ASU PhD candidate receives award for work with Indigenous communities

December 17, 2021

Arizona State University PhD candidate Arina Melkozernova was recently named the recipient of the 2021 Future Steward Excellence Award from the National Digital Stewardship Alliance in recognition of her work in partnership with several Indigenous communities. 

Melkozernova, who works for the College of Global Futures as an instructional designer, is studying comparative culture and language in the School of International Letters and Cultures. Although her current focus is digital humanities, she has a background in both science and art, indicative of the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary principles that underlie her scholarship and service.  PhD candidate Arina Melkozernova faces the camera and smiles. She is wearing a white shirt with a multicolored scarf and gold lanyard over it. Her brown hair is pulled back behind her ears. Behind her is a poster displaying research. PhD candidate Arina Melkozernova was recently named the recipient of the 2021 Future Steward Excellence Award from the National Digital Stewardship Alliance in recognition of her work in partnership with several Indigenous communities. Download Full Image

“I am thankful for the NDSA’s recognition of my modest efforts,” Melkozernova said. “I am humbly accepting this award and all the responsibilities of being a member of the digital preservation community. I am deeply touched by this recognition.” 

According to the NDSA, the Future Steward award honors “students and early-career professionals or academics taking a creative approach to advancing knowledge of digital preservation issues and practices.” Two of the projects Melkozernova has contributed to were cited as key to the group’s decision to select her as this year’s award recipient: curation and Russian translation in support of "A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19" and preservation and archival work as part of a partnership between ASU and the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana

In her award acceptance narrative, Melkozernova cited a firsthand experience with Indigenous knowledge earlier in her life as an inspiration for her scholarship today. Around the time of the completion of her first degree in Russia, she was trapped on a boat in the ocean — “completely disoriented and despaired” — as thick fog rolled in that some people worried could last for weeks. A Nivkh Indigenous fisherman on board was able to navigate the vessel back to land despite the conditions of zero visibility.

He “had learned from his culture how to live in harmony with the environment,” Melkozernova said. 

That experience made an impact on her that is still felt decades later. Accordingly, she hopes to advocate for the importance of Indigenous ecological knowledge through her community-driven work. 

Her project with the Coushatta Tribe — called “Making History Accessible” — is an extension of the work of her mentor, Professor Denise E. Bates, the associate dean of student success and community engagement for the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. Bates has published two books in the last two years about the history of the Coushattas

Between fall 2018 and summer 2019, Melkozernova and Bates worked with the staff of the Coushatta Tribe’s Heritage Department to create a digital archive of tribal knowledge, history and culture. They were funded by a Public History Collaborative Project Grant Award from the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies. The intent of the project was to evaluate technologies that could help the Coushattas preserve their knowledge in a digital format to ensure access for tribal leaders, younger generations and other individuals from the tribe as well as the broader public.  

“Narratives and skills were traditionally transferred from elders to youth through storytelling,” Melkozernova said. “But the knowledge connecting Indigenous youth to the environment is fading in the digital era due to the increasing digital divide. (We worked) to avoid the loss of authenticity and keep the integrity of traditions when preserving access to this knowledge.” 

Melkozernova and Bates recommended that the Coushattas use the open-source platform Mukurtu CMS, which offers secure storage and allows them to designate some information as publicly available and other items as accessible only to tribal community members. The platform has been successfully used by other Indigenous communities around the globe for similar projects, and Melkozernova and Bates were able to build and pilot a Mukurtu site for the tribe. 

After the completion of their work, the Coushatta Tribal Council voted in favor of the tribe continuing the project on its own, as was the original goal.  

“We were able to successfully turn things over to the tribal staff. The Heritage Department staff have since gone on to receive specialized training on how to maintain and continue growing the platform,” Bates said. 

Melkozernova also created a tribal map that was used in Bates’ most recent book, co-written with the Coushatta tribal preservation officer. Additionally, Bates invited Melkozernova to collaborate further on a project with the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians in southern Alabama, saying that she was “so impressed by Arina’s work ethic and talents.” That work will include a tribal map and displays for the tribe’s museum. 

Melkozernova’s collaborations with Indigenous communities are not just limited to the United States. With the "Journal of the Plague Year" project, she collected and translated Russian-language entries for the digital archive’s “Indigenous Stories” collection. The "Plague Year" initiative originated in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies and swiftly grew to include scholars worldwide. It now has more than 15,000 contributions documenting people’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic for the historical record. 

“As a native Russian-language speaker, I gathered from the Russian news stories of the Indigenous peoples of Russia that uncovered a narrative of resilience in the pandemic,” Melkozernova said. “This data has contributed their voices to the collection that maps missing stories about Indigenous leadership, self-advocacy, relational systems of knowing, cultural values and overall generosity.” 

