The 2021 AISES National Conference surprised many people. The number of attendees who came eager to meet in person, the record number of sponsors who invested in the value of the AISES mission, and the underlying atmosphere of hope and enthusiasm after a long hiatus were all heartening. Witnessing the familiar AISES traditions unfold over the three days of the conference was welcome to everyone. Master of Ceremonies Lillian Sparks Robinson ably guided the proceedings at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
All veterans in attendance were invited to participate in the Presentation of the Colors, a moving ceremony that included a color guard from American Legion Post 114 in Salt River, Ariz., and honor songs from the Bear Hill Singers and Northern Intertribal Drum. The traditional Land Acknowledgment, which noted the conference presence on the ancestral lands of the Navajo Nation, was followed by an address from Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. He spoke to the strengths of his community, especially in the face of adversity. “Even with COVID our way of life teaches us that we will persevere because of our worldview of protecting our family members,” Nez said.
Council of Elders members Dr. Bret Benally Thompson and Steven Darden offered blessings, and the student representatives reminded everyone about Safe Camp expectations and the Code of Conduct.
AISES CEO Sarah EchoHawk was joined virtually by Jana Schmieding, actor, comedian, writer, content creator, and currently co-lead with Ed Helms in the Peacock comedy series Rutherford Falls. Beyond reviewing Schmieding’s interesting career, much of their discussion centered on issues of Indigenous visibility and social justice. “Ours was one of a few Indigenous families in a small town,” said Schmieding. “I was raised to be an advocate. I am interested in younger Indigenous students’ finding their voices.” Related to the topic of Indigenous visibility was the point both speakers made that Indigenous people should strive to be perceived as the multidimensional individuals they are. “I am very much a Native person,” said Schmieding. “But that’s not all of who I am.” She pointed out that comedy is a way to “punch up at power.” “We are asking for justice and equity, things that have been taken from us,” she added. “When it comes to bringing challenging issues about us to mainstream audiences, I’m here to help.”
Following the Keynote Conversation, Sarah EchoHawk and David Cournoyer joined Dr. Wendy Smythe of the University of Minnesota Duluth, Ben Oster of The Boeing Company, and Aaron Yazzie of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a discussion of topics that ranged from the role of AISES in developing the foundations of leadership that underpin successful professional careers to traditional knowledge. As Dr. Smythe pointed out, “The issue with DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) is not recruitment, but retention. We need faculty ready to respect our knowledge systems.”
A high point of the ceremony was the spirit stick shout-out, where attendees from each region strove to be the loudest. At the 2021 National Conference, Region 5 made the most noise and took home the spirit stick.
Dr. Bret Benally Thompson offered remembrances of five people important to the AISES family who passed away in 2020 and 2021.
John Emhoolah Jr., Kiowa Tribe, was a longtime advocate for American Indian education. A Korean War veteran, he was active in several organizations in Seattle, including the United Tribes Foundation, the Seattle Indian Health Board, and the Northwest Inter-tribal Club. After relocating to Denver to work with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, Emhoolah became a leader in the city’s Native community, where for many years he shared his cultural heritage and traditional knowledge. Part of his legacy is the Denver March Powwow, which he co-founded.
Stanley Lucero, Laguna Pueblo, was a beloved member of the Council of Elders, along with his wife, Cecelia, for more than 14 years. Generations of AISES students and professionals sought him out not only for his wisdom, cultural teachings, vision, and values but also for his warmth, humor, and infectious enthusiasm. Stanley and Cecelia were advocates for LGBTQ2S+ people everywhere and facilitated the Rainbow Talking Circle at National Conferences. Stanley will always be remembered for looking out at auditoriums crowded with AISES members and calling them all “Beautiful Nerds.”
Cheryl McClellan, Sac and Fox Nation, was honored in 2018 with the Ely S. Parker Award, the highest distinction AISES confers on a professional member. Through her position at The Boeing Company as a supplier quality specialist, she played a role in national defense by ensuring that quality and contractual requirements in the components of military and presidential aircraft were strictly met. McClellan was elected second chief of the Sac and Fox Nation, and also served her tribe in the role of liaison to housing authority, responsible for the economic well-being of many members.
Alan Moomaw, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, became involved with AISES starting in his student days. After landing his first job with the Environmental Protection Agency at an AISES National Conference in Dallas, he continued to be active with the organization throughout a career devoted to protecting forests and land resources. A mentor to many, Moomaw worked with tribal governments as EPA tribal coordinator in Washington state and participated in the programs and activities of the AISES Professional Chapter in Puget Sound.
Jimmy C. Shorty, Navajo Nation, will be remembered as an original co-founder of AISES and former member of the Board of Directors. Early in his career he directed the Native American Program in the College of Engineering (NAPCOE) at the University of New Mexico, thought to be the first university-level program in the country for Native students. Discussions among NAPCOE leaders about forming a larger organization for Indigenous people in STEM are tied to the beginnings of AISES. Shorty continued to advocate for education and minority outreach while working at Sandia National Laboratories.