First American Indian Studies master's graduate credits ASU for career path

July 24, 2014

Lorena Yaiva took her first professional steps on the path to become a lawyer this summer. The first official graduate of Arizona State University's American Indian Studies master’s program, Yaiva now works as an assistant prosecutor in the Prosecutor’s Office with the Hualapai Tribe.

Yaiva, who is half Hopi and half Havasupai, credits ASU for making the dream of making a difference in her community a reality. “The American Indian Studies Program and faculty, and my work with the American Indian Student Support Services offered me the ability to meet new people, to learn and receive the guidance that I needed to further my education and pursue my goals,” said Yaiva. “Ultimately, I would like to address issues of domestic violence in my Havasupai and Hualapai communities and develop a juvenile diversion program to help youth and their families challenged by drug and alcohol problems.” Lorena Yaiva at graduation Download Full Image

The master’s program was founded in 2010 through the work of ASU faculty, including David Martinez (Gila River Pima) and John Tippeconnic, the founding director of the program, who is of Comanche and Cherokee heritage. The collective designed the program to support students interested in Indigenous rights, social justice, language revitalization and tribal governance, and prepare them for doctoral work or professions, such as law.

“We wanted to create something that reflected the strength of our faculty and the resources of our region,” said Martinez, an associate professor and director of graduate studies. “We also saw the rich relationships that could be built with the tribes in the Valley and organizations that serve the urban Indian population in the Phoenix Metro area.”

In addition to Yaiva, who ultimately hopes to attend ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and study federal Indian law, two other master’s students will complete their degrees this summer: Justin Hongeva (Hopi) and Waquin Preston (Navajo).

Martinez started his own intellectual journey as part of an American Indian Studies program at the University of Minnesota. When he joined that program, it had been active for more than four decades. It struck him then how long American Indians had been writing, talking and speaking about Native rights and issues.

“Centuries of ideas, opinions, political views, responses to federal decisions about Indian peoples, pamphlets, books, articles – from those first penned in the 1700s by Mohegan activist Samson Occom to present,” said Martinez, who is also a professor with the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at ASU. “I saw them as part of an American Indian intellectual history; one that I wanted to study as a tradition that had been bequeathed to us.”

The master's program now has 15 students, and anticipates another six students this fall. Martinez is excited to see the program, whose first cohort came exclusively from the Southwest, now attracting students outside of the region and the United States.

“We celebrate the graduation of the first students from ASU’s American Indian Studies master's program,” said Kenro Kusumi, associate dean of graduate programs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor in the School of Life Sciences. “These students are amazing individuals who are socially embedded and are working to transform our community. We look forward to hearing about their achievements and societal impact in the future.”

For Yaiva, the greatest strengths of the ASU program were the close interactions with Native faculty, the coursework and networking, and the opportunities to work with Native undergraduates, graduate students and communities. As part of Yaiva’s practicum, she studied with professors Leo Killsback and Laura Gonzales-Macias to build a mentoring program that captured the concept of “cultural professionalism.”

“We partnered undergraduate students with graduate students to foster learning and mentoring relationships. Our hope has been to help students develop skills, such as how to do research or implement projects within tribal communities, to further their education and impact in their home communities.”

Martinez also points to the level of camaraderie that he’s seen grow in the program as significant. “I see students more active, more engaged in courses and very erstwhile to participate in conferences and community service, and very supportive of each other. Our students don't feel alone in this program or at ASU.”

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost


ASU alum's mapping project a finalist in Google Impact Challenge

July 24, 2014

As a child, ASU alumnus Adam Kiefer loved going on road trips to visit U.S. national parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Graduating from ASU in 2004 with a degree in geography and skills in computer-based mapping, Kiefer carried that love of natural environments into his professional life.

