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Q&A: Celebrating Native American Heritage Month

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Alyssa Hurst

Eight of DU's Native and Indigenous Faculty Members Come Together

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Native Faculty

Meet the Native and indigenous women faculty members at DU.

Ramona Beltran is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) whose work explores the role narrative plays in interrupting intergenerational transmission of historical trauma in indigenous communities, with a focus on health equity and healing. She is a mixed race Xicana of Yaqui and Mexica descent.

Sophia Cisneros is a teaching assistant professor in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics’ Department of Physics and Astronomy. She works on applications of general and special relativity to the dark matter problem and the cosmological model of the universe. She is a member of the Confederate tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians.

Janelle Doughty is an associate professor of the practice of social work and director of the Four Corners Program where she works to expose graduate students to issues of Native culture, tribal politics and sovereignty. She was raised on the Navajo Nation reservation and is an enrolled member of the Southern Ute tribe.

Kelly Fayard is an assistant professor in DU’s Department of Anthropology. Her research deals primarily with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Southern Alabama, where she is an enrolled citizen. She examines the methods and actions they use to define themselves as Creek, given the stereotypes and assumptions about what it means to claim an Indian identity.

Nancy Lucero, Mississippi Choctaw, is a research associate professor in GSSW and principal investigator for DU's Butler Institute for Families Capacity Building Center for Tribes project. Her work helps tribes develop their child welfare systems and works to reduce the number of Native children who end up in the child welfare system. Her tribal affiliation is Mississippi Choctaw.

Chris Nelson is an assistant professor in the Morgridge College of Education’s Department of Higher Education. Her research explores the purpose of higher education by addressing the collective and political factors influencing indigenous college students and tribal communities. She was a first-generation college student and is from the K’awaika and Diné tribes.

Angela Parker is an assistant professor in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and a historian of 20th-century U.S. and Native American history with an interest in the centrality of land, place and space in tribal political formations. She is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota and has Cree heritage as well.

Miriam Valdovinos is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Social Work. Her research focuses on interpersonal violence, particularly intimate partner violence, as well as health disparities in Latinx and indigenous communities. She is of Xicana of P’urepecha descent.

In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, they agreed to field some questions from the DU Newsroom about their work and experiences. This is a selection of their responses, condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: How have your life experiences as a Native woman come together to shape who you are and the work you do today?

Lucero: I grew up in the Denver Indian community here and had the opportunity to go to GSSW for my master’s degree and PhD. What I didn’t realize while I was doing my master’s was that people in the Indian community here had been watching me. When I graduated, several of them came to me and said, ‘We have the job that you’re going to do now.’ It was being a therapist for Native women here in Denver whose children had been removed by the child welfare system. I never would have imagined that those elders coming to me would actually put me on the path where now I’m working all across Indian country — Maine to Alaska and everywhere in between.

Valdovinos: My experiences as an indigenous woman continue to shape my research because I carry the legacies of my grandmothers as strength to do the healing work that sometimes is difficult to address because of structural, institutional, cultural and social forces that continue to interface with interpersonal violence.

Cisneros: My being Native informs everything I do with physics and math and cosmology. My daughter was born and that sent me back to school. I think my PhD and work in physics are due entirely to my love for my children and my relatives. It keeps me connected to the way my ancestors viewed the natural world and helps me to progress in my theoretical considerations by guiding me with the math I've always found in nature.

Doughty: The incredible hardships that my great-grandparents, my grandparents and parents endured have shaped the person that I am today. Too many times when the stories of Native people are told, listeners are left believing that these are the tales of old. What I had to figure out across the course of my career, is that these incredible hardships thrust upon my family set me up with a genuine sense of perseverance — an attitude of survival and the ability to endeavor to persevere against incredible odds. In truth, this is what led to my success in social work, and this is what drives my pursuit to train the next generation of social workers./p>

Beltran: I was raised in a single-parent household with my mom and sister, and we were quite poor in my early childhood. This experience led me to have an understanding about inequality at a very young age. Despite our socioeconomic status, my mom always gave what she could to others who were also struggling, and she instilled in me an appreciation for social justice as well as pride in our culture, and these are the threads that have created the tapestry of my life and academic journey. This is also a big part of  what it means to be indigenous for me.

Parker: In our tribal family relationship norms, your mother's sisters are also your mothers. I'm lucky because my mothers are all strong women — strong willed, eloquent, intelligent, analytical, dedicated, kind, loving and generous. I grew up knowing that I didn't need to conform to white femininity to be effective, and that any title or degree or status is not as important as being honest, humble and a good relative.

