Hacking her way past Google

Ep 7: Between Worlds | SEARCH ON
Ep 7: Between Worlds | SEARCH ON

When one woman sets out to hack her way to a PhD, she brings her community with her. Google’s docuseries ‘Search On’ tells the stories of people on a quest f...

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

A computer science journey from Diné College to the White House

Robin Maxkii remembers sitting at a computer in the library. She was not yet 11. There was a time limit for computer use, but she needed more time on the computer. Did we mention, she was 11? The computer was s-l-o-w, Windows 98.

So Maxkii opened the start menu. Click. Click. Click. No. More. Timer.

“To me that was a very empowering feeling of ‘Did I just do this?’ I wanted this to happen and I just did it. I only did it because I was looking around,” she said. “I’m chasing that feeling now when I’m coding.”

People typically tell her that her first hack wasn’t a hack. She argues it was. It was the first time she told a computer what to do.

Back then, Maxkii, Stockbridge and Mohican, wanted to understand how to code so she can make her blogs look “pretty.” She had no money so she taught herself HTML.

Now Maxkii is one of the seven faces for Google’s Search On documentary series that celebrates the company’s 20th birthday, including the homepage.

In the 6-minute video, the Native American Journalism fellow talks about her journey in higher education, especially at tribal colleges, and how it led her to her last internship in Washington, D.C., with the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s SciLine, a news service that provides journalists with scientific expertise.

She attended Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, for her dual associate degrees. After she obtained her bachelor’s degree in information technology and psychology from Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Nation in Montana.

Maxkii, who grew up in Houston, Texas and Wisconsin, collected quite a list of experiences due to her pursuit of higher education. She received invitations to the White House, met Jill Biden, former Second Lady of the United States, conducted research in New Zealand, and participated in the PBS series “Roadtrip Nation.”

During the cross-country trip, or “Code Trip,” Maxkii and two other computer-science students interviewed people from underrepresented communities in technology. She reached out to a variety of organizations to find Natives in technology along their route. Many emails were sent out. Very few responses, which led to little representation of Natives in tech. Maxkii felt bummed and frustrated.

She recalls on some point along that trip that they help “brown people.” She inquired, “Oh! So you help Native Americans?” The group said, “No, only Hispanics and Blacks because of funding. Don’t worry.”

Once again, frustrated. “I feel like often times we’re the invisible minority. This idea needs to change. People have this idea that we are this historical, mythical relic. People only want to hear us when we are talking about our culture or history,” she said. Not in technology. She used that anger and frustration to motivate her.

A few years ago, Maxkii went on a mission to create the first Native American Hackathon. She pitched her proposal to different organizations and always came back a ‘no.’ Unless it was a large organization, then they’d say they’ll do it but for Hispanics and African Americans. That wasn’t her goal and she took it elsewhere.

Maxkii finally pitched her idea to Sarah EchoHawk, CEO of American Indian Science and Engineering Society, at a NASA Goddard panel in Maryland. The organization is hosting the third hackathon at their annual conference this week in Oklahoma City.

Robin Maxkii speaking on a panel. (Facebook)

Maxkii is used to making something out of nothing. That’s what hacking is all about. And it’s why she likes about technology and coding. She would go to the public library and use their computers or sit outside of Panera Bread (using the free wifi) to build entire worlds online.

“I wasn’t bound by the lack of money or lack of resources,” she said. “That ability to make something out of something else, that’s hacking at the core.” Hacking is also part of Native culture, too. Maxkii is working hard to translate that same concept to people pursuing their goals.

She heard a lot of great ideas from students at tribal colleges and wants to create a unique hackathon that functions as an incubator. Not like the typical hackathons full of computer programmers. This Hack-The-Rez event in the spring would bring people together in a room to share ideas in five different areas: missing and murdered Indigenous women, education, language preservation, health and technology.

“We want to support students dreaming in a sense,” she said. “You’ll hear these incredible ideas from people that can change the world but they’re talked down from dreaming big or told ‘That’s nice but be realistic.’”

The self-taught coder believes everyone has a piece to form a larger puzzle including “their own story” and “it’s about giving them the platform to share it.”

Google Search On video screenshot.

This love for technology, science and storytelling has Maxkii looking at graduate schools in science communication.

“When you look at a lot of Indigenous creation stories, that’s incredible science being told in a way that the masses could understand. That’s the highest form of communication,” she said.

“Natives have done so much cool tech over the years and I mean standing centuries.”

Look at Easter Island and the Mayan civilization. Indigenous people found a way to move those big stones.

“We might not have had innovation in a way that society pushes on us because innovation is this thing that must involve a laboratory,” she said. “But we have done things.”

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter@jourdanbb. Email:jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

Comments (1)
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J Blackhorse
J Blackhorse

tribal colleges dont get enough credit 🙌🙌🙌 to see them finally on the national stage #onwardhaskell #haskellalum