2024 MIT Solve Indigenous Innovators Summit Showcases UArizona Programs and a New Generation of Leaders

March 25, 2024
Karletta MIT Article

Photo: Dr. Chief, Chantel Harrison, 2023 MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellow and Breanna Lameman, 2021 MIT SOLVE Indigenous Communities Fellow (credit: Nina Sajovec, Haury Program)

On February 29th and March 1st, MIT Solve hosted Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from the US and Canada in Tucson, Arizona to bring attention to the technology and innovations of Indigenous peoples, including their current and past Indigenous Communities Fellows. The gathering aimed to forge new relationships and examine ways they may work together to sustainably and ethically support Indigenous communities. 

The gathering opened with a chat with Dr. Karletta Chief, Diné, Executive Director of Indigenous Resilience Center at the University of Arizona. Dr. Chief shared her story and struggles pursuing career in technology and science following her grandmother’s directive to go and get education to help their community. Since she had a hard time getting support along her way, she today intentionally fosters spaces in academia that support Native American faculty as well as mentor Indigenous students.  

One of important aspects of this work for Dr. Chief is advocating for integrity of the work of Native faculty and students in Native American communities. Western approach to science and research is often not applicable with working with Indigenous communities, she shared. Dr. Chief stressed that when working with the tribes, it is important to be centering people. Users of the “solution” and the community must be involved in the co-design of research or solutions. Researchers should recognize that the community knows the environment better than anyone else, and not only they know it, they have relationships with it. That is why it is crucial to include value systems into the research design; for example, when considering taking samples of water or soil one needs to understand that these samples are considered sacred, and that special protocols should be followed in order to treat them with appropriate care and respect. And even though Dr. Chief is Diné herself and has traditional knowledge, she recommends working with designated traditional knowledge holders in order to do this work correctly. 

Further on, one of the main lessons Dr. Chief has learned through her career is that research projects should be community led and designed, and that the initiative should not be coming from the academia. That also means that the data and solutions generated should go back to and belong to the community, which she recognizes, can be problematic for academics who, for example, seek and need publications. But working in tribal communities is all about building long-term relationships trust and being of service, and that is one of the main values of the UArizona Indigenous Resilience Center. IRes centers Diné fundamental law of SBNH of ntsahakees (critical thinking), nahata(planning), iina (life) and siihasin (reflection) which aligns directly with the community-based research and is enveloped by the Indigenous Resilience Center Advisory Board. 

Chantel Harrison, who was UArizona IndigeFEWWs Fellow and Haury Native Pathways Fellow, thanked Dr. Chief and IRes for all the mentoring and helping her set up her 2023 MIT Solve winner, Indigeponics: “Dr. Chief has been such a force in my life and helped me through many personal and professional challenges. She helped me when I was a graduate student and also now when I am an entrepreneur. I love the idea of women supporting women, and Dr. Chief being there for me is inspiring me to do the same for others.”  

In her presentation, Chantel spoke of the workshops and technical assistance her Indigenous greenhouse project is providing to empower tribal communities to reconnect with plant relatives through agricultural education and Indigenizing STEM curriculum. What drives her, she shared, is “Food! Food has the power to connect individuals from different communities in a special way. I wanted to explore a career that allows me to connect with others through food, plants, and of course the growing process. Controlled environment agriculture seemed like the perfect fit as it allowed me to connect my interests with technology in a way that supports community growth, career development, knowledge sharing, and access to healthy foods.”  

"As an MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellow, I have enjoyed being part of a unique community that understands the challenges of creating and developing ideas into real-world solutions. Additionally, the resources offered for MIT Solvers, such as career coaching, marketing seminars, and networking opportunities provide support to strengthen and expand our work. Most importantly, I've enjoyed getting to know other Indigenous innovators and their work, which ranges from tech, finance, science, and B2C services, all focus on community growth and development." 

When asked for advice for other Indigenous students and innovators, Chantel shared: "I would encourage others who are creating and nurturing ideas to embrace the titles of innovator and entrepreneur. Often, as Indigenous people, we may not feel that we are those "titles" or we may feel symptoms of imposter syndrome but it's important to acknowledge the energy and work that goes into creating. Part of my process was learning to step into those titles in addition to a leadership role, which was completely new to me. Once I changed my outlook about my new roles, it was much easier to feel comfortable navigating new spaces, asking for support, and networking. And of course, there are so many resources to support Indigenous Innovators so don't hesitate to ask for support.” 

MIT Solve gathering is also one of such spaces of support. Breanna Lameman, a 2021 MIT Solve Fellow and PhD Student at the University of Arizona, shared that “within the summit, I was able to acknowledge and address challenges due to historical trauma in our Indigenous communities by conversing with other fellows which eventually leads to working together. The gathering of the Indigenous communities’ fellowship, allows fellows to share their journeys and lived experience by collective gathering to discuss challenges, needs, and success while using our Indigenous knowledges, values, and approaches. The gathering provides me with inspiration and affirmation within my respective field to keep addressing Indigenous health disparities and increasing food security and Indigenous food sovereignty in public health and Indigenous food, water, and energy systems.” 

This summit was also a space for other UArizona scholars and staff to engage and explore. Angela Marquez, the Outreach Program Manager for Natives Who Code program at UArizona Data Sciences Academy said: “In our program we partner with Arizona K-12 computer science (CS) educators that serve Indigenous populations. Our first year is coming to a close and we have learned just how important relational accountability is when partnering with our local tribal communities. At MIT Solve gathering, we made connections to other native professionals that are able to help us support students that complete the CS classes we support through paid internship opportunities. We are now considering applying for a MIT SOLVE Challenge to fund a summer Artificial Intelligence (AI) camp for Native American high school students in Arizona, modeled after the Lakota AI Camp, so please wish us luck!” 

Aaron Slater, the Lead of Indigenous Communities Program at MIT Solve added: “The summit cultivated a space where Indigenous knowledge systems were centered, Indigenous scholars were heard, and Indigenous innovators were celebrated. We were honored to be joined by Dr. Chief, whose humble leadership reminds us that the academia must and can respect Indigenous knowledge-systems, peoples, and practices.”  

For more information on the summit, visit MIT Solve. The applications are now open for the2024 Indigenous Communities Fellowship as well as Haury Program’s Native Pathways Graduate Student Research Awards program 


--Katarina "Nina" Sajovec Altshul, Haury Program