These are just a few of the many research projects and community-driven collaborations that Melkozernova has been a part of during her studies at ASU. She is quick to thank the organizations and communities behind these partnerships for their openness and encouragement. In accepting the digital stewardship award, Melkozernova also expressed gratitude for her research collaborators and professors at ASU, both within the School of International Letters and Cultures and across many other schools and programs. 

“I am very appreciative of the many, many wonderful faculty, staff and students at ASU who influenced me to become the person that I am today,” Melkozernova said. “All together, my experience at ASU is the gift that keeps on giving.” 

Kimberly Koerth

Content Writer, School of International Letters and Cultures

ASU Russian lecturer, student prepare kids to chat with astronauts

December 17, 2021

Earlier this semester, Senior Lecturer in Russian Saule Moldabekova Robb and one of her students were invited to teach Russian phrases to local elementary school students preparing for a ham radio call with the International Space Station. 

The students attend Tarwater Elementary School in Chandler, Arizona, one of seven schools nationwide chosen to contact the space station this year Eli Fox squats in front of a brick wall. He is wearing an all-white jumpsuit with a blue NASA logo over the breast. He has short brown hair and is wearing a blue surgical mask. His arm is extended to point at a sandwich board displaying scientific facts. ASU senior Eli Fox, who is majoring in Russian, recently taught common Russian greetings to hundreds of elementary school students in Chandler, Arizona, who were preparing for a conversation with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Download Full Image

The school had originally applied for the honor and been selected last year, but the conversation had to be canceled when school campuses closed due to the pandemic.  

The school’s students prepared for the conversation by brainstorming questions to ask the astronauts. Eventually, the list was narrowed down to the best questions, and 10 students were selected to speak directly with the astronauts as the rest of the student body listened in. 

These calls require a significant amount of calculation to ensure the proper connection is made and sustained; the ISS is overhead for only about 10 minutes or so at a time before it drops below the horizon and signal is lost. 

ASU senior Eli Fox, who is majoring in Russian, accompanied Moldabekova Robb to Tarwater after being invited by one of the school's teachers. 

The experience was good preparation for Fox's future career, he said — after graduation, he plans to earn a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) certification and teach English in Russian-speaking countries. The certification will allow him to teach anywhere in the world, but his goal is to continue his personal language learning and become fully fluent in Russian. 

Saule Moldabekova Robb, left, and Eli Fox stand in front of a brick wall. She is wearing a dark blouse and pants and has dark hair and is wearing glasses and a blue face mask. He is wearing a mask and a white jumpsuit with a NASA logo on the breast/

Senior Lecturer in Russian Saule Moldabekova Robb and Russian senior Eli Fox.

The road to mastery of a language begins with learning some of the common words and phrases Fox instructed the students on how to say in Russian, such as “Здравствуйте” (hello) and “До Свидания” (goodbye). 

“Our role was to teach simple Russian greetings to the elementary students to honor the international relationship that the U.S. and Russia have at the International Space Station,” Fox said. 

When Tarwater was chosen for this honor, the school’s staff did not know which astronauts would be available to speak to their students. At the time of the call, there were seven people on board the International Space Station: three astronauts from the U.S., one from Japan, one from France and two cosmonauts from Russia

The students ended up only getting to speak with U.S. astronaut Shane Kimbrough, who has since returned to Earth. But it was important for them to prepare to speak with any of the available ISS personnel. 

Moldabekova Robb and Fox said that even though the students didn’t get to practice their newly learned Russian phrases with the Roscosmos cosmonauts, they never know when that language familiarity might come in handy. It also demonstrates for students at a young age the opportunities that language learning can provide.  

“By reaching out to the community, we can activate the imaginations of future students, giving them a vision for future travel and employment prospects,” Moldabekova Robb said. 

Eli Fox, wearing a white jumpsuit and blue surgical face mask, speaks with a group of elementary school students who are facing away from the camera. The group is gathered outside a school building.

Russian senior Eli Fox speaks with students at Tarwater Elementary School in Chandler, Arizona.

She noted that it is easier to learn a new language the younger you start, when your brain is still developing and you are less focused on the pronunciation and grammar rules of your native tongue. 

Fox noticed this as well with the Tarwater students he instructed. 

“I learned that younger kids are able to pronounce the hard words more easily than the older kids were able to,” he said, noting that even he struggled to pronounce some words when he first began learning Russian. “It is amazing the ability of children to learn languages!” 

Moldabekova Robb said community engagement events like this one allow the faculty and students of the School of International Letters and Cultures to share their love of language learning with those around them while inspiring new generations to be curious about other cultures. 

“By participating in community outreach events, we expand public awareness of the languages, cultures and history of different countries so that our students can start preparing themselves to be part of a global community,” she said. 

“Language proficiency and cultural awareness will let them engage more deeply with the world so that they can truly become global citizens.”

Kimberly Koerth

Content Writer, School of International Letters and Cultures