ASU American Indian Studies program trains advocates for indigenous communities

May 22, 2017

Exclusively made up of indigenous professors, the American Indian Studies program at Arizona State University motivates the next generation of scholars to advocate for Indigenous nations and communities.

“We’re striving to make American Indian Studies not only important and relevant to Native nations, organizations and peoples, but also to society as a whole,” said James Riding In (Pawnee), professor and interim director of the program. Professor presents the Dean’s Medal to American Indian Studies graduate Professor Myla Vicenti-Carpio presents the Dean’s Medal to American Indian Studies and filming graduate Cameron Mundo during the American Indian Convocation in spring 2016. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now Download Full Image

The curriculum for undergraduate and graduate students focuses on American Indian experiences, human rights and social justice, giving students a practical and theoretical understanding of complex issues facing American Indian communities across the U.S. and Indigenous communities around the world. 

The value of an American Indian Studies degree

“There are several values to our degree,” said Riding In. “It provides students with critical thinking and academic skills as well as knowledge of American Indian nations in both a historical and contemporary context.”

According to Riding In, American Indian Studies is broadly concerned with aspects of the human experience. As such, a student pursuing a degree, minor or certificate in American Indian Studies would gain an education rooted in humanistic ideals and social sciences methods. This dual structure helps students acquire analytical and critical-thinking skills, cultural expertise in American Indian affairs and a broad skillset applicable to a range of careers — especially in fields working with Indian nations or underprivileged/marginalized communities.

Graduates have gone to law school and doctoral programs all over the country. Given the academic nature of the subject, many pursue careers within Indian communities to help find solutions for the complex challenges facing these nations. Recent graduates have launched careers with the International Treaty Council, the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community and the local government. 

For example, alumna Madison Fulton (Navajo), who works for the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, said her education in American Indian Studies was instrumental in getting her to where she is now. She said exposure to caring and influential professors, American Indian Studies theory and thought, and engagement through discussion prepared her to work with tribes.

“The American Indian Studies paradigm and canon are the most important aspect of my education,” she said. “The canon has given me the knowledge to be an advocate for Indian rights in terms of sexual assault advocacy, ethical research, and health and wellbeing of Indian communities and people.” 

American Indian Studies scholarship and impact

The American Indian Studies faculty at ASU have produced scholarship that is shaping the discourse on Indigenous issues today. Their research and publications range from the sacred histories of various Indigenous peoples to the contemporary problems faced by American Indian communities, such as: American Indian child and adolescent issues, graves protection, decolonization and spiritual beliefs.

Furthermore, the program is home to a peer-reviewed journal that publishes work by American Indian scholars from around the country.

Wíčazo Ša Review is an interdisciplinary academic journal devoted to publishing American Indian scholarship. The journal was started in 1985 by founding editors Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Beatrice Medicine, Roger Buffalohead and William Willard. Professor James Riding In (Pawnee) has been the editor-in-chief of Wíčazo Ša Review since 2005. 

The Review fits well within the paradigm of the American Indian Studies program, which states: “American Indian Studies faculty must view their teaching, research and service as a ‘sacred’ responsibility to Indian nations undertaken for the sake of cultural survival.”

“Most of the journals were those that come from the fields of history, anthropology and others,” Riding In said. “And it was very difficult oftentimes for indigenous scholars to get their work published because oftentimes their work fell outside of the realm of what many of those gatekeepers who were in charge of those disciplines thought was pertinent scholarship.”

Riding In said the journal’s most important function today is to provide an outlet for indigenous scholars to get their work published. He emphasized how valuable such an outlet is for young native faculty working in universities across the country.

With Arizona having the second largest Native American population of any state, Indian affairs is an area in demand from both the U.S. federal government and the Indian tribes themselves. The American Indian Studies program strives to partner with Indian nations, communities and organizations to seek solutions for the unique challenges faced by American Indian nations.

“ASU continues to develop an impressive cohort of scholars engaged in American Indian cultural, social, educational, legal and economic issues. We have built world-class programs in American Indian Studies, American Indian legal Studies and Indigenous conceptions of justice,” said President Michael Crow in a 2015 statement on the university’s commitment to American Indian tribes. “Our work, however, is not complete. We must further … integrate Indigenous knowledge and engage Indigenous issues globally.” 

Parker Shea

Student Writer and Reporter, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

ASU professor Kiki Jenkins wins top honors for science dance

May 22, 2017

Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins is known for pioneering a new field of study around the invention and adoption of marine conservation technology. An assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Jenkins has earned fellowships from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Ford Foundation, and the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship Program. 

Her pioneering spirit has just earned her another award for her research — this time from the International Sea Turtle Society for her work on science dance. Kiki Jenkins Kiki Jenkins, assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Photo by Daniel Suchman Download Full Image

Science dance is a little known performance art form in which participants attempt to communicate key aspects of technical research through body movement. Those who are aware of science dance may have first learned about it through the AAAS Dance Your PhD competition, the largest and most visible event of its kind, which began in 2008.

Jenkins ended up taking second place in that inaugural competition’s postdoctoral category.

Her unique approach to research communication hit some initial roadblocks early on. When she began dancing during college and graduate school, some viewed her activity unfavorably.  After becoming an assistant professor at her former university, she helped form a science-art collective to foster growth of the science-art in the university community. For Jenkins it was an opportunity to combine her work and dance.

“I had written a science-art grant for the collective and that seemed to be a step too far,” she said. Jenkins was encouraged to support the group at a distance.

Science dance has been gaining recognition in recent years, however. Higher participation and online voting at new competitions like the ISTS's, along with a National Academy of Sciences study on science-art, are all signs that science dance is becoming more visible.

“It has been expanding significantly, but I think the culture around it is not transforming as quickly,” she said. “Particularly in academia, it’s still perceived as a curiosity.”

ASU is different, she said. “I can do science-dance here as scholarship,” she said. “It’s accepted and supported.”

Jenkins is developing her own methodological contributions to science dance, building in part on the work of 2002 MacArthur Genius award-winning choreographer Liz Lerman, now a professor in ASU’s School of Film, Dance, and Theatre.

For the recent ISTS competition, Jenkins formed her dancers into two groups. The principals all read one of Jenkins’ scientific papers and chose to represent one of its four major findings. In rehearsal, they explained their choices and Jenkins was happy to hear them making connections, both scholarly and personal, that she would never have expected.

The second group received a mini-lecture about the topic and created their own movements within a predetermined improvisational structure. Weeks later, Jenkins saw interesting results.

“The participants had retained the information and shared it with colleagues who did nothing related to my work — one of whom came back to me with those same terms and ideas,” she said. “That’s what I was most excited about with this dance and the process we used — how it transformed the people who participated and then their network of people.”

Jenkins and Benjamin Sodenkamp, the coordinator of her Dance Impacts! project, are busy with future dance projects. They are planning another participatory science dance for an event in October. In May, they took second in the US Zouk Open Competition (a form of contemporary social dance) in the semi-professional division and are now transforming the dance into a showpiece.

Meanwhile, they are writing grant proposals to explore how they can expand the use of dance in informal STEM education and social change.

“We want to make this transition from it being seen as just a novelty to something that’s seen as a tool,” she said.

For the time being, science dance is still coming into its own, but Jenkins sees that as an advantage.

“For now, most people who do science dances in the world are doing it for the first time,” she said. “It’s a new experience for them, and that can be really pivotal for change and innovation and science, in and of itself.”

Follow this link to view Dr. Jenkins’ award-winning dance from the International Sea Turtle Society competition.

Written by Adam Gabriele

Denise Kronsteiner

Director of Strategic Communications, School for the Future of Innovation in Society