Board Profile: Monica Nuvamsa and Her Hopi Community

Monica Nuvamsa

Monica Nuvamsa

When Monica Nuvamsa first ventured away from her home in northeastern Arizona at age 17, she had her sights on new worlds to explore. As her path led her to Tucson, to Flagstaff and, ultimately, to Washington, D.C., she discovered her greatest world was the one back in her community. Now, with a goal to invest her knowledge, experience and skills in the strengthening of her Hopi Tribe, Monica is bringing her perspective to the First Nations Board of Directors, showing how efforts on a national scale translate into the day-to-day operations of a local village.

Where Women are Valued

The reasons for Monica returning to her roots are clear when she talks about her childhood. She grew up in the Village of Songoopavi on the Hopi Reservation, in a strong female matriarchy.

“There’s a saying that Hopis have,” she says. “A man who has a lot of daughters is a rich man.”

The reason for this, she says, is that women strengthen the whole clan. They are the resources – key to the day-to-day operations in farming and ranching, and imperative to Hopi rituals and ceremonies. They lend support in every task, and they make it possible to create more generations of that support. “The men may be the managers. But the women are the owners,” she says.

Monica was raised in that culture. As the only daughter of an only daughter, she found support in an extended family of mothers, grandmothers and aunts, where all women played a maternal role.

“We never felt like we were a single-unit family,” she says. “Our extended family is our family. So when we do something in the community, we all stand behind it.”

Venturing Out

Monica Nuvamsa

Monica Nuvamsa

Leaving for college at the University of Arizona with a parental permission slip because she wasn’t yet 18, Monica drew from this strength. It was a new world. But she knew if she never went past Phoenix, she would never grow as a person.

As first-generation college students, she and her cousin, who enrolled with her, had to adjust to a strange community that was like a “foreign country.” They struggled with the things that most new students struggle with – such as living away from home and finding classes – but they also had to make their way through challenges they’d never been exposed to before in the Native community, such as opening a checking account, finding an apartment, and getting transportation to and from campus.

“We were adjusting on two fronts, and it was a culture shock,” she says. Still, she stuck with it, saying, “I wasn’t going to become another statistic. I had to learn fast.”

Learn she did. Monica set on a path for architecture. Wanting to have more of a social impact, she then changed to pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology/health sciences and American Indian studies. With that curriculum, she was able to take advantage of the U of A’s research focus and take graduate courses in qualitative and applied learning.

Monica with her maternal and paternal grandmothers at her college graduation in 1996.

Monica with her maternal and paternal grandmothers at her college graduation in 1996.

Part of that work involved evaluating federal diversity grants, reviewing grant applications and projected and obtained outcomes. This experience would become the backbone for a career in grantwriting, public policy and advocacy.

Advocate for Culture & Students

After college, Monica was given the opportunity to return to northern Arizona to serve as an advocate and project coordinator for the Hopi Tribe’s Domestic Violence Program, which was one of the many nationwide initiatives surrounding the federal Violence Against Women Act. She was involved with the program for two years, during which it was recognized as a best practice in Native policy and it experienced revenue growth from $75,000 to over half a million.

From there, she was asked by the chair of the Hopi Tribe to serve as the tribe’s intergovernmental affairs liaison. Here, she recognized herself as an “implementer” of vision and scope, who could translate what was going on in the state legislature and put it into a tangible context, she says.

Monica during her first year with the Morris K. Udall Congressional Internship Program.

Monica during her first year with the Morris K. Udall Congressional Internship Program.

After her four-year commitment with the chairman’s office, Monica transitioned away from politics for a short time. She sought work back in Tucson, and ultimately accepted a position as a program manager for the Native American Congressional Internship Program under the Morris K. Udall Foundation, which has offices in both Tucson and Washington, D.C.

In her new role, Monica moved to D.C., where she placed Native American college graduates in positions on the Hill and in the Senate and House. The foundation worked with individuals from federally-recognized tribes and those who specifically lived in America. Knowing how important support systems are for Native people in new environments, Monica wanted to expand outreach beyond these categories. She advocated for the foundation to also work with state-recognized tribes, and to open eligibility for Native individuals from Canada, through provisions of the Good Trade Treaty. Both these feats she was able to accomplish.

Throughout her experiences – from leaving for college, to implementing national policy for Hopi people, to advocating for Native students in the nation’s capital – Monica says she was always very intentional. She is slow and steady, a stabilizer and a calculated risk-taker. In that manner, as she honed her skills in policy and administration, she next became intent on how she wanted to use them: At home, in her Native community.

