Category: Cover Story

Hopi school officials invite Nikishna Polequaptewa to empower youth

POLACCA, Ariz. – Nikishna Polequaptewa, keynote speaker for the Youth Convening session at Hopi Jr./Sr. High School, told students about growing up mostly without parents and living in poverty before finding success through education.

Dozens of students participated in the day long session Aug. 26 dealing with mentoring, service learning and cultural well-being. The Hopi Foundation, school officials and community members came together to identify ways to help students.

Born in Torrence, California, Polequaptewa recounted that his mom left when he was 1-year-old and his father went to prison when he was 3 years old. He was placed in the foster care system where he would stay in 15 foster homes in the next six months. He became used to packing his bag in one hour.

Nikishna Polequaptewa Navajo Hopi Observer Article

In these foster homes, Polequaptewa suffered neglect, abuse and was often told that he was “eating too much” because the foster parents were more interested in the paycheck then in him.

Polequaptewa, a Hopi Corps VISTA volunteer, finally stayed in one home for about two and a half years where he found “a little bit of love and that somebody cared for me.”

Polequaptewa lived with his dad after he was released from prison, even though they were poor. Sometimes they would have bread with ketchup on it for dinner. He would get broken G.I. Joe toys for Christmas. His brother took custody of him after he turned 21, but they lived in an area of Los Angeles where prostitutes and drug dealers were common.

He eventually moved out to Hopi to live with his auntie and went to Prescott for counseling – starting his way to success through education. He graduated from Sherman Indian High School before attending the University of California at Irvine and Central Washington University. Now he is majoring in earth science and environmental sustainability at Northern Arizona University.

“Sometimes the resources don’t exist and you have to create them,” he said. “If you put forth the effort then anything is possible. You can’t be crying around. You need to stand up.”

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Spirit Catcher

Belonging to the Badger and Spider clans of the Hopi Tribe has always been a source of pride to Nikishna Polequaptewa ’05, perhaps because he knows what it’s like to be a tribe of one. His mother left home when he was a baby; his father went to prison when he was 3; and he grew up living in foster homes or with relatives on and off the Arizona reservation.“Even though I moved around, I knew my American Indian identity,” Polequaptewa says. “I always felt closely tied to my reservation, my tribe and its customs.”

Today, as director of UCI’s new American Indian Resource Program, he works to instill the same sense of pride and belonging in American Indian students at UCI and in Southern California’s elementary and high schools.

Nikishna Polequaptewa Spirit Catcher

“I want American Indian students to have the kind of role models and resources I didn’t have,” he says.

Established by the Office of Student Affairs, the resource program aims to increase the number of American Indian students at UCI by reaching out to students in kindergarten through community college. Polequaptewa also wants to offer current students and alumni access to campus events that highlight relevant issues and customs. A special graduation ceremony to be held in May, for example, provides recognition to the accomplishments of American Indian students.

Outreach projects focus on preparing young students for university life. The FIRE Mentorship Program encourages American Indian high school students to attend college. Summer academies introduce high school and transfer students to UCI, and an Anteater Bridge program launches sixth- through eighth-grade students on the path to academic success. Polequaptewa manages all of that.

He knows firsthand the importance of outreach. While in high school, he attended UCI’s American Indian Summer Institute in Computer Sciences residential program. He also signed up for the Summer Science Academy sponsored by the California Alliance for Minority Participation. In both programs, he found mentors who helped him gain practical skills, such as how to build Web sites and become a successful student.

“I always knew I’d go to college, even though I had no parents or way to pay for it,” he says. “I did it by doing the best I could at school.”

He enrolled in UCI’s information and computer science program, switching majors to environmental analysis and design to “build things that help people directly.”

He served as American Indian Student Association president all four years, with only a few active members to help him tutor high school students, expand summer programs, stage the annual UCI powwow in June, and present workshops to elementary and middle school children to “let them know the culture’s still alive.”

“Nikishna has never forgotten his origins. His spiritual connection to the Hopi Tribe is a big part of who he is. And he’s a great mentor. He’s inspired a lot of American Indian students to look at UCI. The program he started is so innovative; it’s put UCI on the map.”

– Kika Friend, California Alliance for Minority Participation director

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