In 2016, what began as a grassroots effort against the Dakota Access Pipeline drilling project in North Dakota grew into a sweeping movement gathering thousands of protesters from around the country to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Several states away, Napoleon Marrietta, a member of the Phoenix area’s Gila River Indian Community, was engulfed in another Native-led battle, against a highway extension project in Phoenix.
The 22-mile Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway stretch was designed to ease traffic congestion. But its path cut through a portion of South Mountain, a range highly sacred to tribes across the Valley. When Standing Rock was taking off, Marrietta and other activists were in the middle of a legal battle to stop the freeway construction in its tracks.
But where Standing Rock galvanized Native Americans nationwide, the fight for South Mountain didn’t move far past Phoenix.
That difference is part of what propelled a return to academia for Marrietta, now a graduate student in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ American Indian Studies program at Arizona State University.
“Standing Rock had people from all over the place, including Phoenix tribes, coming together to battle this huge issue,” he said. “Fighting for South Mountain, we were grassroots, youth-led and trying to move forward with the weight of it all on our shoulders — I think my question now is why that huge mobilization sometimes doesn’t happen, even with something in our backyard.”
From immigration and the border to incarceration and desert city planning, Arizona is a melting pot of issues. As the state capital, initiatives started in Phoenix have the potential to cast a wider net than perhaps anywhere else in the state. But with a metropolitan area of over 5 million residents, how does any one issue find its voice?
That’s one question Marrietta is looking to unravel in his thesis that focuses on how indigenous activists adapt and organize in the Valley’s urban sprawl.
The American Indian Studies program offers a master’s degree in tribal leadership and governance, and another in indigenous rights and social justice. After graduating from ASU with concurrent bachelor’s degrees in justice studies and American Indian studies in 2017, Marrietta saw the social justice graduate track as a chance to expand on both.
“I returned to gain more from the knowledge of my professors here and the efforts they have made in their communities, it made me feel like I could do something to contribute, too,” he said.
Native presence in Arizona
There are 22 tribal nations across Arizona today. Phoenix, its surroundings and ASU itself sit on the ancestral lands of many of them, including the Akimel O’odham and Pee-Posh constituting the Gila River Indian Community of which Marrietta is a part.
Growing up on tribal land just southeast of Phoenix, Marrietta immersed himself in environmental and social issues affecting his community while in high school. But he hesitates to call himself an activist. Instead, he sees his work as a response to his own experiences.
“Not having clean water sometimes, for example, or even the fact that you are growing up on a reservation, those are all issues, but you don’t really think about them that way, they are just a part of your life,” he said. “I didn’t really get into the literature and hearing similar things from other people until coming to ASU.”
Now set to graduate this fall, his research offers an academic examination of local struggles he is intimately familiar with.
Research as advocacy
Marrietta and fellow tribal, environmental and community activists spent years challenging the South Mountain freeway construction before a trial in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case in 2017.
As the project nears completion today, he said recounting the fight is a painful process. But experiencing the highs and lows of social movements from the ground level also gave him a new perspective on the topics he learned at ASU and what felt like an opening to add new narratives to the record of history.
Documenting the fight through research is a way to honor those who gave their energy and explore his own role within it.
“Defending South Mountain was something I was active in, but so many came before me on that issue and others — I am just a sliver of something much larger,” he said. “My research now is focused on connecting the contributions of elders, youth and people with varying levels of education; those experiences are different, but (it) all feeds into one community.”
More than 3,000 Native American students were enrolled in ASU in 2018, a number that has more than doubled in the last decade and is now among the highest in the country. Still, with over 100,000 students across four campuses and multiple locations, the population represents a small percentage of ASU’s overall population.
For Marrietta, who also works as an American Indian Student Support ServicesASU American Indian Student Support Services is a unit of ASU's University College. graduate pathways assistant, elevating Native perspectives on and off campus is part of what fuels his drive to continue in academia.
“Dealing with social justice issues means that everyone wants a seat at the table, so sometimes the challenge is actually just being a Native American or indigenous person in these places,” he said. “But building upon an institution requires research, which in turn helps people understand things better — by writing about these groups, I figure I can contribute in a small way to that.”
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