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Empowering Indigenous communities on economic self-development

ASU's American Indian Studies and urban planning units team up to help build culturally centered and community-driven solutions


ASU professor and students pose for a group photo.

Michelle Hale and her reservation economic development class in April 2018 on a field trip to Native American Connections. Photo courtesy Michelle Hale

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November 09, 2023

Every Indigenous community has its unique characteristics.

Some communities embrace developing their land for enterprise or tourism to foster cultural exchange, while others adopt a more conservative stance regarding development.

In either case, Hale works to empower Indigenous communities with the necessary tools and knowledge to achieve their objectives and align their development with their vision.

Since joining ASU’s American Indian Studies program in 2005, Michelle Hale, who is Laguna, Chippewa, Odawa and a citizen of the Navajo Nation from Oak Springs, Arizona, has focused her teaching and research on Indigenous communities' economic and community development and governance.

For Hale, development is essential in every community, but even more so for Indigenous communities looking to enhance the quality of life, preserve and maintain their culture, improve infrastructure, expand opportunity and assert more control over their land and resources.

“Most of what I teach is in Indigenous planning and reservation economic development,” she said. “Our core course is Indian policy, which I enjoy because it is sort of an introductory class to a lot of the concepts I’ve been working on the last couple of years.”

Hale’s coursework is grounded in lived experience, traditional knowledge and perspectives of American Indian people and organizations who do the work of community development on the ground.

It connects to the unit's larger mission to educate students and the broader community about the history, experiences and issues facing Indigenous people and to create opportunities for community-based research.

Hale and David Pijawka, professor emeritus in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, have worked together over the years to create a course in tribal community planning, which has bridged the gap between historical, cultural insights and practice from the two disciplines.

“What I appreciate most is that the work is interdisciplinary across the university. It allows us to draw from the knowledge of different topics, tools and technology to brainstorm solutions to fit a common goal and to modify those approaches to be relevant to Indigenous communities,” Hale said.

In Arizona, the combined efforts of American Indian Studies and the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning have helped support communities in the Navajo Nation in developing land use plans, updating older land use plans and supporting discussion and community education for economic development efforts and planning for new infrastructure projects.

“Our approach, leveraged by the strengths of the two units, ensured that the planning process aligned with Indigenous community values,” said Jonathan Davis, an instructor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning said. “These efforts support tribal self-sufficiency by building planning capacity through bottom-up approaches.”

“It’s about providing Navajo community leaders, members and support staff with the planning tools they need so they can tailor them to what is most important to them and the projects at hand,” Hale said. “These tools empower them to have greater control in terms of planning, land use and having a say in areas they don’t want to develop.”

Kim Kanuho, a member of the Navajo Nation and president of Fourth World Design Group, recently came to Hale’s tribal community planning class to speak to students about the importance of tribal planning and how they can get involved.

“As a tribal planner, our work is important because it includes Indigenizing the planning process and incorporating our tribal voices and cultural values into our tribal communities," Kanuho said. “I love working and co-creating the planning process with our tribal people who know their culture, land and communities best.

Student engagement and community-based work

Portrait of Native American woman with long dark hair wearing glasses

Michelle Hale

Hale said that in past years, teaching Indigenous planning meant breaking through the stigma of development, since the word “development” did not always sit well.

“For many Indigenous students, development is associated with extraction, capitalism or growth that is managed by those other than the Indigenous people themselves,” she said. “The early thoughts from students when the tribal community planning class was first introduced at ASU in 2015 were that Indigenous planning was something that is simply going to trick us into developing all our lands.”

But that has changed over the years. Hale said she has seen shifts in the students' mindsets. 

“There is a lot of excitement, especially from undergraduate Indigenous students, because they see how Indigenized planning tools can help to address real-world, here-and-now challenges in their home areas and place the community at the heart of the decision-making,” Hale said.

One of Hale’s upcoming research projects, in collaboration with the the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, focuses on the Navajo Nation's food stands and flea markets. It will use geographic mapping technology that captures data for various purposes, such as mapping and spatial analysis.

The project, funded by the National Science Foundation and part of a grant with the Earth Systems Science for the Anthropocene, will monitor the activity at Navajo reservation flea markets in communities like Window Rock, Kayenta, Tuba City and Shiprock.

Hale and Davis will be joined by Assistant Professor Jose-Benito Rosales Chavez and a team of student researchers who will use geographic information systems to map flea market locations. They’ll also study the exchange of traditional food items and arts and crafts and talk to customers about why they visit these flea markets. 

They hope the information collected will be helpful for decision-makers with Navajo Nation Economic Development, local chapters and others who wish to support Navajo entrepreneurs and the flea markets essential to the Navajo economy and people who rely on them for income or access to food and necessities.

“Navajo students on the project know what it’s like to be at a market; they show a real interest in engaging with this work,” Hale said. “This project helps us to support and encourage students interested in community-based work and offer guidance on how to engage with people in the community respectfully and ethically.

“But this research can also help the Navajo Nation learn with tools and information to help support the market sellers or entrepreneurs and advance their community.”

Hale will also be collaborating with professors across the university on a water sustainability mixed-reality game launching in 2025 that helps address water issues in Arizona.

A co-principal investigator on the WaterSIMmersive project, Hale will work with Indigenous students to start a dialogue with tribal and rural community members all over the state to better understand and voice their water concerns.

Outside of her community-based research, Hale has long engaged with students on different grant-funded projects or helping students with their research. 

Currently, Hale is helping ASU student Elisha Charley conduct her dissertation research.

Charley, a doctoral student studying urban planning, is researching tribal community development in her hometown of Dennehotso, Arizona, in the northeastern Navajo Nation. She is researching self-help housing advocacy for tribal members living in the Navajo Nation and the Nihok’aa Diyin Dine’é (Navajo) value system.

“Housing or dwelling disparities in the Navajo Nation is an ongoing issue that requires collective efforts,” Charley said. “The housing footprint is one aspect of the complex layers of the built environment in the Navajo Nation. It is also significant data to study and maintain for future infrastructure development.

“Dr. Hale is a fellow Navajo tribal member and representation is invaluable. Her academic support has been significant in how I can intersect (American Indian studies) framework into my planning research topics.”

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