ASU Indigenous Leadership Academy welcomes 1st cohort

23 Arizonans from 11 Native tribes learning ways to tackle long-term issues facing Indian Country

Several peoples hands laid out together on a table.

Photo courtesy Clay Banks/Unsplash


A first-of-its-kind Arizona State University-based training program specifically for Native people holding or aspiring to leadership positions in the public and nonprofit sectors recently welcomed its first cohort.

Hosting 23 Arizonans from 11 tribes, the Indigenous Leadership Academy was created and implemented by the ASU-based American Indian Policy Institute, which is part of the ASU Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

While similar programs exist for persons of other ethnicities, and individual Native tribes have conducted such efforts, the Indigenous Leadership Academy is the first open to all tribal members, said Traci Morris, of the Chickasaw Nation, who is executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute.

Graduates of the 10-module academy session that began Jan. 29 will be better prepared to take on long-term issues as elected and appointed public officials or nonprofit executives on the national, tribal, regional and state levels, Morris said.

Morris said the acadamy grew out of the American Indian Policy Institute's efforts to train the next generation of Indigenous leaders by creating a pipeline.

“Because, who’s going to replace me? Who’s going to be the next (U.S. Interior Secretary) Deb Haaland?” Morris said.

A leadership program for Arizona Native individuals was first proposed in November 2020. Representatives from Arizona Public Service, which is providing funding for the program for two years, and ASU Associate Vice President for Tribal Relations Jacob Moore (Tohono O’odham) approached Morris with the suggestion of an academy modeled after Valley Leadership, a program APS was also significantly involved in creating.

The new program, focused specifically on Indian Country, turned out to be distinctly different than Valley Leadership.

Kristen Talbert (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate) was hired as program coordinator to oversee the day-to-day creation of the academy. She was instrumental in meeting all the deliverables for the first year and developing marketing initiatives. 

Denise Bates, associate dean of student success and community engagement and full professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, designed the curriculum, Morris said. Bates has a PhD in history from the University of Arizona, as well as a master's degree from the University of Arizona and a bachelor's degree from Humboldt State University in American Indian studies. Morris said Bates is heavily involved in Indigenous leadership research and community-based initiatives.

Moore said the academy is an important part of ASU’s longstanding tradition of serving Arizona’s Indigenous population.

“Arizona State University has a long history of creating programs to support the 22 tribal nations in Arizona in creating futures of their own design and making,” Moore said. “With the generous support of Arizona Public Service, the Indigenous Leadership Academy was created as a dynamic platform to enhance the skill sets and networking capacity of future leaders. The first cohort represents a class that already possess high-caliber talent. The inaugural cohort will certainly turn this program into something very special and impactful.”

The program, which is taught virtually, is presented by three facilitators, including Associate Professor Angela Gonzales (Hopi), of the School of Social Transformation, Jolyana Begay-Kroupa (Navajo), an ASU instructor in American Indian studies, and ASU graduate Kris Beecher.

The academy’s modules are titled: Indigenous Leadership Practices; Understanding Political and Economic Contexts in Indian Country; Research, Data and Indigenous Knowledge; Innovation and Sustainable Enterprise-Building; Response and Responsibility: Communicating Your Story and Exhibiting Professional Etiquette; Building Relationships and Growing Your Network; Bridging Differences and Fostering Consensus; Community-Centered Management Practices; and Developing Leadership Capacity and Looking to the Future.

Each module features guest speakers to enrich the content. A live final event is planned for the conclusion of the academy on March 26.

All 23 academy participants are Arizona residents, but some of the 11 tribes represented are based out-of-state. Morris said they bring a “diverse wealth of knowledge and community understanding” to the academy.

A second cohort will begin the program later this year, and by 2023, the academy will start adapting its curriculum at a national level, Morris said.

“This was the right time for this. We need it in Arizona. We need it nationally, but Arizona is our first responsibility,” she said. “Still, we have enough interest in a national cohort.”

A member of the cohort, Debbie Nez-Manuel (Navajo), a longtime community leader and activist who has lived in the Phoenix metro area for three decades, said that Indigenous communities have the opportunity to create a stronger voting infrastructure that is more sophisticated and more effective than ever before.

“There is so much at stake with the cost we pay at the pump, deciding to rent or own a home, and how we provide day-to-day for our families. Many of these day-to-day decisions are rooted in our own participation at the ballot box. By aligning forces, providing education and showing up, we become the difference,” Nez-Manuel said. “Being registered with the ASU Indigenous Leadership Academy has fostered even more in-depth conversations, and more personally, is becoming a strong reminder behind the 'why' I was put into the world. I am eager to learn from our local leaders and colleagues who are doing remarkable things to shape our Indigenous nations.”

Upon completing this program, participants will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of effective leadership practices that are contextually situated and culturally framed.
  • Analyze and reflect on multiple case studies and models of Indigenous leadership.
  • Utilize data and leverage resources effectively.
  • Improve communication and representation of self and community.
  • Examine strategies for facilitating collaborations, fostering partnerships and building consensus.
  • Design personalized leadership and project/program action plans.

Over time, the academy will add additional modules covering several subjects of vital interest to Native community members, including voting rights, the economy, and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“The interest has been great. The quality of the cohort speaks to the interest and need. They are stellar. We had no difficulty getting people to apply,” Morris said. “Thanks to the funders for their vision. To see it come to fruition in just a year, that speaks to the need and the interest.”

For more information on the Indigenous Leadership Academy, contact Kristen Talbert at

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