.”
Bang added: “The university has built the institutional capacity to serve Native students with a rigor and seriousness unparalleled. ASU’s leadership is a model for the rest of us to learn.”
In the not-so-distant past, an academic recruiting trip to a reservation in the state of Arizona was almost inconceivable. The trips were long and the reservations were hard to navigate, with populations spread out over wide spaces. The barriers were great.
That mindset changed about a decade ago, said Annabell Bowen, director of American Indian Initiatives for the Office of University Affairs. That’s when her team, with the help of Zah, created the Tribal Nations Tour outreach program. Each year, the tour holds presentations on wellness, college readiness, career preparation and the pursuit of academic degrees.
“ASU can’t be viewed as invisible, and we’re not waiting for students in tribal communities to come and visit us,” said Bowen, who schedules visits to all of Arizona’s tribes and has plans to visit other states such as California, New Mexico and South Dakota. “Through these visits, Indigenous youth are able to see themselves in our students and faculty.”
In addition to the Tribal Nations Tour, ASU has built a suite of programs to recruit, retain and build a sense of community for its Indigenous students.
Those pathways begin with RECHARGE, a one-day college and career readiness day put together in collaboration with ASU’s Educational Outreach and Student Services. In spring 2019, the program attracted approximately 700 American Indian students from around the state. The second offering is INSPIRE, a weeklong summer bridge program for high school students that, pre-COVID-19, drew more than 250 applications for 100 slots. Another community engagement program is SPIRIT, a two-week final ramp-up orientation before the start of the fall semester for incoming American Indian first-year students. The program moves students into the dorms early in order to get acclimated to their new environment and make new friends in anticipation of often-experienced culture shock during what, for many students, is their first time away from home.
“Many times when Indigenous students come to this university to visit our campus, they are accompanied by their families,” Brayboy said. “Nine times out of 10, the parents will say to us, ‘We are entrusting you to take care of our child.’ It’s a promise and responsibility we take seriously at the university.”
Beyond creating a welcoming environment, ASU realizes that connection is a worldview in how Native Americans are brought up, and that leaving the reservation is, in a way, a loss. Staff have worked hard over the years to present experiences of connection, belonging and shared identity. The university does that in a variety of ways and initiatives.
In 2017, ASU began publishing Turning Points, a first-of-its-kind magazine that comes out twice a year. It is geared specifically toward Native American students and is written by an all-Indigenous staff of students.
A year later, the Dream Warriors, a collective of Native American artists, came to ASU’s Tempe campus to kick off the “Heal It Tour,” which included two days of poetry, music, sharing, self-empowerment and healing.
For more than three decades, the university has hosted the ASU Pow Wow. The annual event draws thousands of spectators representing more than 100 tribes from around the U.S. and Canada for a three-day gathering. In April 2019, dancers and singers wore traditional regalia and continued the social and spiritual practices of their ancestors in Sun Devil Stadium, the first time the event had been held at the stadium since its inaugural year in 1986.
At the West campus, the Veterans Day Weekend Traditional Pow Wow has been a campus fixture since 2000. Unlike the spring event on the Tempe campus, which is a dancing competition, the West one is a traditional social gathering whose focus is honoring the military service of Native Americans. Because of COVID-19, its 20th anniversary will be celebrated in 2021.
The university also has plans underway to redesign the campus to reflect Indigenous culture. Last year, the ASU Library announced its expansion of the Labriola National American Indian Data Center, which features thousands of books, journals, Native Nations newspapers and primary source materials, such as photographs, oral histories and manuscript collections. The Labriola Center now has two locations; Fletcher Library on the West campus and Hayden Library on the Tempe campus.
Future ideas include adding traditional Gila River pottery artwork to Sun Devil Stadium and building a storytelling pavilion and gathering place on campus. A “welcome wall” that includes the languages of the nearly two dozen tribes in Arizona was incorporated into the renovated Hayden Library.
Through these efforts, ASU is raising awareness of its Indigenous connection to all students, not just Native Americans.
When Native students arrive on campus and are taught by Native faculty, they don't just see their physical selves reflected, they also find a reflection of their experiences and values of community, said Natalie Diaz, a poet, associate professor in ASU’s Department of English and winner of a 2018 MacArthur "genius" grant.
“ASU is building a community in which our Native students won’t have to become someone else to arrive here and succeed, and where they instead can be themselves and who they are will be impactful to our entire community at ASU,” said Diaz, who was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, and is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe.
“One of the things I love about being at ASU is that I have the freedom to be 100% Native while I’m here, as well as all the other things I believe I am. It isn't necessarily a new home; rather it is an extension of my home, which I carry with me everywhere I go.”
Diaz is one of many world-class Native professors at ASU. Others include Brayboy (Lumbee), director of the Center for Indian Education; Gary F. Moore (Powhatan Pamunkey) assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences and a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery; K. Tsianina Lomawaima (Mvskoke/Creek Nation) in the School of Social Transformation; and Fixico (Shawnee, Sac and Fox, Muscogee Creek and Seminole) in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies — all of whom have either been inducted into major academies or had significant awards bestowed upon them.
In the last year alone, ASU added several new Native American faculty hires. One of them is Matthew Ignacio, an associate professor in the School of Social Work.
“I feel like I hit the jackpot because this is where I’m supposed to be,” said Ignacio, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation who specializes in the study of diversity, oppression, healing and wellness of Native Americans. “ASU is so vibrant on so many levels and across all four campuses. They work with tribal nations and understand the challenges of Native American students. I’m honored to be in this position and to give back to the students. I want to be a role model.”
So does Benjamin Timpson, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Art who runs a nationally ranked photography department.
“I love being at ASU because it’s an incredible place to be and they have a built-in outreach platform for Native American students,” said Timpson, who is a Yale-Smithsonian Poynter Fellow and descendant of the Pueblo Indian Tribes. “I’ve been at other schools where it’s an every-man-for-himself kind of place, and those are not healthy institutions. Not here. They really do a great job of building people up. Students come here and right away they’re all treated as equals no matter what level they were in the past. This is a very progressive place.”
The university’s latest superstar hire is Professor Rebecca L. Sandefur, a sociologist with the T. Denny Sanford School of Family Dynamics. Sandefur, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant the same year as Diaz, said she is impressed with her new academic home.
“The ASU Charter highlights the importance of serving ASU’s many communities and fostering inclusive success,” said Sandefur, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation. “As Native American faculty, I am gratified to learn that ASU is the No. 1 educator of Native Americans in the country. I look forward to ASU’s continuing progress in supporting the success of Native American students.”