Belonging to the badger and spider clans of the Hopi Tribe has always been a source of pride to Nikishna Polequaptewa ’05, perhaps because he knows what it’s like to be alone – to feel like he’s a tribe of one. His mother left home when he was a baby; his father went to prison when he was 3; and he grew up living in foster homes or with relatives on and off the Arizona reservation.
“Even though I moved around, I always knew my American Indian identity,” Polequaptewa says. “I always felt closely tied to my reservation, my tribe and its customs.”
Today, as director of the American Indian Resource Program, he works to instill the same sense of pride and belonging in American Indian students at UC Irvine and at elementary and high schools throughout Southern California. Because of his efforts, Polequaptewa earned a 2008 Living Our Values Award, which are awarded annually by Chancellor Michael Drake to staff, faculty and students whose actions best embody UCI’s values of respect, intellectual curiosity, integrity, commitment, empathy, appreciation and fun.
“With low numbers of American Indians pursuing higher education, Nikishna continues to inspire individuals from reservations throughout the U.S. to receive college degrees,” writes Chau Ha Nguyen in her nomination letter. Nguyen is a third-year international studies major who accompanied Polequaptewa on an Alternative Spring Break mission to aid the fire-devastated La Jolla Indian Reservation. “Nikishna’s constantly on the road, going from school to school, reaching out to students. He’s promoted the growth of Native American interests on university campuses everywhere.”
Established by student affairs, the American Indian Resource Program aims to serve the population of current students and alumni and to increase the number of American Indian students on campus through K-12 outreach.
Projects include a FIRE Mentorship Program to encourage American Indian high school students to attend college, summer academies to introduce high school and transfer students to life at UCI, and an Anteater Bridge program to start American Indian students in grades 6-8 on the path to academic success. Polequaptewa also organizes on-campus events to spread awareness about American Indian issues and customs – including a Nov. 12 talk by American Indian law professor Paul Apodaca as part of this year’s Native American Heritage Month.
“We want to create an American Indian presence on campus and in the community,” he says. “It makes American Indian students feel less alone.”
Polequaptewa knows firsthand the importance of outreach. While attending Sherman Indian High School, a boarding school in Riverside, he participated in UCI’s American Indian Summer Institute in Computer Science residential program and the California Alliance for Minority Participation, a summer program that prepares incoming freshmen for their college experience. The programs gave him the mentors he needed for success.
“I’ve always known I’d go to college, even though I had no parents or way to pay for it. I did it by doing the best I could at school,” he says. He enrolled in UCI’s information & computer science program, switching majors in his fourth year to environmental analysis & design to “build things that help people directly.”
“College was difficult. I had a lot of extra stress because there were so few American Indian students.”
He served as president of the American Indian Student Association all four years, with only a few active members to help with projects such as tutoring high school students, expanding summer programs, staging the annual UCI powwow in June and presenting workshops to elementary and middle school children to “let them know the culture’s still alive.”
After graduating, he earned his master’s in resource management from Central Washington University, and then developed an air-monitoring program for the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians. He returned to UCI in October 2007 after Manuel Gómez, vice chancellor of student affairs, supported his proposal for the program.
Polequaptewa runs the program out of the Center for Educational Partnerships, which provides office space, support and supplies, and hopes to someday establish a permanent center. His wife, Yolanda Leon, serves as program coordinator, and they have a young daughter. His tribe is growing.
He hopes the program will become a model for the entire UC system, helping students like him who have little support. “I grew up with nothing and I made it. I want other American Indian students to know they can make it, too.”