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How Miss Native UA Nadira Mitchell is using her Diné culture to shift the framework in conservation and tribal rights

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Nadira Mitchell stands next to her presentation on the effects of trash on javelina abundance and wildlife species richness for the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources & the Environment. (Courtesy of Nadira Mitchell).

Though Nadira Mitchell, 21, is now a senior at the University of Arizona, she still remembers what one professor said in a natural resources class during her freshman year.

“What the Native Americans were doing back then was not science,” Mitchell recalled them saying. 

She felt shocked by the words and wondered if they were joking. Looking around the classroom, Mitchell hoped that she might catch the look of another student who shared her same thoughts. Instead, she was left feeling alone, with no one else seeming fazed by the instructor’s statement.

As a Diné Navajo student, she instinctively felt what the professor said was wrong. From an early age, she was taught the importance of being outdoors, learning and exploring her environment. She would be encouraged to learn what plants and animals were beneficial or could cause harm. During monsoon season, she would collect as many snails as she could find and tally the number on a cardboard box.

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“My mom would just always tell me, ‘Remember to put them back and treat them respectfully,’” Mitchell said.

These traditional Diné values she was taught about conservation and ecological knowledge seemed just as well-founded as Western science.

“Indigenous people have been on this continent since time immemorial,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been connected to our land. We definitely know how to interact with it in a sustainable way.”

But as a freshman, she felt unsure of what actions she could take and felt afraid to speak up, so she continued to focus on her academic career at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

That year, Mitchell became a founding member of American Indian Student Initiatives, which focuses on reducing environmental injustices for Indigenous communities in Arizona. In 2019, the club installed solar panels during their spring break in a collaboration with GRID Alternatives, a group that focuses on equity and environmental justice through renewable energy.

In her sophomore year at the UA, she was recruited to the Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation’s board of directors. Mitchell had participated in their science fairs since around 5th grade, so she found value in bringing her perspective as a younger person and increasing diversity on the board.

Now, as a senior, she continues her involvement at AISI and SARSEF. She was recently chosen to be part of the cohort of the Ilíiaitchik: Indigenous Correspondence Program, which mentors students like Mitchell in working on multimedia projects to bring more diverse perspectives. She’s also part of Miss Native American University of Arizona as Miss Native UA, serving as a Native American ambassador for the Native population at the university.

Her mother Agnes Attakai said Mitchell has had a passion for conservation since high school. When Attakai would suggest exploring different but similar fields such as sustainability, Mitchell was firm on her path.

“‘No, I want to stay with wildlife conservation,’” Mitchell would say, according to Attakai.

In high school, Mitchell worked as a junior docent at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Attakai described the then-student as having mental perseverance that drove her in this pursuit as it does now.

“Many times the temperature would get up to 100, 100-plus, and she’d be working out in the heat there,” Attakai said. “She became acclimated to it, and continue to work in that environment. She has that head drive to be able to have that physical toughness.”

Similarly during this summer, Mitchell was part of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, helping with a border wildlife study. The work proved to be intense for the 5-foot-2-inch student who described herself as unathletic. As part of the study, the student participated in a five-day camping trip and walked long distances to reach cameras.

Despite this, Attakai said this experience exemplified her commitment to her work.

“She has the ability to bring out that toughness when it’s called for,” Attakai said.

Still, helping run multiple clubs, being a part of multiple organizations and balancing classes is a demanding challenge for any student, even Mitchell. She described her current mammalogy class as probably the hardest course she’s ever taken in her life.

“Trying to balance a super difficult class while also trying to balance two clubs, being the president and vice president of two clubs at the same time has been really difficult,” Mitchell said.

Jina Khatri, 21, is one of Mitchell’s closest friends. They met in high school and quickly bonded over similar interests like makeup and writing. She described Mitchell as an extroverted, goofy and caring “girl boss” who has been proud of her Indigenous culture since she met her, but it doesn’t mean she is immune to normal student anxieties.

“I think people think that she’s, not has no emotion, but is so strong and doing things all the time and achieving these things,” Khatri said. “They maybe think school isn’t super anxiety-inducing for her, she’s not worried about what she’s going to do in 1-2 years.”

Mitchell said one thing that has kept her going and that she is appreciative of is the support from her parents. Outside of her conservation work, Mitchell enjoys reading, movies or going out to breakfast with this support system.

“Both of my parents try to help me out whenever they can and with whatever. Like emotional support, they’re very encouraging,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people don’t have that.”

Her mother has taught her a philosophy of wellness that ties back to her Diné culture and values in wildlife conservation. Attakai is also the director of Health Disparities outreach and Prevention Education for the Center for Health Equality at the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

“Our wellness really depends upon the interconnection between everything that we do and our interactions with plants and animals and other beings, so there’s this creation of balance,” Attakai said.

Similar to this philosophy, Mitchell has a mantra she’s learned in a high school yoga class that inspires her to this day.

“May all things everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to the happiness and freedom for all,” Mitchell said.

With all of these experiences, it seems she is challenging the notions of what her former professor held in her freshman year. Many, if not all, of her work, has been directly related to her culture and the values she was taught as a child to protect and respect the environment. 

In the same way, she hopes her work now will lead to becoming a tribal liaison for governmental agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or Arizona Game and Fish Department.

She said that in the history of the United States, tribal nations have rarely been consulted in areas of environmental concern despite being legitimate governments. Looking back in history, Tribal water rights indeed have a long and fraught history, such as the construction of dams in their regions resulting in negative health outcomes. For Diné, uranium mining has been an issue, with more than 500 abandoned mines in their area, leaving a risk of contamination for many.

“Tribal nations have our own governments, we have our own jurisdiction on our lands,” Mitchell said. “And so ensuring when we’re talking about conservation, Indigenous voices in tribal nations are being heard and have a seat at the table.”


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