HUMANITIES: You grew up in Ganado, Arizona, in the heart of Navajo Nation. What was your childhood like, and how was it different from, say, other versions of the American childhood?
LOWE: I grew up in a very close-knit community. Both sides of my family were very involved in the school community, but also the church community, the Presbyterian Church. Every week I got to see relatives from both sides of my family.
It was rural. When I was small, we lived on a dirt road that you couldn’t drive on when it rained or when we had a really wet snow storm. We used to have to park down on the side of the highway to avoid getting our car stuck in the mud. Then you’d have to walk all the way up to the house.
In college, I was talking with a student from Phoenix who asked me, How big is your backyard? I didn’t realize that the size of your yard was a status thing, and I said, I don’t know, I guess if I had put it in size, it might be 15 miles to the next town or house.
This whole idea that your house has a fence and a yard, I didn’t grow up like that. I didn’t grow up in that kind of house.
I grew up in a double-wide trailer next to my paternal grandparents’ house. I learned to drive when I was ten. I was driving by myself when I was thirteen, but everybody drove really young. You had to get places. They were all too far to walk to.
HUMANITIES: At thirteen, were you driving without a license?
LOWE: Yeah. When I turned sixteen, I got my license.
HUMANITIES: Was the Navajo language used frequently in your community? Did you hear it a lot growing up?
LOWE: Yes. I would hear my grandparents talking to their relatives and friends, and they often spoke Navajo and only Navajo. And we also heard it at church, where we sang hymns in Navajo and in English and then read Scripture in Navajo and in English.
Teacher’s aides and the cooks, you know, the staffers in the school, they all spoke Navajo primarily. They didn’t speak English very often. It was common to hear both Navajo and English being spoken wherever you went.
HUMANITIES: I’ve heard you introduce yourself in Navajo. What is it that you say when you meet a person for the first time?
LOWE: You start with a greeting, yá’át’ééh, which means, It is good. You put the positive out into the greeting, and the person says back, Yes, it is good.
Then you state your name and your core clan. We’re a matrilineal tribe, so I take my mother’s clan, and my children take my clan. Then you state your father’s clan and you state your two paternal grandparents’ clans. That gives people a sense of who you are, who your family is, but also whether or not you are related to each other by clan. And most people then also, depending on the situation, will state where they’re from. I usually close out by saying I’m from Ganado, Arizona.
HUMANITIES: I get the impression that women are particularly powerful in Navajo society.
LOWE: I think it has a lot to do with the matrilineal clan system and the fact that the house belongs to the woman. The livestock belong to the woman. Usually most of the properties belong to the women. There should always be a balance between men and women, and men are expected to be responsible to their moms and their sisters until they get married and then they’re supposed to be responsible, of course, to their wives and their kids’ mother.
HUMANITIES: You do not live on the reservation anymore, but you are a mother and a grandmother. How do you raise children as Navajo off the reservation? Is that tricky?
LOWE: It is. It is hard. I try to make sure that I teach my kids the values and expectations I was taught in terms of being Navajo, including the way you should do things, the way you shouldn’t do things, and the things that are expected of you.
We don’t get to hear the Navajo language out here as often. We can get online and listen to the radio station, but access to Navajo language speakers is limited.
My kids know certain words. It’s easier now for them to learn on their own, because Natives are into social media, and they share a lot of cultural information there. My kids will often see Navajo media that I haven’t seen yet. And sometimes they’ll come and ask me about Navajo teachings they see on TikTok and Instagram. We have some very influential Navajos who share cultural memes and video on social media.
HUMANITIES: We visited the Hubbell Trading Post in Navajo Nation, where you once worked. What is it exactly?
LOWE: The trading post is a historic site, an original and still operating trading post. In 1878, John Lorenzo Hubbell purchased the trading post. It was a place where you could get groceries. Families would often bring jewelry or rugs and trade for food or supplies. It became a national park in 1967. It’s a tourist destination, so we would get lots of people, particularly in the summer. I worked there between my freshman and sophomore year of college. My uncle had been working there. We knew the man who had been running the trading post. He knew my family. So I got a job. Sold jewelry. It was fun.
