Photography by Mike Kane

Equal Voice

A Native American School Develops Future Leaders

August 10, 2016

Paul Nyhan
By Paul Nyhan
Manager of Storytelling

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If you want to understand the Native American Community Academy, a good place to start is its relationship with one of this city’s pioneering grassroots organizations, Americans for Indian Opportunity.

The academy, which is often simply known as NACA, has been working with Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) since before its first school year in 2006. A group of educators was trying to build a charter school grounded in Native American cultures, identities and communities, and they turned to AIO.

They embraced the group’s vision of value-based leadership and solutions driven by communities and integrated those ideas into the school’s mission and curriculum.

They turned to AIO and its founder, LaDonna Harris, because the group had been building a community-based movement dedicated to sharing traditional knowledge and wisdom of Indigenous people and how Native networks are created, since 1970.

Today, the collaboration between the two Albuquerque-based organizations is perhaps clearest in the academy’s leadership programs, which send students to New Zealand, Washington, D.C. and South Dakota.

As the new school took shape, educators recognized that developing students’ leadership skills and a new generation of Native American leaders would be one of its priorities. Together, the two groups modeled the school’s approach to leadership on AIO’s well-regarded Ambassadors program,which helps Native American professionals develop their abilities to improve their communities within an Indigenous cultural context.

Every summer, 30 NACA students travel to Washington, D.C., not for sightseeing but to learn about policies and how Native American communities fit into those policies. They learn to deliver elevator speeches and meet with members of Congress and staff at federal agencies.

It is all part of the school’s goal of helping “young people move into positions of leadership, and (think about)…where do we as tribes and individuals fit into the puzzle of the United States?” Anpao Duta Flying Earth, the school’s associate director-head of school, says.

Every couple of years, 15 to 20 high school students travel farther away to visit NACA’s two sister schools in New Zealand, where they connect with other youth organizations and the global Indigenous community.

Together, these programs prepare students to not only succeed in school, but to return as leaders in their communities. Today, NACA alumni work at the school, and others have launched policy programs in their tribal communities.

When you look into a NACA classroom you know one of the students will become a governor in their pueblo, says Ron Martinez Looking Elk, an adviser to the school and former staff member at AIO.

The academy and its AIO-inspired approach to leadership teach students, “you can be proud of your culture,” says AIO’s executive director Laura Harris.

“We are reaffirming their cultural identity and giving them tools to participate in social movements. And they flourish under it.”

It’s one example of how AIO has helped organizations over the last 40 years with its approach to grassroots and community-led change.

“AIO is one of the most quietly important and significant institutions in Indian Country,” says Janeen Comenote, head of the Seattle-based National Urban Indian Family Coalition.


Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice News.  He has worked as a journalist at Bloomberg News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Congressional Quarterly. He has covered social policy for more than 20 years. The top image was made by Mike Kane for Equal Voice News.

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A Native American School Develops Future Leaders