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Grad student discovers education is key to tribal leadership goal

man standing in front of mural
February 19, 2014

Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series about student excellence at the university. To read more about some of ASU's outstanding students, click here.

Emery Tahy left his home at age 16 after his high school counselor told him he’d be better off learning a trade since he was failing in school. Now he’s finishing his master’s degree at ASU while working toward his goal of becoming a tribal leader.

Tahy’s journey through life has taken him from the small Navajo reservation community of Westwater, Utah, to Job Corps, where he learned the value of working hard, and then to the university where he discovered a passion for American Indian Studies.

Learning electrician and iron worker skills through Job Corps served him well after high school, but he always felt like there was something missing from his life. Then, the bottom fell out of the economy.

“I learned a lot from that experience, and I will always have a trade, but I felt that there was a void. There was something missing,” Tahy said.

When construction work dried up during the recession, he worked for Native American Connections in Phoenix that introduced him to research and aiding American Indians in the city.

“I felt like I would have more opportunities if I had a degree,” he added. “I feel like education is the key to being successful.”

Taking classes at a community college began to fill that void, as did transferring to ASU to earn his bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in American Indian Studies.

“I’m really passionate about politics,” he said. “I felt like I was always engaged in what was going on in the world while doing construction, but I felt left out. Education was what was missing.”

American Indian Studies classes taught him about tribal governance and led him to the realization that he could give back to his people and his nation through education. He’ll finish his master’s degree this December.

“The classes really drove home the importance of culture and language, and who I was as a person. It showed me how I can be a leader in tribal leadership and be of service to my people who are lacking educated leaders. There’s no program like it,” he said. “I feel a sense of responsibility to my elders and my community.”

Tahy would like to serve elders after he graduates, like he did his grandparents while he was growing up on the Navajo reservation. He remembers translating from English into Navajo letters that his grandfather received regarding a settlement for uranium miners. His grandparents also taught him how to speak Navajo while he learned English in school.

“Many elders' first language is Navajo. They need someone to talk on their behalf,” he said. ”I really want to help those elders who cannot read and understand the legal jargon.”

During his years at ASU, Tahy has completed Navajo language courses that polished his reading and writing skills.

“I love my language. I think that is what really grounded me here,” he said. “My grandparents have passed on, but it seems like their teaching still echoes through my memory, to be educated and not forget about language and culture.”

Part of his cultural teachings included remembering the clans he was born to – Bitter Water Clan, born for Mexican Clan; Edge Water Clan, maternal; and Red-Running-Into-The-Water-Clan, paternal.

While he is finishing his degree, Tahy is also learning invaluable practical skills by interacting with tribes in his current role working on the Tribal Indicators Project for the American Indian Policy Institute at ASU. The multifaceted project consists of gathering, preparing and analyzing American Indian census data.

“I’ve been meeting wonderful tribal leaders while I’m in this position. It’s preparing me to become effective working in tribal leadership. It’s paving that road for me,” he said. “I’d like to help Native American people throughout the nation. This program is getting me ready to do that.”