The first Master’s of Arts in Native American Studies degree program began in the Fall 2018 semester. Now, in a challenging time for many Native Americans as a pandemic threatens their communities, members of the first NAS master’s degree program cohort are celebrating their success in attaining their degrees.

"This M.A. in Native American Studies at UNM is special and unique because we support students in fostering a meaningful, reciprocal partnership with a Native community or organization where they can apply the knowledge and skills they gain from the degree program,” said Tiffany Lee (Diné/Lakota), Native American Studies Department chair. “Students with this MA can use their research skills, critical thinking and writing skills, and problem-solving skills in any career they choose. Their careers will work toward positive contributions to Native American communities and people."

"This first group of MA graduates already made significant contributions to Native communities,” Lee continued. “They have strengthened their knowledge and skills through their Projects of Excellence (POE), which instead of a traditional thesis, is a project developed in collaboration with a community partner to support the needs and interests of their partner.  Our MA students are advancing the understanding of complex issues affecting our Native communities, and in this time of uncertainty, the need for graduates with this type of knowledge and skills is ever the more important."  

To complete their degree, the students do coursework and then complete their POE, explained Catherine Montoya (Diné), NAS senior student success specialist, noting, “The project is community-based and the student gets to be as creative as they want with it. Most of the students complete their POE over two semesters in their second year.”

The students celebrating their master’s degrees in NAS are:

Albert Abeita

Technically, Albert Abeita, Sr. of Isleta Pueblo is the first person to complete the degree and he is also the oldest student in the group although he is celebrating with the rest of the cohort. Abeita graduated in December 2019. He has a BA in Native American Studies with a concentration in Indigenous Learning Communities, and a BA in Criminology.

A former Isleta police officer working with Indigenous communities, Abeita focused his POE on helping victims of violence. His POE was titled “Restoration of Identity Resource Center.” Through his POE he assisted victims by empowering them and helping them regain their identity through advocacy and providing resources. His project gained strength and continues to grow.

“There was so much to learn in Native American Studies, especially in regards to education that was not taught in middle school or high school pertaining to Indigenous history, atrocities, self-determination, and self-governance,” Abeita said. “There is a metaphor that says, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ Being the oldest in my cohort class and graduating with a master’s degree at 56 years old, I am that old dog that has learned not only new tricks but more education within the field of Native American Studies. Don’t ever allow age to become an obstacle or barrier in reaching your goals.”

Leiloni Begaye

Leiloni Begaye is Diné from Greasewood Springs, Arizona. After graduation she plans to continue advocating for food resiliency, being a caretaker of the land, and as an Indigenous woman in agriculture. One of her future goals is to apply to a Ph.D. program in Rangeland Ecology and support her community.

Begaye’s POE focused on Indigenous women in agriculture through the lens of Diné philosophy, epistemology, and cosmology. As a land steward, she utilized traditional Diné practices and Indigenous ecological knowledge to reclaim food resiliency. She co-piloted a Food Sustainability Launch Project with her community of Lower Greasewood Springs and continues to give back to her community.

“My fondest NAS memory was starting a new journey with the first cohort in the M.A. NAS program. These young, inspiring, and empowering cohorts are now my friends, relatives, and family,” Begaye said.

Micha Dayzie-Bitsinnie

The mother of two elementary-aged children and a toddler, as well as being a full-time high school teacher, Micha Dayzie-Bitsinnie is Diné from Monument Valley in Utah and Arizona. She credits the evening courses and supportive program and cohort with helping her cross the finish line to her degree.

Her POE focused on implementing “Land-Based Pedagogy at the Native American Community Academy (NACA)” and interviewed the current team on their insights regarding the ways NACA can build a strong land-based program in its schools.

“After graduation, I plan on focusing on improving educational policies for our Native American children and families,” she said.

Janiece Garcia

Janiece Garcia skirt
Janiece Garcia shows her Lobo loyalty

Janiece L. Garcia is from Tamaya (Santa Ana Pueblo), Katishtya (San Felipe), and the Navajo Nation. Her POE was a case study of the Santa Ana Pueblo Healing to Wellness Court that was implemented in October 2019. Prior to this program, the Pueblo of Santa Ana Tribal Court dealt with drug and alcohol cases with very limited resources geared towards diversion and sobriety. Through participatory research, she was focused on providing an evaluation of the program’s first year of implementation and how collaboration promotes positive well-being, sustainability, and deterrence from drug and alcohol abuse.

