Location: Boulder, CO
Job: Upward Bound program director, writing professor, founder of Dream Warriors
Education: B.A. in English, Stanford University; M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, University of New Mexico
You’ve carved out a really unique career as an author, professor, performer, artist manager, and entrepreneur. How do you describe what you do?
I say I do “heartwork.” But what role I share depends on who I’m around. If I’m with educators, I’m an adjunct professor. If I’m with writers, I’m a performance artist. If I'm with entrepreneurs or businesspeople, I'm a founder of a management company. But I think the thing that carries across all my work is passion. I ask myself everyday: “What are you willing to struggle for?”
What do your days look like?
I usually go for a short run to clear my head right after I wake up. From 8am to 5pm, I’m at work at the University of Colorado’s Upward Bound Program, where I direct programming for 103 Indigenous high school students from reservations and rural areas across eight states. In the evenings, I’m emailing back and forth with the Native artists and performers I manage through my management company, Dream Warriors. Any free time I get, I'm writing. I published my first poetry collection, Words Like Love, in September, so I’ve recently been traveling as part of a book tour.
As a kid, what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?
I honestly wanted to be a performer and a singer! As a kid, I loved singing every day and sharing my voice. I also come from a hardworking ranching family on my maternal side. My grandpa was at work from dawn to dusk – a real never-waste-the–daylight kind of person, and he passed on that work ethic to his children and grandchildren. So growing up, I saw my mom work really hard to make sure my sister and I had what we needed, often putting aside her own needs to provide for us.
My family really stressed independence and education as a means to success. Basically, it was either become a doctor or lawyer. I don’t like blood, but I liked to argue, so lawyer it was. Once I decided on that career path, my family told me I'd one day attend Stanford University. I had no idea what Stanford was, but I carved my life around that idea that was planted in my head.
How would you describe your college experience?
Is it too cliche to call it the best of times and worst of times? Jumping into life at Stanford was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I grew up on a reservation, and I really felt like I had a good sense of who I was. Going to college was the first time I was in an environment without being immediately surrounded by a Native community. I found I had to seek out the connections and community I needed, whereas before they were always there. I didn't realize when I was younger that knowing who I am and where I come from was what I needed – not only to thrive, but to survive.
I was incredibly lucky to receive financial aid through the Gates Millennium Scholars Program. But between being away from home and meeting all these classmates whose parents were CEOs or professors, I didn’t feel up to speed or like I belonged at first. I didn’t come from a high school with AP or IB classes, and I’d never known anybody like that.
How did you navigate what sounds like a really challenging transition?
Honestly, it was sink or swim. I'd been working my entire life to get there, and I didn't want to fail. I did what I had to do, whether that meant pulling all-nighters, going to office hours, getting tutoring, or asking for extra help. Anytime you’re facing a difficult transition or a challenge, you have to ask yourself, “Do I want this? What am I willing to do to get there?”
What are some examples of how you adapted?
There’s definitely a certain can-do attitude and determination among students at Stanford, and I had to learn that. During my freshman year, Facebook had just started gaining traction, and I was surrounded by all these students who wanted to have a similarly big impact on the world through their careers. Stanford taught me many things: How to be resilient, multitask, talk the talk, and be prepared for anything. I remember thinking about just how many resources were available to students. The resources and opportunities made me feel like anything was possible. That applies to my work now as a teacher, entrepreneur, and director. I think: ‘These are the tools and blocks that we have. What should we build?’
When did your interest in a writing career come into play?
I chose to major in psychology and political science because I figured that’s what lawyers majored in. I always had this passion for music and poetry and writing, though, so I ended up taking a lot of courses in the English department. Most of the writing classes I was taking didn’t have writers of color in them, and I was almost always the only Native. I had a different worldview and didn’t feel seen. People wouldn’t know how to take certain comments I’d make regarding our history. They’d just sort of disregard what I was saying and move on, which is something I internalized. That’s when I started to really get interested in becoming a professional Native writer and getting back to my roots.
How did you officially switch gears and pursue writing professionally?
It wasn’t until one of my best friends committed suicide. I re-evaluated my life, purpose, and what I was doing, and I ended up switching my major to English to pursue creative writing.
It wasn’t easy to tell my family my senior year that I was going to be a writer instead of a lawyer. Most people were concerned about my future income and how I’d "make it." But my mom and sister were supportive. They told me, “Do what makes you happy.” Writing and sharing my passion makes me happy.
By the time I was brave enough to choose the writing path, only two schools’ MFA deadlines hadn’t passed: The University of New Mexico and Columbia University. I ended up getting into both, but the decision came down to two things: financial aid and a desire for mentorship. The famous Native writer Joy Harjo was teaching at the University of New Mexico, which definitely played a role in my decision to go there. She continues to be a major influence on me and my craft.
How have you worked through moments of self-doubt?
I love that you phrase it that way, because navigating self-doubt takes exactly that: It takes work! I went to work. I created community. My friend and I created a literary magazine, As Us, the summer after we got our MFAs.
The name is short for “A Space for Women of the World,” and we focused it around women of color. We didn’t have any seed money – we just started a blog and made fliers. The stories we were sharing started spreading organically and through social media. Soon, we were getting submissions from Tunisia and South Africa, and to date our stories have been viewed by people in more than 150 countries in the world. I always remind people that if you don’t feel you have the community space or platform you need to thrive, you can create it yourself.
What advice do you have for others trying to pursue nontraditional careers?
You’re a living testimony to what’s possible. That’s something my mother always told me. The act of doing something and showing others that it’s possible is a feat. For instance, my first book hasn’t been reviewed in The New York Times, so some people might not see it as being “successful.” Yet it sold out of its first print run in less than four months. I don’t think anyone expected that. Show people what’s possible. That’s success. You never know who you're inspiring or influencing.
What are your goals when it comes to amplifying the voices and accomplishments of Native artists?
Increasing representation. Not only do we need more Native artists and engineers and lawyers and writers, but we need to show that we’re alive and relevant – that we’re real human beings.
As a Native artist, you never just get to be a musician or a writer. There's no sovereignty in the context of who you are. You’re suddenly a representative of a people. You have to remind people that you’re just one perspective and one voice. There are more than 560 Native tribes, so you can’t possibly be a translator or spokesperson for everyone.
It’s a rarity that I am ever just asked about craft and not identity. I would love to build Dream Warriors to be a bigger platform – not just for Native musicians, but for Native artists and playwrights. I also hope that one day, the amazing artists I represent will be able to talk about their work and not just be seen through this veil of cultural identity.
Images courtesy of Tanaya Winder