NJIT’s Associate Director for Diversity & Inclusion Chris Won hosted a panel in the last week of November, which is Native American and Indigenous Heritage Month. One of his objectives was to “highlight the diversity of experiences among Native American and Indigenous communities, as ‘Indigenous’ is a socio-politically racialized term and definitely not a monolithic concept.” Specifically, he wanted to “bring awareness to the university about issues facing Indigenous communities and hear about what decolonization and Indigenization efforts look like, particularly within the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”
Won spent five years in Alaska learning from and with Alaska Native Elders and Culture-bearers on relationalities, which has led him to build networks and communities from attending conferences, lectures, cultural humility training, and celebrations. He explained, “This has had a significant impact on how I extend the invitation and structure the event — to make space as a non-Black or Indigenous person of color for Indigenous voices to be as centered and lifted as possible.”
Of the four panelists he invited, he heard from two, Debbie Stein and Dr. Ashlee Bird, at a conference at the University of British Columbia, which is in Coast Salish and Squamish territories. Bird recommended Won to contact Mahrinah Shije, and the Lenape Center recommended him to contact Dr. Hautahi Kingi.
Stein is the Kumeyaay Success and Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics Coordinator for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. She is of Inuit and Cree descent paternally, along with Canadian, German, and Irish descent maternally. “I, with the help of Kumeyaay elders, created a STEAM program eight years ago on the reservation that incorporates indigenous wisdom and traditions with modern science, art, culture, and language,” she said in her bio. “The focus is on community, problem solving, communication, social justice, and connection with traditional values.”
Bird is a Native American game designer of Western Abenaki descent, originally from Champlain Valley, Vermont. According to her bio, “her dissertation ‘Representation and Reclamation: The History and Future of Natives in Gaming,’ theorizes digital sovereignty, drawing on Native American studies, media studies, and game studies to address representations of Native American characters in video games. The work analyzes specific colonial methodologies being replicated within game spaces in order to then replace these with decolonial methods of game design being undertaken by herself and fellow Native game designers with a focus on what she terms ‘synthetic Indigenous identity,’ oriented around promoting Indigenous futures.”
Shije works as a CEO and Board Chair of the Pueblo Development Commission, a non-governmental organization in the United Nations consultative status, of which she is a member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Major Working Group and several Blockchain Commissions. She is Tewa and Sephardi Jewish and was married into the Pueblo of Zia. Her bio states that she has nearly 20 years of experience in global development, high-tech startups, venture capital, innovative philanthropy, and multilateral diplomacy.
Kingi is of Mãori descent and a senior data scientist at Google working on the YouTube recommender system that focuses on algorithmic bias and fairness. He also works at Onside Technology Solutions to design network monitoring and response algorithms to control agricultural disease spread. According to his bio, he grew up on his tribal lands near Whanganui in New Zealand and was raised speaking Mãori as his only language until he was eight years old.
During the event, Won appreciated panelists’ personal narratives the most. “Storytelling is such a powerful method for individuals to share ourselves with one another, and to learn from one another, so even if the topic feels “academic,” I think it is important that the conversations are organic and narrative-driven,” he said. “I also really enjoyed being challenged regarding the use of language and terms. The panelists mentioned how Indigenous ways of knowledge are, at their core, fundamentally different in terms of how concepts like time, space, or relations manifest themselves.”
He found the concept of Indigenizing technology very complex and fascinating to discuss with the panelists. “Digital and virtual spaces are often discussed as being some of the most “free” spaces out there, but then there are issues around accessibility and technocratic resource extortion, especially in some rural Indigenous communities,” he added.
Won mentioned that this event meant everything to him; he is always humbled by how he can use his role to ensure that the communities he is working with can hear from such incredible wisdom-bearers. He said, “I am really hoping to continue these conversations around identity and heritage with future major heritage months such as Black History Month in February, Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, and Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month in mid-September to mid-October.