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Stephen Roe Lewis
Gila River Indian Community

One of the most rewarding aspects of serving in a leadership role is the opportunity to build mutually beneficial relationships — the kind that have the potential to create real, lasting change in the world.

This is what we have strived to do during my tenure as governor of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. I am particularly proud of the relationships we’ve established with local universities. My tribe, and tribal communities throughout the U.S., have an opportunity to grow in new ways by strengthening our partnerships with universities to bridge the space between Indigenous worldviews and Western perspectives. We are working toward a future in which tribes are increasingly more self-sustaining, and universities simultaneously support this goal.

Building relationships of mutual value means understanding what each of us has to offer. Universities provide vast resources for research, education, and professional networks. Tribes possess a wealth of knowledge based on the wisdom of generations. We have unique perspectives on ecology, governance, education, art, relationality, management, science, engineering and so on.

So, how do we bridge the gap between Indigenous and Western approaches to understanding? I recommend starting with a concept I learned from Indigenous researchers at Arizona State University called the Four R’s of working with Indigenous communities: relationality, reciprocity, responsibility and respect. The examples below illustrate different aspects of the Four R’s in the areas of education, environment and emerging technologies.

Teaching Cohorts

In 2013, the Gila River Community initiated an innovative program in partnership with the ASU Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, built around two student-teacher cohorts: one for culture and language teachers and the other for early childhood education teachers. Through this program, our teachers (and some teacher aides) were able to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees while working full-time in schools on the reservation.

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The innovation in this program was a simple one, but significant to our members: ASU professors came to the reservation to teach class. ASU didn’t simply provide an education. It took the extra step of making sure our people could be reached. The program demonstrated relationality and respect between the Native students and non-Native professors. Bringing the classroom to the student, rather than the other way around, is an innovative approach to providing educational services and overcoming a common barrier to access.

Climate Change Preparedness

Recently, we partnered with Dr. Karletta Chief, a well-known Diné (Navajo) professor at the University of Arizona, who visited our community to work on a climate adaptation plan. She and the GRIC Department of Environmental Quality developed a report on the community’s ecological assets, which will help us plan for the future as we face the unfortunate new normal of drought conditions and uncertainty due to climate change. This partnership demonstrated a sense of responsibility to our environment and showed the power of reciprocal engagement with indigenous expertise.

Watts College and AIPI Research

The American Indian Policy Institute at ASU is a leader in tribally-driven and informed policy research because it consults directly with Native nations, putting their priorities first. I believe AIPI is a gamechanger for policy development in Indian Country, in part because of ASU’s demonstrated commitment to Indian Country. This summer, AIPI was given a new home in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, a college dedicated to public values. With Watts College’s valuable resources at its disposal, AIPI will have the opportunity to thrive and prove itself to be a world-class institute for American Indian policy research. (Full disclosure, I am the president of the AIPI Advisory Board.)

Earlier this year, AIPI produced a report called the Tribal Technology Assessment: The State of Internet Service on Tribal Lands. This report is essential to expanding broadband access in rural tribal communities. The technology assessment report is timely and relevant. It is use-inspired research that includes actionable recommendations for tribes, industry and the federal administration to bring about positive change. Its findings are being used in testimony before Congress to underpin the argument that more must be done to include tribes in the national internet infrastructure. Our legislators need this type of data to make informed decisions. What makes the report so powerful is that it is based not on self-reported data from service providers but information from folks living on reservation lands. No one understands tribes’ priorities better than tribes themselves.

I encourage tribes and universities to seek mutually beneficial partnerships of their own. Tribal leaders, identify your priorities and be willing to share your expertise as Indigenous people. Universities, examine your approaches and intentions when it comes to partnering with indigenous communities. Practice the Four R’s. 

Together, we can build the world we want to see.

Stephen Roe Lewis served as governor of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona from 2014 to 2019. He also has held the positions of lieutenant governor, gaming commissioner for the Gila River Gaming Commission and board member for Gila River Telecommunications, Inc., and Gila River Healthcare Corporation. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and pursued graduate studies at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.