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Geography student makes hometown impact on Navajo Nation

Jayvion Chee (center) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Wildland Fire and Aviation Management, Navajo Region. Photo courtesy of Jayvion Chee.

January 30, 2020

After winter exams, while many students were eager to scramble home, kick their feet up and empty their minds, Jayvion Chee sat down, opened his books and began to plot his next four weeks.

He was determined to use this time to make an impact on his hometown of Fort Defiance, Arizona, and armed with his education and a resilient mindset, the dream he had been chasing since he was a teen was finally starting to come to fruition.

Chee, a Diné tribe member and graduate student pursuing a Master of Advanced Study in Geography Information Systems in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University, secured a rare winter internship with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Wildland Fire and Aviation Management, Navajo Region, through the BIA Partnerships Program. There he leveraged computer science technology and geographic data to help optimize the bureau’s emergency services delivery.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” Chee said. “To find a way to use my education to benefit not just my tribe but other tribes. The BIA offered me that chance to come back to where I’m from and where my family lives and use the skills I have learned to create change. I’m extremely grateful.”

The drive to come back home

Fort Defiance is an arid desert community on the Navajo Nation, a self-governed nation with more than 17.5 million acres in the Four Corners region, where raising and selling livestock underpins the economy and culture, and access to professional career opportunities can be challenging.

Today, nearly 40% of households on the Navajo Nation don’t have reliable access to running water and unemployment fluctuates between 40% to 50%, with about 40% of families living below the federal poverty rate.

For Chee, it’s these realities of home and his roots in a humble beginning that formed a strong bond between him and his community. He’s motivated to give back to the place and people that raised him.

Jayvion Chee, Diné tribe member and graduate student pursuing a Master of Advanced Study in Geography Information Systems in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. Photo Courtsey of Javion Chee.

“Growing up in Fort Defiance and the Navajo Nation, a lot of youth don’t have the opportunity or ability to get a secondary education and earn a degree,” Chee said. “Unfortunately, even with an education there’s no guarantee work will be available here on the reservation. There are few positions; they’re very competitive, which can discourage a lot of Natives.”

Chee isn’t deterred.

“The reality of it is that we just don’t have many Navajo professionals in high leadership professional positions. I want to be that someone who is Navajo and that understands the area, the culture, and who gets the education degree and comes back home that can help in that area and that type of field.”

Improving fire response with GIS

Working with BIA Wildland Fire and Aviation Management, Chee leveraged his expertise in geography information systems (GIS) to collect, analyze and map road and boundary data to help optimize response times to get to a fire or disaster area faster and easier.

Bringing his unique perspective and familiarity with his hometown area to the project, Chee leveraged both private and publicly available data to identify road surface type, identified who managed specific road systems (U.S., state, county, or Bureau of Indian Affairs), and created a digital visualization story map.

Quickly excelling at the tasks asked of him, Chee’s project expanded from mapping his home agency of Fort Defiance to encompassing the mapping of four additional surrounding Navajo agencies, including the Chinle agency, the Eastern agency, Western agency and Ship Rock agency.

“The BIA, Navajo Region didn’t have a GIS person on staff,” Chee said. “To be in a position and map out my home community is something I never thought I would be doing. I’m actually helping out my community and it feels great.”

Leaving an impact

Chee is scheduled to complete his Master of Advanced Study in Geographic Information Systems in August 2020. Through the Bureau of Indian Affairs Partnerships Program, he has secured an entry-level career position with the Wildland Fire and Aviation Management, Navajo Region, upon completion of his degree and program requirements.

Chee says he is incredibly grateful for his family and the opportunities that his education and research have created for him.

“I was in Washington, D.C., presenting my research at a conference and saw the White House for the first time and said wow,” Chee recalled. “How did a little rez (reservation) boy like me get the ability to come out here and experience this?”

Chee is a model of possibility, not only for his peers but for the greater community.

“For me to come back to Fort Defiance it just makes me happy,” Chee said confidently as he flashed a smile. “To work for my own community and do something I love doing, like GIS, it’s a dream.”

Snapsot of the data visualization story map Chee created for BIA Wildland Fire and Aviation Management, Navajo Region. Courtesy of Jayvion Chee.