ife can have a funny way of taking us not to the places we thought we would go, but to the places we need to be. “If I am being honest, I never thought I would be studying bats for my master’s, but I am very excited,” says Ryan Matilton about his graduate work in natural resources at Cal Poly Humboldt (formerly Humboldt State University). The Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River — a waterway that has always played a vital role in the lives of the Indigenous population — is scheduled for a 2023 removal, and monitoring bat species will provide critical information regarding the riverine ecosystems. The data will also provide Matilton with the skills needed for his goal of becoming the lead biologist for the Hoopa or Yurok Tribe. At the same time, Matilton and the team supporting him aim to contribute to the largest restoration project in the country.
Matilton is of Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk descent and a citizen of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. “‘Pu:liklah’ is how people who live along the Klamath River refer to themselves,” says Matilton, reminiscing fondly about the mountains on all sides of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation where he grew up. “It is a rural town with a store and a gas station. That’s about it as far as luxuries go,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Seeing summer turn to fall is my favorite time of year — the hills turn auburn and gold with a touch of evergreen.”
His parents, who are both educators, influenced his decision to pursue higher education and conservation. “My family has supported all my ambitions,” he explains. “My confidence and work ethic are a result of their devotion to my success.” Academic support was not the only ingredient in encouraging Matilton along his current path. “I have always been an outdoorsman,” he says. “And my parents were lenient enough to let me explore the natural world on my terms.” Beyond his family, AISES has been an important source of encouragement and support. “AISES has given me the opportunity to pursue an education knowing I have people in my corner who want me to succeed,” he says.
“I learned by failing my sophomore year that I had to refine my skills as a student to succeed."
Matilton was officially hooked on conservation and wildlife management when he joined the lead biologist of Hoopa Tribal Forestry on a mission to band a northern spotted owl. At the time, Matilton was just eight years old. By high school, he was already working for the tribe as an intern. “Interning at Hoopa Tribal Forestry greatly influenced how I planned my future,” he explains. “School taught me the basics, but what I did outside defined me.” After graduating from Hoopa Valley High School while dually enrolled at College of the Redwoods, Matilton was accepted to Cal Poly Humboldt in 2012.
College careers can take a nonlinear course to where we eventually end up. Two years after an often-too-easy ride in high school, Matilton was forced to take a break. “I was academically disqualified because of a couple of hard semesters, which humbled me to say the least,” he says. “I learned by failing my sophomore year that I had to refine my skills as a student to succeed.” Matilton took this time away from Cal Poly Humboldt as an opportunity to assist with the forestry efforts of the Hoopa Tribe, where he worked as a wildlife technician for two years. He also went back to College of the Redwoods, where in just two years he earned three associate of arts degrees in humanities and communication, behavior and social science, and science exploration.
Academically rejuvenated, he reenrolled at Cal Poly Humboldt and finished his bachelor’s degree in wildlife management and conservation. For his senior capstone project, he conducted a literature review to further his understanding of bat ecology within the Klamath River Basin. “As a Nah tin iwh way (Hupa), it is ingrained within me to cater to nature as my forefathers have done since time immemorial,” he says. “The Klamath River and its dams have always been of interest to me.” When asked if he would be interested in researching the bat population, he jumped at the chance.
At school Matilton has been the bridge between the campus, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the people of the Klamath River Basin. Through these collaborations, he was early admitted to the Cal Poly Humboldt master’s program in wildlife for the spring 2022 semester. Now, with the support of family, colleagues, and AISES, Matilton and his team are poised to make significant contributions to the conservation of the Klamath River Basin.
In their traditional homeland in the Klamath River Valley of Northern California, the Hupa people have excelled at salmon fishing from time immemorial. The tribe has been active in the cause of restoring the river for more than half a century.
Joanna Kern Cooley is fascinated by the human brain. For years she put that fascination on the back burner as she raised her family, and it wasn’t until Cooley turned 30 that she decided to apply to college to become a doctor. Now, as she works toward completing her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience at Saginaw Valley State University in Saginaw, Mich., she is well on her way to achieving that goal.
Cooley grew up in Cut Off, La., about 65 miles south of New Orleans. The small fishing community is located on Bayou Lafourche, and many local residents rely on the seafood industry as a way of life. Cooley, however, remembers her father telling her to strive for more than a low-wage job. “My dad has been one of my greatest influences,” she says. “I can remember him telling me how important it is for me to get a good education so I could have a fulfilling career doing something I truly enjoy.”
While Cooley took his advice to heart, she became a mother when she was very young. She obtained her GED at 16 and never really thought about college. But after spending years raising her children, Cooley decided it was time for her to step outside her comfort zone and go back to school. She already knew what she wanted to study: the brain. “After receiving my medical assistant degree, I began working in the field of neurosurgery,” says Cooley. “I decided then that I want to study traumatic brain injury (TBI).”
Cooley embarked on the next stage of her academic journey and early on chose neuroscience as her major. “There are so many things we can still learn about the brain,” says Cooley. Although excited to pursue her passion, being a non-traditional student has brought challenges — like juggling home and school life and struggling with being one of few Native American students. “It is sometimes hard when you don’t fit into the social norms of the field,” she explains.
“AISES has inspired me to open up and network with other students and professionals nationwide.”
