UArizona Welcomes Tribal Leaders From Across U.S. for Two-Day Summit on Education

Tony Duncan hoop dancing

Tony Duncan, a hoop dancer with the Phoenix-based dance company Yellow Bird Productions, performs during the Tribal Leaders Summit, which ran from Oct. 21-22.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

The University of Arizona hosted nearly two dozen tribal leaders from across the U.S. for a two-day summit focused on finding ways that university scholarship and programs can better serve tribes and tribal students.

The Tribal Leaders Summit, held on Oct. 21 and 22, was the first of what is intended to be an annual event with Indigenous leaders, said Nathan Levi Esquerra, UArizona senior vice president for Native American advancement and tribal engagement.

Attendees included tribal leaders and representatives from across Arizona, including the Ak-Chin Indian Community, the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the Hualapai Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the White Mountain Apache Tribe, as well as the Tohono O'odham Nation and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe – whose homelands the university is built upon.

The university also hosted leaders from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma and the Tulalip Tribes in Washington state, as well as a representative from Wenaha Group, a Native American-owned construction management and consulting firm also based in Washington state.

During the summit, tribal leaders heard from university leaders and faculty about research and initiatives already underway, and gave input on ways to improve those efforts to better serve Native American students.

The university set an institutional record for Native American student enrollment this semester, with 1,659 Native American students, Karen Francis-Begay, assistant vice provost for Native American initiatives, said during the summit. About 1,200 of those students are undergraduates, 300 are graduate students and 114 are seeking professional degrees. The university's Native American students represent 151 Native nations.

The summit included presentations by university faculty leading research for and about Indigenous communities. Tribal leaders also met with University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins and attended several receptions to network and share ideas for improving education access for tribal students.

Levi Esquerra, Robert C. Robbins and Dwight Lomayesva

From left: Nathan Levi Esquerra, UArizona senior vice president for Native American advancement and tribal engagement, President Robert C. Robbins and Dwight Lomayesva, vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

"I personally am invested in trying to explore ways that the university can better serve your nations and the students that you have," Robbins said in a meeting with more than a dozen of the visiting tribal leaders.

"I can tell you that everyone on our senior leadership team is aligned with this vision – it's in our strategic plan," he added.

In that meeting, many tribal leaders said that the university is already serving tribes well in many ways, and they urged university leadership to find ways to bring scholarship and research to tribal communities in culturally respectful ways. They also asked university leaders to work to understand the difficulties many tribal students face when they leave their homelands to attend college.

The summit, many of the leaders said, should only be the beginning.

"We want to thank you for allowing this to happen because, in my eight years of tribal leadership, this is probably the most I've engaged with a college institution," said Robert Miguel, chairman of the Ak-Chin Indian Community in Maricopa. "The U of A has really reached out to our community, and it means a lot, not just to leadership, but to elders and students overall."

Indigenous Research and a New Center Name  

During the summit, a number of UArizona scholars presented on research and programs focused on Indigenous communities.

The summit also featured keynote presentations by David Hill, principal chief for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and Jonodev Chaudhuri, the nation's ambassador. Both spoke about the power of tribal nations' diplomacy and engagement with other tribal communities and government entities in reinforcing their sovereignty.

Hill, who was elected the nation's principal chief in December 2019 after 12 years on its national council, has brought global recognition to the tribe for its proactive COVID-19 response. He also worked to reinforce the nation's sovereignty following a landmark 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the original boundaries of the tribe's reservation. Hill was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2020.

Chaudhuri, a former chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission, spoke about the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's creation of the ambassadorship to represent the tribe's interests in Washington, D.C., and the role the position played during and after the 2020 Supreme Court decision.

"We recognized that, either in dealings with Spain or France or England or, later, the United States, most tribal nations have a history of engagement on a government-to-government basis with all these foreign powers, not to mention other tribal nations," Chaudhuri said. "When we talk about traditional knowledge or Indigenous knowledge, it can't be forgotten that some of that traditional knowledge comes from governance and diplomacy."

people posing for a photo with a flag

From left: Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill, Chief of Staff Tracie Revis, Ambassador Jonodev Chaudhuri, and Robbins with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation flag.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

Following their presentations, Hill and Chaudhuri presented Robbins with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation flag.

The summit also included a renaming ceremony for what is now the Wassaja Carlos Montezuma Center for Native American Health. The center, established in 1983 as the Native American Research and Training Center, is housed in the College of Medicine – Tucson's Department of Family and Community Medicine.

Montezuma, whose parents named him Wassaja when he was born around 1866, was Arizona's first Native American physician one of the first Native American advocates for tribal self-determination and land protection.

The summit closed with tribal leaders convening at Robbins' tailgate gathering ahead of Saturday's football game against the Washington Huskies. The tailgate featured a hoop-dancing performance by Tony Duncan, a world-champion hoop dancer with the Phoenix-based dance company Yellow Bird Productions.

"This is just another step for our university toward strengthening our relationship with tribes," Esquerra said after the summit. "It was a great opportunity to listen and learn and figure out how we can build up the capacity to take on the challenges that tribal leaders shared with us. This will be the first of many engagements with Native nations."