Although Sahmie Wytewa just started her new Tribal Liaison job at the University of San Diego earlier this month, every day she intentionally reminds herself that she is here for the greater good of students and Indigenous communities.
“I fully intend to honor who I am, where I come from in everything I do, and do the same for every student I can connect with,” says Wytewa, who is Piikyasngyam, member of the Hopi inhabitants of the village of Misongnovi, in northern Arizona. “I know that being raised and nurtured with my culture is also a privilege and a reflection of our perseverance as Indigenous peoples. I bear witness to the legacy of our leaders, who valued the idea of an education to lead our communities and offer solutions for the world from cultures that have suffered great trauma and are still here.
In this role with USD, Wytewa will work on partnerships and programs to support Indigenous-Indigenous students, build relationships with local tribal nations, and listen to and learn from local Indigenous communities. She previously worked as a tribal liaison and policy coordinator for the Arizona Department of Education; as Deputy Executive Director of the Hopi Tribe; as a teacher and school administrator in the Bureau of Indian Education; and was selected this fall as a cohort member of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University’s Indigenous Leadership Academy.
Wytewa, 46, lives in Pacific Beach. Both maternal and paternal sides of his family are rooted in the Hopi community with clans and extended family. She is the second oldest of six children and has three adult children and six grandchildren. She took the time to talk about her goals for the position and the role of her Hopi upbringing in her tribal liaison work.
Q: I read that one of your goals was to “present yourself authentically to native-indigenous students and faculty.” What does it mean to you to show yourself authentically, in this way?
A: USD and San Diego are amazing places, and I’ve already shared this with a few connections that it’s such a privileged space to be on campus and have immediate access to things. Not only the beauty and excitement of California life, but also running water, a garbage chute, recycling bins, fresh produce, a grocery store, gas stations and laundromats. I never want to be so wrapped up in day-to-day privilege that I stray from the main purpose of being here for Native American students and taking a space where I have access to leaders, thinkers, and doers who can listen, learn and collaborate to meet our students where they are.
I was telling a friend recently that I honestly appreciated this opportunity, but who knew that this dark, thick-haired, shy, skinny little girl would be sitting on that hill, in that office, with the opportunity to be a lawyer and a resource for kids like her? I’d like to think I’m holding her hand and telling her that she can be anything she wants to be, that she just has to believe in herself to do it.
Q: What will it look like in practice to “collaborate, build, heal and repair relationships with local and regional tribal communities”?
A: I want to be a partner in education, but I am Hopi first and always want to acknowledge that I am a visitor to the lands and ancestors of what we call San Diego. I haven’t told many people this, but when I started this journey to look for the opportunity to be here, I came a little early. I took the time to walk, to pray, to say hello to the land and to the spirit of those who were here long before there were ports, shops and concrete. I let them know, as my ta’ha (uncles) taught us, to let them know that I was here to learn how I could come here to help their people and that I meant no harm and that I was here with a good heart and intentions. Respectfully, I will always be a visitor here and my home will always be Hopi.
Building relationships starts with listening. I will not know where the tribes, their leaders or their community are in their own healing from the impacts of the history of education or their relationship with the SHU. I am happy to extend an invitation and learn more about their needs to connect their students and the resources and partners available at the University of San Diego.
I hope any tribal leader reading this will connect with what I have shared so far about where I come from to know that there is a deep respect for who he is in the community and as a representative of his tribal nation and his community. In all of our cultures, we understand that we each have our own ways of doing things and, respectfully, I need to better understand what these forms of engagement and communication look like and respect their cultural ways of inviting community when ‘they are ready.
What I love about Pacific Beach…
To access. Back home, while raising my kids, I sometimes drove twice a week to restock groceries or necessities, and that drive could take one to two hours each way. Right now I’m about a square mile from everything I need, which means a 15-20 minute run or a five-10 minute walk for groceries, gas, pizza, a thrift store, laundromat, restaurant or the beach. I never have to leave my neighborhood and I want tribal communities everywhere to have the same privilege of access to resources.
Q: Looking back, what are the things that would have been useful to you, that you wish were available, as an Indigenous student?
A: I had to find out about resources throughout college that would support me personally and academically. I had many responsibilities during my college experience that didn’t leave me much time to commit, but I might have appreciated a deeper sense of community on campus. I have seen amazing examples in higher education of connecting students to culture and community through campus events, organized outings, engaging in community service, projects experiential learning, aboriginal-native coloring books, aboriginal slang marks and much more. I would love to do all of these things, but ultimately I want to hear from students about what they feel is support.
More seriously, it would have been great to know more about food pantries, low cost/affordable or shared rentals, transportation, local restaurants, study centers, local cultural events, mentoring, etc. . innovative or creative ideas from students about what they would appreciate to have as a resource to make their experience remarkable and keep them coming back to participate and plan the next opportunity, or to serve as a mentor.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Maybe something I resonate with in leadership opportunities is, “Don’t get lost. I hope that through this part of the interview answers your readers will get an idea of who I am, where I come from and what I am inspired to do at USD. It takes so much time and experience to cultivate your sense of identity, and on some days feeling lost is the best reminder to slow down and reconnect to who you are and what you are here to do.
I was lucky enough to be recommended to a farmer’s market recently and it was the closest I’ve felt at home in the past month. I browsed the booths and spoke to people who were really invested in their small business and proud of their products. I watched a video of a woman in her garden of the traditional way she planted and harvested what was on the table, and I could feel the energy of my farming community. My mom sent me a photo of corn she harvested in her garden earlier today, and I realize what a blessing it is to know where you’re from.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: It’s my favorite thing to share because it keeps people spinning, but I have six grandkids. I love them so much and each very differently because they are so unique and gifted. I’m that So’o (grandmother) who annoys all adult children because they can’t do no wrong and they have the most freedom to be who they are no matter how much they cry or how messy they make.
Q: Please describe your ideal weekend in San Diego.
A: When I get the chance to go for a run, I take in all the energy of the beach – from tourists to locals, the aromas of the food, the ocean air, and all the ways the sun hit the water. I’m far from improving my time or my stamina because I stop a million times just to soak it all up. I don’t know when it will get old, but I hope it never will.