Q: Tell us about your experience of being a Native academic.

Fayard: I did my PhD at the University of Michigan. While I was there, eight Native women were also working on their PhDs. We were an incredibly close-knit group, and we became each other’s biggest supporters. [But] it was not easy being in the anthropology department at Michigan. I didn’t know when I arrived, but found out soon, that the museum of anthropology held thousands of Native human remains. The Native caucus led the charge in trying to change policies (and personalities) to make sure these ancestors were able to go home to be buried properly by their relatives. From that experience, I knew that my career would be full of times when I might be morally opposed to the institutions I was associated with. That is why I was so impressed to see how DU has supported the creation of the Evans Report, and partly why I decided to apply to come join the faculty.

Q: What is the significance of bringing Native women together at the University?

Beltran: Native and indigenous women have been behind some of the most important movements for some of the most pressing issues of our time, and I would argue they always have been. The Native and indigenous women faculty here at DU are continuing this tradition. Together, and with their own communities, they are creating STEM curricula using Indigenous cultural principles, exploring the development of tribal identity, tribal sovereignty and media representations of Native peoples, researching the role of migration in interpersonal violence, helping tribes develop capacity for improving child welfare outcomes, exploring the role of culture in healing trauma and beyond. Academia can be very isolating, as it often separates people into disciplinary silos. When we come together, we have an opportunity to leverage our leadership strengths, expertise and innovations toward change at the University and the broader community.

Parker: From a historian's perspective, every Native woman — every Native person on this campus — is descended from freedom fighters and community builders. Our grandparents and great-grandparents back to 1492 survived displacement, smallpox and cholera, massacres, sexual violence and abuse, cultural genocide and structural racism. Yet, they built and maintained community life and structures that allowed their descendants to thrive despite the long history of violence and trauma. Each of us here today is the result of hundreds of years of care and love and support and hard work in the hopes that we would be able to live in a better future. I believe that my colleagues are all working to do the same for future generations, regardless of our disciplines.

Nelson: I joined DU at the same time as three other Native women. After meeting a few Native graduate students and faculty, we began meeting weekly for coffee. At those meetings, we quickly learned that we all entered the academy with a commitment to support each other. Through our collective commitment to give back, we decided to start outreach to the Native community in Denver. Before we knew it, we were submitting grant proposals to begin an indigenous STEM pre-college summer program.

The ability to have a strong bond with other Native women is key for me. Both tribal communities I come from (Diné and K’awaika) are matrilineal, meaning that a woman’s role is important in governance, decision-making and overall well-being of the community. Being in an academic space that values a strong matriarchy is empowering, and our indigenous faculty have strived to create that space. In that practice, our collective force challenges patriarchal practices that often silence indigenous perspectives and practices.

Q: What are the promises and possibilities of higher education for Native and indigenous students, and what can universities do to support them?

Lucero: Young Native people must have an education, and I think so many of our tribes really stress the importance of an education but also understanding of their own tribal ways, traditions and worldview. One of the amazing possibilities that is just starting to take shape for our younger people is to really be able to articulate the indigenous knowledge from our tribal cultures and communities and positioning that alongside dominant cultural ways of knowing — and have both of those be seen as having equal validity. That’s one thing I hear: “Tribes have lost their cultures.” No. Cultures transform, but tribal cultures are not lost. Our students still bring that. They are learning how to meld the two.

Fayard: I have worked with indigenous undergraduates and graduate students at a variety of institutions, and I have seen how intelligent, beautiful, hilarious, and driven Native students are everywhere. They have to persevere, especially at the primarily white institutions where I have had the privilege of working with students.  Micro (and macro) aggressions are everywhere — from other students, staff member, and yes, even faculty.  Faculty can actually be the most egregious when it comes to stereotypes about Native students. That is why it is important to have a student support system that includes Native faculty and staff and a dedicated student services support person.

Cisneros: While I was at MIT as a postdoc, I worked very hard to find Native students who wanted to major in physics. I found none. But since I came to the University of Denver, I have already had three Native students majoring in physics and astronomy. This is the best privilege of my academic career.

Nelson: Westernized higher education had hopes that the “educated” would abandon indigenous ways of knowing to integrate into mainstream society. We, as higher education professionals, need to be aware of higher education’s problematic history if we are to reimagine spaces and programming for Native students. Specifically at DU, we need our faculty, staff and top administrators to grapple more with the John Evans Report and the role that DU’s founder, John Evans, had in the Sand Creek Massacre. Complicating these histories will provide a space for conversations involving tribal sovereignty and Native nation building to emerge, which often align with our Native students’ desires to contribute to Native community.