Best & Brightest: Obligation To Native Culture, Community Fuels Academic Drive - Higher Education
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Best & Brightest: Obligation To Native Culture, Community Fuels Academic Drive

by Lelita L. Cannon


Karletta Chief has come a long way since the days when, as a Stanford University  undergrad, her father had to sell the family’s cattle to cover the costs of her engineering books. Such were the sacrifices of the Navajo first-generation college student and her parents, a minister and a Navajo weaver.

Chief, now a doctoral candidate who will graduate from the University of Arizona next month, tells that story and others to younger American Indian students as she encourages them to attend college. When she’s not writing her dissertation on hydrology and water resources, the 2000-2001 Miss Navajo Nation travels to K-12 schools to spread her message of education for Native students.

“I share my experiences of growing up on the reservation; old stories I’ve learned from my elders, being a first generation college student, my successes, failures and struggles as I strove to obtain my college degrees,” says Chief, 31. “I encourage students to be proud of their Navajo or Native American identity.”

Raised on the Navajo Reservation in Black Mesa, Ariz., Chief says she wants to show other Native students that higher education is an opportunity available to them.

She integrates the Navajo and English languages into her presentations so students can see how an academically successful American Indian can flourish in “both the traditional and modern worlds.”

And people are listening. In fact, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society recently selected Chief as a spokesperson. The organization focuses on providing role models for K-12 students and encouraging them to pursue an education in science and engineering.

Just as important as education to Chief is community service. That’s why she co-founded the nonprofit Miss Navajo Council for former Miss Navajo titleholders who want to “continue to promote preservation of Navajo culture and language.” 

“Karletta is an inspiration,” says Sarah Ann Johnson Luther, the 1966-67 Miss Navajo Nation. “She brings incredible talent and amazing energy to our organization. She is a strong Navajo woman who endured insurmountable challenges to achieve her dream — a doctorate degree. I am proud to know Karletta; a beautiful young Navajo woman who dedicates herself to making a difference and drives for excellence in all aspects of her life. I hope many of our Navajo young people will be challenged by her accomplishments and likewise become inspired to set their goals high.”

Also a marathon runner, Chief was instrumental in founding the Navajo Elite Runners, a nonprofit organization “devoted toward encouraging young Navajo runners to excel in their running as part of the Navajo tradition.”

Chief earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil and environmental engineering from Stanford in 1998 and 2000, respectively. It wasn’t easy, she says, noting that, “Going [to Stanford] was major culture shock because I was coming from a setting that was very traditional, rural and Navajo. [Stanford’s] urban, modern setting was much different from what I was used to, as well as very rigorous academically.  It was very competitive. Eventually, I adjusted.”

Her concern for community, particularly the environmental disturbances on her reservation caused by a local mining company, is the main reason she studied engineering and the environment.

“My family had to move several times because of the mine blasting and mining. In addition, the streams our sheep drank from were contaminated by chemical dumps that occurred,” she says. “That fueled my passion to go on to college, because at the time my family knew about mining in the general sense, but I wanted to be able to know the engineering behind it, the science behind how energy is produced, how we can protect our environment while being able to apply science and technology.”

Robert A. Clark, an adjunct professor in the department of hydrology and water resources for the University of Arizona, has nothing but rave reviews for Chief, who has been a teaching assistant for the past five years.

“She works well with students, but is demanding that they participate in the courses,” he says. “She has a deep sense of obligation to her Native people and has been actively involved in enhancing and preserving their native culture.”

Chief hopes to gain more work experience in order to utilize her environmental expertise with a consulting firm. “Eventually,” she says, “I would like to go back to the reservation and be an entrepreneur.”

– Lelita L.Cannon

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