Returning to Lead

Monica came back to the Hopi community and began as the executive director of The Hopi Foundation, which works to promote self-sufficiency and community participation in the destiny, self-reliance and local self-determination of the Hopi people. In this role, she combines her advocacy training with her grantwriting and foundation experience, pursing initiatives toward Native philanthropy, youth engagement and community strengthening. She also meshes her experiences of life in the big city and life in a small village to bring forth a broader perspective on racism and reclaiming Native truth.

Monica and her goddaughter at her corn-grinding ceremony.

Monica and her goddaughter at her corn-grinding ceremony.

“When you’re in the village, there is no racism outside your front door. Everyone looks like us and we don’t have to be different or justify ourselves,” she says. “But when we go to border towns we experience that racism and inequity and we’re recognized for poverty and alcoholism. Those are generalities that hurt our community.”

In her work at The Hopi Foundation, Monica works to change those perceptions.

“Many Native Americans feel there’s no need to rehash the past. As a result, people think we’re a dying race,” she says. “Taking over the narrative is the best way to overcome those misperceptions.”

In her role, she calls on her upbringing by strong women in advancing the foundation’s work toward domestic violence prevention. And she calls on her roots in kinship and intergenerational knowledge transfer to pursue another focus on youth engagement.

She also brings her experience to board leadership roles. She is the only Native representation on the Arizona Grantmakers Forum. She is also one of the newest members of the board of First Nations, an organization she says she’s always admired from afar for its work in food sovereignty, financial literacy and philanthropy.

The day Monica became a grandmother in 2013.

The day Monica became a grandmother in 2013.

She says she sees parallels between what First Nations does on a national level – food system evaluation, leadership programming and fundraising – and what the Hopi implement on a smaller, place-based scale. “There’s a ripple effect,” she says. “What happens on the outside ripples inward and then outward.”

She says serving on the board of First Nations lets her see what’s happening on a national scale and how that affects local villages. “I have a community-based lens, and I am happy to be a person on the ground, lending my voice.”

Returning to Family

Back in northeastern Arizona, Monica is not only returning to tribal roots, she’s returning to her family. Growing up with three generations of elders ahead of her, now she’s a grandmother herself with two generations under her. Monica still finds strength in this kinship and the value of the matriarchal society.

Today she takes pride in stepping up to what she sees as her biggest challenge: The cultural responsibilities of spending time, teaching and learning the Hopi ways. But through her work and in her village, she is reinvesting in the foundation, the very place where she’s drawn her strength. She continues being a voice and setting the dialogue for Native people, students, youth, women and grandchildren. She remains stable and intentional, telling her family and the world: “We’re not invisible. We’re still here.”

By Amy Jakober

Muckleshoot “Rethink Your Drink” Effort Aims for a Healthy Tribe

Healthy beverage posters intended for display in classrooms and throughout tribal communities to promote ancestral beverage consumption.

Healthy beverage posters intended for display in classrooms and throughout tribal communities to promote ancestral beverage consumption.

In 2016, under one of its programs, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) awarded 15 grants totaling $422,500. These grants were funded by the Seeds of Native Health campaign created by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) to improve the nutrition of Native Americans across the country. One of the grantees was the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe’s Traditional Foods and Medicines Program and its “Native Infusion: Rethink Your Drink Campaign.”

The project’s focus is to encourage tribal youth to incorporate and increase traditional, ancestral beverages, fruits and vegetables – healthy foods – into their diets. By focusing on traditional, ancestral beverages and foods, the tribe hopes to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks and improve the health of the younger tribal members to combat diabetes, obesity and tooth decay later in life.

Valerie Segrest

Valerie Segrest

Valerie Segrest is the Traditional Foods and Medicines Program manager, and a tribal member. Segrest says the implementation of the “Rethink Your Drink Campaign” is an important part of creating change in the eating habits of the tribe’s youth and their community.

“The discussion is focused on the facts and information … our communities have been disempowered for so long that we need to start with culture in the discussion. To let them (the community) be the driving force, so they feel more empowered to take their health into their own hands,” said Segrest.

Six healthy beverage posters were created by two Salish artists, Roger Fernandes (Lower Elwha) and Joe Seymour (Sqauxin), who drew the images; and Annie Brule, who was the graphic designer. The posters will be displayed throughout the tribal community in the schools and community centers. A curriculum guide was created and made available to educators to increase the number of people who can teach the youth about traditional diets and how to make healthy beverage choices.

