IAIA Alumni Spotlight—Alberta Nells (Navajo Nation) ’14 and ’16
The positive ripple effects of the Institute of American Indian Art’s mission “to empower creativity and leadership in Indigenous arts and cultures” is evident in the professional journey of alumna Alberta Nells (Navajo Nation) ’14 and ’16. Nells is originally from Hardrock, Arizona, located in the center of the Navajo Nation. Since graduating from IAIA with an Associate of Arts in Native American Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in Indigenous Liberal Studies (ILS), the Alpha Chi member has brought her knowledge and experiences to her communities and teaches and advocates for Native children and youth.
While at IAIA, she worked as a Student Success Center Aid, a Library Aid, and a Navajo Language Tutor for a Santa Fe Indian School dual credit course. After graduating from IAIA, she took a year off to be with her family in Arizona. She worked at the Museum of Northern Arizona, where she previously completed a Development Department Internship as an IAIA student. She worked in visitor services, served as a Diné Language Discovery Camp Assistant, and contributed to developing the museum’s ethnology gallery. “So, I was part of that—with helping to review certain material, content, doing a few lecture series with the docents, also getting to do a video introduction project with some of the other tribal members within the region,” Nells explains.
She also studied at the University of Oklahoma’s master’s program in Indigenous Peoples Law for a year before returning home in anticipation of the birth of her son and ceremonial commitments for the first year of his life. Nells now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she began teaching at the STAR School when her son was six months old.
“I’m wrapping up my fourth year and will soon be starting my fifth year teaching here,” Nells notes. At the school, the students are predominantly Indigenous. “We’re about maybe five miles from the reservation line,” she says. “So, the majority of our students are bussed in from the local communities on the reservation and also from Flagstaff.” She teaches as an Enrichment Instructor for Grades 1–8, covering reading literacy, phonemic awareness, and a Middle School Indigenous Reading Circle; a Service Community Instructor for Grades 6–8, teaching community awareness, Indigenous research methodology, and community-based projects; and a Social Studies Instructor for Grades 6–7, teaching world, Indigenous, and United States history, United States and Tribal civics, and world, United States, and Tribal geography. Nells also serves as Art Instructor for Grades 4–8, a position she was offered due to her IAIA background.
“And I just owe so much to the college, and what it taught me, and the skills I developed there, and to bring it here, and to have my own students tell me that they want to go to school there in the future and that they know that there [are] tribal colleges and that college is attainable to them through these opportunities.”
“…it feels like everything that I developed, I came full circle,” shares Nells. “And I just owe so much to the college, and what it taught me, and the skills I developed there, and to bring it here, and to have my own students tell me that they want to go to school there in the future and that they know that there [are] tribal colleges and that college is attainable to them through these opportunities.” Nell’s passion for encouraging Native students extends through the years—since 2015, Nells has served as a student ambassador for the American Indian College Fund, and in 2021, she also taught as a College 101 Instructor for Northern Arizona University’s Nizhoni Academy.
For the art classes, Nells focuses on centering Indigenous art and artists. “I was like, ‘While you’re here with me, we’re going to learn about who Allan Houser is. We’re going to learn about Oscar Howe. We’re going to learn about these different mediums and these different people. We’re going to do a section on ledger art and how that ties into history,’” she shares. “So really taking those things, and really identifying it as ourselves and our own intellectual property, and how we protect it, and how we express ourselves through it. And it’s just like the cutest thing to see, and just the way how they connect all these different things. I’m like, ‘All right. This is a picture—Indigenize it.’ Or, ‘Here’s a superhero. How do you Indigenize it?’ So really, just like incorporating all these different concepts and knowing that we have our own artists out there that lead this way.” Nell’s own father, a silversmith and stay-at-home dad, brought her to art shows when she was growing up. “And so, a lot of my artistic influence comes from him and what he exposed us to. And I tell my students, you know, it’s possible. It’s possible to just be a self-sufficient artist. It’s a lot of work, but it’s how my dad raised me. And so, just knowing that’s an option too, to be a full-time artist and practicing. You know your culture through your art, and how that can sustain you, and how you take care of it, and how it’s very precious.”
Cultural sensitivity is a priority for Nells and builds on her work at IAIA. “I think one of the really like, ‘Aha!’ moments that I had was when I was doing my senior project in ILS. I did it based on the needs of having cultural sensitivity and awareness training, and the need for that in institutions.” At the STAR School, another staff member working on a dissertation on professional learning communities led to the development of a Culturally Responsive Team. “And so, we started up different committees, and one of the committees that I was put on was being culturally relevant,” explains Nells. “We started working on how we can integrate a lot of our non-Native staff into being part of our community, especially since we serve—about 99% of our students are Indigenous—are Native. How is it that we create a safe space for our students by involving our non-Native staff? And so, going back to my senior project being that, and to be able to practice that here with the staff, it came full circle in that way.”
Nells emphasizes the need to be mindful of Native students in the child welfare system and “educating our non-Native staff on what ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) is, the threat to it, and why when we do our scanning process, that we implement that policy, and that we’re aware of it and those procedures, especially for our students, that whether they’re on the reservation or off the reservation, that we apply these different laws and policies that are specific to our Native students.”
“So for me, I attended the public school system off-reservation,” Nells shares. “And there are times when I was exposed to things I shouldn’t have been, and being only one or two Native students in the classroom, it was always just that, ‘Oh, well, you need a note for that,’ or ‘You know, we can’t change everything to accommodate you.’” Nell’s treatment as a young Native student and observation of how the inconsideration of adults impacted other Native students and their families motivates her to advocate for Native children. She prioritizes their spiritual and cultural wellness and strives to make “content relevant to them.” “You see when we connect cultures, when we connect content, when we’re learning about different areas, and they’re just like ‘Oh!’ They’re just, ‘They’re Indigenous like me,’’ she said, noting the parallels the children see in grandparents and ways of living “across the world.”
Diné culture is integrated into the classrooms. “K’é is a big one—that’s our kinship, how we relate by clan,” Nells explains. “And so, I have students, you know, they don’t say, ‘Miss Alberta,’ they’ll be ‘Oh, Shiadí,’ you know, big sister, or auntie, or mom, or grandma, granddaughter—however we’re related. They utilize those kinship terms, and so it creates a different level of respect. And then sometimes, it’s just being able to hear it from someone who looks like them, and to know that there’s someone that has gone off, seen the world in different spaces, different people, and to come home and to be with them to share that. Then, when they create their own livelihood, and they make their own journey, so like, ‘Okay,’ you know. It’s possible. We can do this.”
Quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.
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Neebinnaukzhik Southall is the IAIA Communications Writer. They are a graphic designer, artist, photographer, and writer specializing in covering and promoting Native cultures, arts, and design.