Native American representatives gather with UArizona leaders for third Tribal Leaders Summit

lisa garcia looking through a telescope under a dome lit with red light slightly open to show a starry sky

Lisa Garcia, a member of the Ak-Chin Indian Community Council, peers through a telescope at the university's Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter. The stargazing session capped off a day of mutual learning among university and tribal leaders during the university's third Tribal Leaders Summit, held on Monday.

Chris Richards/University Communications

Tribal leaders from across the state gathered at the University of Arizona Monday to meet with campus leaders and discuss ways to strengthen partnerships between the university and tribal communities in Arizona.

The event, hosted by the university's Office of Native American Initiatives and Tribal Engagementwas the third Tribal Leaders Summit the university has held since 2021.

"We're providing a platform for our university community to come together and hear directly from tribal leaders about how we can collaborate with one another," said Levi Esquerra, university senior vice president for Native American initiatives and tribal engagement. "In order to better serve tribes, we have to know who they are and what they're dealing with."

The summit kicked off with a small luncheon, hosted by University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins, who invited tribal leaders to share ideas for ways the university could serve their tribes.

"This is our time for me to listen and hear how we can serve your nations better," Robbins said in opening the luncheon.

Much of the lunch discussion with Robbins centered on possibilities for the university to establish branch campuses in tribal communities. The university opened its first tribal microcampus with the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in 2022. 

Lisa Garcia sitting at a table chatting with Robert C. Robbins and other university of arizona leaders

Garcia meets with university leaders, including President Robert C. Robbins (center right), Interim Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation Elliott Cheu (center left), Secretary of the University Jon Dudas (left) and Levi Esquerra (bottom left), senior vice president for Native American advancement and tribal engagement. Among the topics discussed on Monday was the possibility of establishing more tribal microcampuses throughout the state.

Chris Richards/University Communications

Lisa Garcia, a member of the Ak-Chin Indian Community Council, said a microcampus would make higher education more accessible to Ak-Chin community members who can't easily leave the community.

"In our case, we have members who want to go to higher education, but they feel they have family commitments or obligations and they can't leave, or sometimes they leave and it's a culture shock because they've never been that far away from home," she said. "Maybe a microcampus is the best option for them to get some exposure but stay closer to home."

Buddy Rocha, a member of the Yavapai-Apache Nation and alumnus of the Eller College of Management's Master of Business Administration program, said a microcampus would provide development and other opportunities for his tribe.

"Especially in rural communities that are very isolated, having the presence of a university there … would really sponsor the hospitality sector, it would help with governance, it would help with small businesses in the area," he said.

Robbins reiterated his longstanding aspiration to establish a microcampus with every tribe in Arizona. 

"The blueprint and the roadmap is there with Pascua Yaqui – we've done it already," Robbins said, adding that every tribal nation in Arizona that wants a UArizona microcampus should get one. 

Making connections

After lunch with Robbins, tribal leaders gathered with other university leaders to discuss ways that various areas of the university can better serve tribes. As tribal leaders stayed at their respective tables, university leadership and staff moved from table to table, giving everyone a chance to meet and learn from one another.

Discussion topics included scholarship opportunities to tribal students, how university research can assist tribes in areas such as health and agriculture, how the university can better tell the stories of its tribal students, how the university can better reflect Native American culture on campus, how students and staff can encourage fellow tribal members to attend college, and more.

Amelia Flores gesturing while chatting with folks seated around a round table

Amelia Flores, chairwoman of the Colorado River Indian Community, speaks with university leaders – including Ron Marx (right), interim senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. Flores, a university alumna, earned her master's in linguistics from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences in 2008.

Chris Richards/University Communications

During one session, Amelia Flores, chairwoman of the Colorado River Indian Community, urged several university leaders to set up more partnerships among the tribe and the university's museums and libraries. Flores, who graduated from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences in 2008 with a master's degree in linguistics, spent nearly three decades as her tribe's archivist and librarian.

Garcia urged university leaders to establish more formal partnerships with tribes in Arizona, including hers, the Ak-Chin Indian Community. Those could include projects related to research or economic development, or even something simpler such as regular opportunities for Ak-Chin schoolchildren to visit campus.

"I would like to see a bigger partnership and a more involved partnership – what does that look like?" Garcia asked a table of leaders that included Esquerra and Robbins, as well as Elliott Cheu, interim senior vice president for research, innovation and impact, and university secretary Jon Dudas.

Esquerra noted that the intergovernmental agreement between the university and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe to set up the Pascua Yaqui microcampus also included details about other partnership opportunities. Were something similar to be built at Ak-Chin, he told Garcia, the agreement formalizing it could help pave the way for more partnerships.

Kasey Urquídez, vice president of enrollment management and dean of undergraduate admissions, said the summit provided a valuable opportunity for her team to make face-to-face connections with tribal leaders. Urquídez said several tribal leaders asked that the university be more visible and present in their communities so young tribal members know about the opportunity to go to college and how to apply.

"One thing we kept hearing is that they want us to be more visible," Urquídez said. "Being able to sit down together and talk was a great opportunity to establish that presence and connection."

Eric Mapp, an associate professor of practice and head of the Department of Applied Science at the College of Applied Science and Technology, said he heard from tribal leaders interested in not only how the university could help them improve their tribes' cybersecurity infrastructure, but also how tribal members could pursue careers in the field.

The College of Applied Science and Technology, based in Sierra Vista, is home to a renowned cyber operations program, which renewed its designation as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations in April. The designation is awarded by the National Security Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense.

people standing in front of a telescope with binoculars held up to their faces

Tribal leaders capped off the summit with a trip to Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter for an evening of stargazing – and a quick tutorial from SkyCenter staff on how to see the "green flash" through binoculars just as the sun is setting.

Chris Richards/University Communications

"It's important for us to get these contacts and talk to these representatives from tribal communities so we can have introductions and follow up to see how we can help," Mapp said. "It's part of our land-grant mission, and we want to be sure we adhere to that."

After the meeting sessions on campus, tribal leaders were shuttled to the university's Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, where they spent the evening atop Mount Lemmon stargazing through telescopes and hearing from university astronomers about discoveries made at the site.

The evening on the mountain capped a day of mutual learning.

"When we're given opportunities to create new partnerships, it's so important to take advantage of them and to be in close proximity and have dialogue with people at the university," said Rocha, the Eller alumnus and Yavapai-Apache Nation member. "It's so important for each of us to get that learning opportunity with one another."