Traveling far beyond Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, Kiefer, a geographic informations systems (GIS) specialist, is now working to protect the Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Africa’s oldest national park. Kiefer developed a public safety program that has advanced to the final round of the Google Impact Challenge, a competition that supports nonprofit organizations using technology to confront complex problems. In the cockpit, with GPS unit Download Full Image

Kiefer’s project proposes real-time tracking and mapping of Virunga National Park, as well as a phone-mapping system, that the four million Congolese living in and around the park could use to report security issues.

“This grant has the potential to bring safety to the park’s wildlife that is found nowhere else in the world, and to make the people who live alongside and within the park better accounted for and safer,” said Kiefer, who worked in conjunction with the Virunga Foundation on this project.

Recognized as one of the most biologically diverse areas in Africa, Virunga National Park has faced numerous challenges over the past two decades, affecting both its wildlife population and its human population.

The park is well-known for its mountain gorillas. It is the only park in the world that is host to three taxa of Great Apes, and a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas live in the park.

In 2007, the park became the object of international scrutiny when nine critically endangered mountain gorillas were killed at the site. Authorities said the crime was likely carried out by members of an illegal charcoal mafia who reasoned that fewer gorillas in the park would mean unfettered access to it and more profit. Illegal charcoal producers cut and burn the dense forest of the Virunga National Park to make charcoal; trade in the substance is lucrative in the DRC, as millions of people in the region use the fuel for cooking and heating.

But illegal charcoal producers are not the only threat to the park’s fragile balance.

For fifteen years, militias controlled large sectors of the park while a civil war raged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country’s situation has calmed, but demilitarizing the park and enforcing the rule of law requires continued attention. The site’s 3,000 miles of forests, savannas, swamps and lava plains, coupled with its rich wildlife and natural resources, make it a target for poachers. And, in recent months, a British oil company, Soco, has sparked controversy with its plans to explore oil exploitation possibilities inside the park’s boundaries.

These complexities and competing interests ensure that the rangers who are tasked with maintaining and protecting Virunga National Park do not have an easy job.

Kiefer, who is currently GIS director for the park, paid his first visit to the site in 2010 and was struck by the park rangers’ efforts. He’d like to use geographic information systems – a technology that can be used both for mapping and to analyze geographic patterns – to help the staff of the Virunga National Park.

“The park rangers who dedicate their lives to Virunga are some of the most heroic people I have ever met,” said Kiefer. “Over 150 rangers have died protecting Virunga National Park,” he added.

On his initial visit to the park, Kiefer was a tourist on a 41-day overland excursion between Capetown, South Africa, and Nairobi, Kenya. He had only read about the gorilla population before arriving.

“Being in the presence of mountain gorillas is life-changing, but to see the park rangers was just as extraordinary,” said Kiefer of his first experience at the park.

Interested in staying involved with the site, Kiefer asked about volunteering for Virunga National Park’s GIS program. The park didn’t have one, but park officials were interested in his expertise.

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that I simply couldn’t pass up,” said Kiefer.

In 2013, Kiefer returned to Virunga National Park to initiate an aerial imaging project. Building on his aerial photography and GIS coursework at ASU, and his professional work as a GIS analyst, Kiefer installed an aerial GIS camera system in the park’s surveillance aircraft. He began training Jean deDieu Wathaut, who compiles wildlife data recorded by park rangers, on how to use the technology.

Kiefer’s current proposal with the Virunga Foundation would expand on his 2013 efforts.

The project would allow for anonymous phone reporting of poaching threats or other illegal activity in the park, helping rangers to more effectively patrol. Cell phone tower triangulation would be used to authenticate reports, reducing incidents of false reports. The program also aims to enlist local leaders to manage safety and communication hubs along different regions of the park, engaging the community in park protection.

Kiefer said that the GIS park safety project will mean that rangers will not have to be put in harm’s way unnecessarily.

According to Kiefer, the system, if funded, could save time, resources and lives.

The Google Impact Challenge runs until July 31. Members of the public can view nominated projects online and vote for a project if they wish to support it.

Wynne Mancini,
School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning

Barbara Trapido-Lurie

research professional senior, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning