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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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