“I am thankful that I did not have many challenges during my grad studies other than learning how to balance the realities of being a grad student, a full-time employee, and a committed family member and tribal member to my various communities. I had to sacrifice many community gatherings and also educational opportunities because I was either being pulled to focus on solely my work, my studies, or my family at any given time. I overcame them by being transparent with all aspects of my life and knowing that I could only be in control of so many things. Also, with the love and support from my family, including my work family, I was able to manage everything without too much stress,” she observed.

“What I liked best about UNM is the community-oriented atmosphere that it brings. Not only have I become close with my classmates, but I have also established life-long relationships with faculty who have supported me throughout this journey,” Garcia said.

After graduation, she plans to attend Law School in the Fall 2021 to study tribal law or criminal justice.

Nathan Jopek

Nathan Jopek is from Albuquerque and the Pueblo of Laguna. He is half Polish.

Jopek’s POE focused on holistic wellness as it pertains to mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of an individual’s life. He specifically looked at how the young women of NACA’s 2019 volleyball team felt engaging in the sport and how participation fostered holistic wellness outcomes.

“I believe that UNM, like many other academic institutions, should consider making attendance of People of Color students possible. There are plenty of students currently thinking of attending who are struggling to find the means to pay for school. Make it possible for people of color to attend college,” he said.

“I can now walk through the world ready to take on any challenges that come my way. I’m empowered, educated, and, most of all, Indigenous."

Nathan Jopek

“After graduation I plan to assist Indigenous youth through college engagement and the sport of volleyball. Along with this I will be continuing my work with my non-profit Tribal Entities Connect. It is my plan and goal in life to use the knowledge I have gained through NAS and give that back to Indigenous communities,” Jopek said. “UNM’s Native American Studies department allowed me to flourish. I was able to expand my knowledge and become the empowered person I am today.”

Caitlynn Mayhew in traditional dress

Caitlynn Mayhew

Caitlynn Mayhew is Diné from Cove, Arizona.

Mayhew’s POE focused on utilizing her background in biology to study wildlife on Dinétah. Her research was an exploratory study of bird diversity within the traditional territory of Dinétah, with an emphasis on reclaiming the traditional names for these species.

“The intention of surveying species within Dinétah and researching their role within Diné history is to provide context to the value of these non-human entities within our culture to repair our relationship with our natural community,” Mayhew said. Her project served as a conscious act of wildlife and language conservation to assist in Diné self-determination and cultural revitalization.

The COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown was the most defining moment of her UNM experience.

After graduation, Mayhew plans to further her education in wildlife conservation to provide more critical research on the Navajo Nation to protect our natural community.

Nicole Swentzell

Nicole Swentzell is Kewa from the Santo Domingo Pueblo, N.M.

Through her POE, Nicole put together the Joe Sando Symposium - Pueblo Stories: Laying the Path for Sustaining Pueblo Futures, which took place in March 2020. The symposium honored noted historian, author, and scholar Joe Sando from the Pueblo of Jemez, who inspired new generations of research, writing and debate about Pueblo history and life.

“As a NAS student, I learned that getting a degree in Native American Studies should always include giving back to your community,” Swentzell said. She plans to continue teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts in the Indigenous Liberal Studies Program

Swentzell said NAS Master’s program allowed her to be able to continue her educational journey and stay close to her community, family and friends.

She was lucky to have been able to complete her final project just days before the stay-at-home orders took place. Swentzell said she was also extremely grateful to have been a Center for Regional Studies Fellow since it directly contributed to her project.

The first Masters of NAS cohort wasn’t able to walk across the stage together. Instead, the department posted an online recognition of their achievements and they will be part of the virtual celebration on Saturday, May 30.

“I am disappointed that I am not able to walk with my fellow classmates for our commencement but am still proud of all of our accomplishments. I know that we all worked tirelessly till the very end and I know we are all happy to be finally done. I am sure we are happy to get to take a break… or in other words, sleep,” Garcia said.

“The response of our Indigenous students to protect our traditional communities showed immense courage, spirit, and leadership in this pandemic,” Mayhew said. “I don’t mind the postponed commencement and virtual graduation. The safety of my family and friends is a priority. Although we may miss this one event, taking measure such as this ensures my family will be able to share many more milestones with me. Each Indigenous community has a story that needs to be shared. We are not alone in our journey to be heard. Together we can rebuild and revitalize.”

“The passion to lead and do more for our people is within all of us. Who we are as Native people is beautiful and empowering. It comes with great courage and resilience to do what we do in various capacities that makes NAS such a powerful community of scholars, leaders, and warriors,” Garcia said.

“I can now walk through the world ready to take on any challenges that come my way. I’m empowered, educated, and, most of all, Indigenous,” Jopek concluded.