One way Cooley meets this challenge is by simultaneously working toward an associate degree in Native American studies at Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College in Mount Pleasant, Mich. Another is through AISES, which Cooley joined at the urging of a friend. There she found the support and Native representation she was looking for. Cooley is currently involved in the AISES Full-Circle Mentorship Program, which connects Native students to mentors from across the country. She has also received the AISES A.T. Anderson Memorial Scholarship. “AISES has really helped me to find the financial means to continue on my educational path,” says Cooley. “AISES has inspired me to open up and network with other students and professionals nationwide.”
At the AISES National Conference Cooley met Dr. Frederick Boyd, who put her in touch with Dr. Kathleen Rodgers. As a result of this meeting, Cooley now has a spot in the Undergraduate Readying for Burgeoning Research for American Indian Neuroscientists Fellowship through Diné College at the University of Arizona. With the fellowship Cooley will have an opportunity to spend 10 weeks seeing firsthand how labs function.
Cooley believes this fellowship will help her reach her goal of an MD/PhD in neuroscience. “It will allow me to do the clinical study as well as the lab research to help understand traumatic brain injury,” says Cooley. Ultimately, she would like to work with military veterans to develop treatments or protocols for better recovery.
Cooley’s path has not been traditional, or easy. She credits her family with helping her get this far. “I am the mother of four amazing children,” says Cooley. “I have a very supportive husband. He and my father make me laugh and remind me to work hard but have fun.” Cooley believes those lessons are important for anyone pursuing an advanced degree. “My determination keeps me moving forward, and my resiliency is what continues to give me the courage to go out and try,” she says. Certainly, there have been long days and hard days, and days when Cooley felt like she just didn’t fit in. But Cooley has learned what to do in those situations. “When there’s no room at their table,” she advises, “build your own.” Cooley is doing just that, and her table looks like a promising place to be.
Approximately 17,000 enrolled members of the United Houma Nation live in a six-parish (county) area encompassing a region about the size of Connecticut on the southeastern coast of Louisiana. The tribe continues to fight for sovereignty and Indigenous rights at the federal level. The biggest threat to the people of the United Houma Nation is coastal wetland loss, which Louisiana experiences at a greater rate than all other states.
“A wild ride.” That’s how Paul Flores, tribal administrator for the Pit River Tribe in Burney, Calif., describes his life. “Be open to any opportunity, because you don’t know where it’s going to lead,” he says. A member of the Gila River Indian Community, Flores grew up in Arizona, dropped out of high school, joined the Army, and became an infantryman. During the second Iraq war, in the battle-ravaged town of Ramadi, a hidden bomb exploded and wounded him. “I expected to be jumping out of airplanes and fast roping off helicopters for 20 years,” he says. “Didn’t happen that way.”
Back home, Flores became one of the youngest members to serve on the tribal council. “I fell into politics and public policy and became a steward of my community,” he says. “I understood my place was to help others for the longevity of our heritage.” But after 18 months, he realized he lacked the education to serve his tribe as fully as he would have liked. Flores knew he had to go back to school to be an effective leader, so he took the humbling step of enrolling in basic arithmetic and reading classes at the local community college.
“I realized I am smarter than I had been led to believe my whole life,” Flores recalls. He later chose an astronomy class, thinking it would be easy. Soon he learned it was far more math-intensive than he had expected. He rose to the challenge. “You are capable, especially when you’ve got other smart people around you,” he says. “That class was great.”
Three years after taking arithmetic, Flores advanced to calculus. He transferred to Fort Lewis College, where he founded the student Veteran’s Club and served on the Student Senate. He earned joint degrees in environmental science and political science in 2021 at Northern Arizona University, a place where he felt he “could grow and evolve” on his own.
After graduation he took a job as a network analyst with Native-owned Alluvion, a Chandler, Ariz.–based fiber-optic telecommunications company. “Alluvion is on the front lines of telecommunications connectivity,” says Flores. He and his team were emergency responders monitoring multiple screens for mechanical and overheating snafus 24 hours a day. They hunted vandals and kept data zipping at the correct super high speeds through cell towers.
Flores knew he had to go to back to school to be an effective leader, so he took the humbling step of enrolling in basic arithmetic and reading classes at the local community college.
“I love the tech world,” says Flores. “But I was only focusing in that area.” He eventually decided to follow his passion and use his expertise in tribal politics and policy formulation. “I have a high calling because of my ability to manage, organize, and rally,” says Flores. Today he is chief administrator of all 17 departments of the Pit River Tribe, which comprises 11 autonomous bands in Northern California. Besides supervising 100 employees, he spearheads tribal endeavors that range from budgeting and developing policies and workflows to securing ancestral lands from the federal government.
His elders raised him to practice the selfless principles of himdaq, which Flores explains as “being a steward of your community; having values of caring and compassion; loving the land, elders, neighbors; and working as a collective.”
Nothing stops Flores. “I would tell anybody that you can totally take a hit, and you can get back up,” he says. “You could think, ‘Man, this is it. I’m done.’ No — you can get back up. Get back up. I just kept getting slugged and slugged and slugged, and I kept getting back up. That’s the only reason I’m here now, because I kept at it.”
The Huhugam Heritage Center, one of the finest tribal facilities for preserving and displaying artworks and cultural artifacts, serves as an inviting museum and exhibit space, research facility, and gathering place for the Gila River Indian Community.