Navy veteran, ASU anthropologist works to preserve her Indigenous language

November 4, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of our Salute to Service coverage, Nov. 1–11. Learn about the schedule of events.

You are taken from your parents, home and culture. Sometimes you are sent to live far away with many other children. You are not allowed to speak the only language you know.  ASU student Rachelle Edwards holding a flag and wearing Veterans Honor Guard regalia. Rachelle Edwards at the Menominee Nation’s 54th Annual Competition Pow Wow in Keshena, Wisconsin. Edwards wears a ribbon skirt along with a Veterans of Menominee Nation uniform, military ribbons and awards. Photo courtesy Rachelle Edwards

This is how Rachelle Edwards explains the brutality and history of American Indian industrial schools, or boarding schools, and their grave impact on Indigenous cultures in the United States. 

“Covered under the United States Code Title 25, ‘Indians,’ the U.S. government sanctioned abduction of Indigenous children; at first, these abductions happened without permission of the parent and often out of state from the home reservation,” Edwards said. “The schools assimilated the children and only allowed them to speak English, cut their hair, changed their names (sometimes assigning only numbers to the children), and forced them to convert to Christianity. The children were often sexually, physically and emotionally abused, and taught to hate their Indigeneity.” 

Rachelle Edwards is proud to be a member of the Menominee of Wisconsin Tribe, a veteran, a woman and a linguistic anthropology PhD student at Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change

Her PhD focuses on the effects of government assimilationist policies on heritage language revitalization and Indigenous power and identity reclamation. This research grew from her work as a graduate student. 

Her master’s thesis examined the historical context behind language revitalization and a language immersion program the Menominee Tribe is implementing for young children in Head Start and kindergarten classrooms.  

“We only have one first-language speaker due to boarding schools,” Edwards said. “This woman grew up speaking Menominee as her first language; I believe she turns 97 this year.”

The goal of the Menominee immersion program is to help children learn the Menominee language. 

“When you have children that were taken out of a community, they don’t remember how their parents spoke to them in Menominee,” Edwards said. “They didn’t pass it down to their children, so that language that we used to speak to our children is lost.” 

Edwards plans to defend her PhD research proposal to the Menominee Language and Culture Commission in spring 2023. She emphasized the importance of Indigenous data sovereignty rights and said all research and data she conducts belongs to the Menominee Tribe. 

Naval career and social justice 

Edwards said although her family didn’t have a lot of money growing up, her passion for reading and joining the Navy was her way forward to higher education. 

“I remember growing up, I was a voracious reader,” said Edwards. “You know, we were poor, and going to the library was an escape. I remember my mom, my sister and I would sit on the couch at night and our family activity was reading books.” 

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Rachelle Edwards at the Training and Standards Division Officer (RDC “C” School/ Fleet Quality Assurance Division Officer) onboard Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois. Photo courtesy Rachelle Edwards

Edwards received a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State University with the Navy. She was one of the very first plankowners to go through Arizona State University’s Naval ROTC program. She was the very first qualified warfare officer for both the Marine Corps and the Navy to come out of ASU. 

Edwards obtained her Bachelor of Science in speech and hearing sciences and a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from ASU. After she received her undergraduate degrees, Edwards traveled to Mayport, Florida, where she was a surface warfare officer. 

She spent two years onboard the USS Iwo Jima LHD 7, based as an auxiliaries division officer. First, she deployed for seven months to the strait off the coast of Yemen in response to the Houthi armed movement that started the current civil war that is still ongoing. 

“Our main job was to make sure that the strait off of Yemen, Bab-al-Mandab, was left open for freedom of navigation operations,” Edwards said. 

After Yemen, Edwards was stationed in Japan as the Korea plans officer. Her job was to work with the United Nations sending states and the Republic of Korea Navy to develop mine countermeasure operations. She said she was the youngest person to be a planning officer and the only woman represented out of 12 countries. 

“I’m glad the School of Human Evolution and Social Change equipped me with a broader viewpoint on cultural sensitivities and understanding cultural differences as an undergrad,” Edwards said. “When I was faced with working with 12 different countries as a planning officer, and as the sole representative for the United States, I was faced with a lot of issues because I was a woman and because I was much, much younger than anyone else.” 

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Rachelle Edwards at the Menominee Nation’s 54th Annual Competition Pow Wow with her partner, Otāēciah Besaw (men’s woodland traditional dancer), in Keshena, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy Rachelle Edwards

During her time at the Naval Station Great Lakes, Edwards was a human performance program officer and a training and standards officer. She helped run a women’s mentorship group, and she was the transgender recruit integration officer (TRIO). 

Edwards was in charge of implementing new policies regarding the 2021 presidential mandate that allowed transgender individuals to serve in the military. 

“The process included rewriting training manuals and instructions to reflect changes in DoD policy; this constituted getting into the minutiae of training, from what a recruit was allowed to carry in their backpacks, to the larger picture of berthing, physical fitness and other standards of service,” Edwards said. “It was important work, as many individuals were supportive of the initiative but did not understand the social and historical factors behind the transition. It was useful not only to train the staff on the policy change, but also to train them in gender and sexuality, and sensitivity training. All staff members were receptive and very eager to learn and support.”