A tea bar display that includes several herbs highlighted in the curriculum and recipe book.

A tea bar display that includes several herbs highlighted in the curriculum and recipe book.

Segrest and her colleague, Elise Krohn, M.Ed., co-authored Native Infusion: Rethink Your Drink – A Guide to Ancestral Beverages, which is included in the toolkit. The guide is extensive and provides information on how to “Navigate the Beverage Aisle” to avoid the sugary drinks; information on the six posters and how the images connect to the ancestral drinks and cultural teachings; how to make infused waters, herbal teas, sodas, bone broths and smoothies; how to set up a beverage station; and where to find further information and resources.

The curriculum includes how to set up an interactive, traditional, healthy beverage station. It includes ingredients for participants to make their own blends as well as pre-made teas such as dandelion root lattes and Douglas fir tip infused water.

The curriculum includes how to set up an interactive, traditional, healthy beverage station. It includes ingredients for participants to make their own blends as well as pre-made teas such as dandelion root lattes and Douglas fir tip infused water.

The Muckleshoot Tribe offered a one-day nutrition education summit in mid-May 2017 with 40 educators, tribal community members and youth leaders trained on using the healthy beverage toolkit. Youth representatives, mostly middle-schoolers from the Muckleshoot Tribal School, attended, along with youth from the after-school program.

There were guest speakers who addressed the health impacts of sugary drinks, the healthy beverage movement in British Columbia, and how to set up beverage stations. The summit was more than handing out information. It strived to engage the attendees and to encourage dialog to reinforce that the return to creating and drinking traditional healthy beverages is an act of tribal sovereignty.

“We traded our ancestral drinks in for the sugar and energy drinks, which don’t have our health in mind. There is a rich cultural tradition in our healthy beverages,” said Segrest.

Dr. Rose James discusses the importance of evaluating the reach of the healthy beverage campaign.

Dr. Rose James discusses the importance of evaluating the reach of the healthy beverage campaign.

At the one-day nutrition education summit, Segrest and Krohn demonstrated how to make bone broth, and teas out of leaves and flowers versus bark, roots and hard berries. Attendees also learned how to harvest, dry and store the teas correctly. There were beverage stations set up so people could sample the various teas, which reinforced the accessibility and taste of the teas.

Infused waters were made with fruits and vegetables to encourage the drinking of water. One theme Segrest often hears is that water has no taste, so people avoid drinking it. The infused waters gives people options and encourages them to stay hydrated.

The participants went home with their toolkits made up of the six posters to display around their communities, along with the guide and a tribal recipe book, which included a section on beverages. The recipe book is another Muckleshoot project supported by the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board and the Centers for Disease Control’s Good Health and Wellness in Indian Country (GHWIC) program. Segrest utilizes all available resources to maximize her program outreach and funding. She saw an opportunity to add beverage recipe cards to the existing popular recipe program that features foods specific to the area.

Presenters Fiona Deveraux (left) and Dr. Gary Ferguson (seated) listen intently as participants share their experiences teaching about healthy food traditions in tribal communities.

Presenters Fiona Deveraux (left) and Dr. Gary Ferguson (seated) listen intently as participants share their experiences teaching about healthy food traditions in tribal communities.

Segrest reminded the participants that “sovereignty isn’t an end goal, it’s something we do every day. Drinking ancestral beverages is a political act.”

Segrest and her colleagues will continue to provide trainings over the next several months and she is thankful to the Shakopee Seeds of Native Health campaign, the Muckleshoot Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program, and to First Nations for supporting her work as an activist for her community.

“The work wouldn’t be as prevalent or as strong without the support of First Nations, and it’s not just due to the funding, but to the relationships built with the folks within the organization. First Nations brings people together to feed off each other – to think, to partner. At First Nations’ gatherings you’re able to cross-pollinate with others, which reminds you that you’re not alone.”

The Seeds of Native Health effort encompasses efforts to improve awareness of Native nutrition problems, promote wider application of proven best practices, and encourage additional work related to food access, education and research. First Nations was one of SMSC’s strategic, inaugural partners in the effort. The campaign builds on localized efforts to solve the problems of Native American nutrition and hopes to raise awareness, spread knowledge, create capacity for change, and develop additional solutions on a broader scale.

By Mary K. Bowannie, First Nations Communications Officer