Within her PhD research, as well as her naval career, Edwards is a big advocate for social justice. 

“I’m passionate about social justice issues because I have faced adversity nearly all of my life due to my upbringing in a low socioeconomic household, being a woman in a position of leadership, as well as being Indigenous,'' Edwards said. “It’s important to me that all voices are given the platform to be heard, and to be respected; it’s not just about equality — it’s about equity.”

Nicole Pomerantz

Communications specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


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Defense under secretary visits ASU MacroTechnology Works

November 4, 2022

Shyu, others at roundtable discuss pressing national security needs of research and fabrication, supply chain and workforce development

Heidi Shyu, under secretary of defense for research and engineering at the U.S. Department of Defense, visited Arizona State University on Tuesday to see how ASU has positioned itself to help bridge the critical gap between technology created in a lab and solutions that are applied in real life.

Shyu serves as the chief technology officer for the DOD, mandated with ensuring the technological superiority of the U.S. military, and is responsible for the research, development and prototyping activities across the DOD enterprise.

During her visit, she said that a “valley of death” lies between lab research and large-scale fabrication.

“What I’m looking for is to leverage as much innovation as possible across the U.S. and figure out how to bridge the ‘valley of death’ and get that innovation into the hands of our war fightersThis term covers soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen and -women.,” she said.

She visited the ASU MacroTechnology Works facility in Tempe, a unique lab and fabrication space that is open to both university researchers and community partners, from tiny ventures to big corporations.

“The fact we can tap into an incredible ecosystem right here is so impressive,” Shyu said after the tour. “The facility I just walked through, which allows small startups as well as faculty to tap into it, will be a major benefit.”

Shyu’s visit was important because the CHIPS and Science Act, passed with bipartisan support and signed into law this past summer, will distribute $52 billion to accelerate U.S. semiconductor manufacturing, an important step for economic competitiveness and national security. 

“From the DOD’s perspective, we need a secure supply chain, from within the U.S. – that’s No. 1,” Shyu said during a roundtable discussion.

U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that the supply chain disruptions during the pandemic were a warning.

“We learned that we are very much dependent on overseas for our chips. Our overreliance on China is a scary situation,” he said.

“Right now, Russia is struggling to find any kinds of chips to put into their weapons systems. They’re taking them out of old washing machines.

“The defense system they had built over 100 years is now entirely moot because we have shut them out of the chips and they don’t have the capacity to produce them. We’re not far from that situation.”

Shyu said another priority is workforce development.

“The other thing, which is part of my responsibility, is STEM. We need to build a workforce to supply a talent base that not only the DOD needs but also our entire defense industry,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton agreed that workforce development is critical not only for national security but also for Arizona’s future.

“The long-term economic challenges from China will be the challenge of our lifetime, not just investing in manufacturing but in proper export control,” he said.

“Taiwan Semiconductor (Manufacturing Company) is the largest investment from a foreign entity in the U.S., and it’s happening right in our community. They won’t be a direct beneficiary of the CHIP and Science Act, but they’ll be able to take advantage of the workforce development. We want that to be a Taiwanese entity for decades to come.”

ASU President Michael Crow described how, as part of Arizona’s state-funded New Economy Initiative, the university is boosting the number of engineering graduates, growth that will serve the national objectives outlined in the CHIPS and Science Act.

“We’ve decided to use every means humanly available to go from 6,000 engineering students 10 years ago to 30,000 engineering students this year, and we believe we can build a 45,000-student, degree-granting college of engineering.

“Quality has accelerated in every case. Diversity has accelerated in every case. And intellectual fusion has accelerated in every case,” he said, noting that many students are working on defense-related projects.

ASU also is developing a program to upskill workers for the microelectronics industry – an urgent need voiced by Lisa Napolitano, vice president at Honeywell.

“Our products are very critical to the nuclear safety of our country, and we are on almost every mission that goes into space,” she said.

“When I’m trying to find new talent, it’s hard. We need people with four-year degrees, but two-year degrees are also important. We need those people in our fabrication labs.”

On Tuesday morning, Shyu heard about ASU’s work with the National Security Innovation Network to connect entrepreneurs to the defense industry and the DOD. Drew Trojanowski, assistant vice president for strategic initiatives at ASU, described how faculty were taught how to succinctly describe their technology and then received feedback on how to better meet the needs of the department.

This includes work ASU is doing in developing the Mission Acceleration Center, which provides DOD personnel, industry and an cademia mechanism to collaborate in a secure space so that industry — including startups — can better understand war fighter needs to then apply new technologies in field-deployable solutions.

Shyu praised the network for taking the initiative.

“How do we scale that?” she said. “I’m looking to scale this up across the nation.”

Top photo: Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu meets Associate Professor Zachary Holman to begin a tour of MacroTechology Works in the ASU Research Park on Tuesday. Shyu’s visit also included a microelectronics roundtable with President Michael Crow, Arizona congressional representatives and executives from Intel, Sandia National Laboratory, Honeywell and Advent Diamond. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News