HUMANITIES: I heard you say to a group of journalists that artists are the best humanists, they just don’t know they are humanists. Where does art fit in your life and in your research?
LOWE: I grew up surrounded by art and pieces of art. We always had rugs, woven rugs, Navajo rugs. Art was a big part of the curriculum in primary school. Teachers would have us design rugs on craft paper. We did beadwork and other culturally specific arts and crafts. People made their livelihood from art that they created. And Navajos are very good artists. I was amazed sometimes at how well some of my classmates could draw and paint.
We always had art in our house, and it was primarily Navajo art. We had a Harrison Begay painting by the dining room table. I looked at that picture every day of my life, and it’s here in my house now. It shows a Navajo man and woman and a basket.
It’s kind of a stylized image of a ceremony scene. You understand the male, the female, the basket, and the feather. All of the parts have meaning. Nobody ever sat down and said to me, This is what this means in this painting. But because you knew the culture, you knew what those things meant. My maternal grandmother’s brother was also a painter in Iowa, and he always was sending paintings down. And I have a couple of those now in my house, too.
When I started working at Hubbell Trading Post, I got to meet artists all the time. They were always coming in. The Navajo women would sell rugs to the trader, and they would get credit and use it to buy things from the front, you know, food or things that you might need around the house.
When I went to Tucson for college, I started working at Bahti Indian Arts, which is a more upscale Indian art shop. There I started to learn much more about national Native art. We had Northwest Coast artists who would bring art and jewelry in. Lots of different artists would come in and talk to the owner, Mark, and to us staffers.
Preston Singletary, whose work is on exhibit now at the National Museum of the American Indian, is an artist I encountered at Bahti Indian Arts. Two of his pieces had come in, and they were fascinating, contemporary glass pieces, so cool.
HUMANITIES: Are you a collector or an occasional buyer?
LOWE: An occasional buyer. I’m not a collector yet. I buy lots of jewelry, which is a very popular Navajo art form. As a Navajo, you grow up wearing jewelry. When you’re a baby, they put jewelry on the baby.
HUMANITIES: The first time I witnessed a land acknowledgment was a few years ago at a session of the National Council on the Humanities, and it was delivered by you. What is a land acknowledgment and when did this practice begin? Also, why did you adopt the practice?
LOWE: Australia had been doing Aboriginal land acknowledgments for years. More recently, the practice came to the United States and Canada. It is a way to acknowledge the history of the place where you are. It is important, I think, for institutions, in particular, to pay attention to this issue, because the history of the land in the United States and the dispossession of Native lands are not well understood.
Sometimes there was a payment and sometimes there was no payment for land taken from tribal nations. Some really sketchy deals were made. There is a lot more research now, particularly focused on land-grant institutions, on how Native land was bought and sold. Recent research maps parcels of land taken away from Native people and sold by the federal government to give money to land grant institutions. And this research has opened individuals’ eyes. Even I didn’t know that history, you know, that this is how it was. We too often are taught this idea that America was this free and open place, and you could just go live there, and nobody really paid attention to the fact that, oh, there were already people living here and, oh, you know, did they invite you?
And should you actually be just kind of plopping your house down without asking them? The land acknowledgment is a way to acknowledge the history and institutions who have maybe not the best history, not the best story of how they were created or the spaces that they’re in. You know, some of these histories are violent, and they’re not acknowledged.
Land acknowledgments help to at least acknowledge that Native people were here, that this place wasn’t just empty and barren and free for the taking. But I think Native people, they don’t want these acknowledgments to be a check-the-box kind of thing. The Native people really feel if you do a land acknowledgment, it is because you are committing yourself to some kind of relationship, to working with the tribal community that is local to you.
And that tribal community may not be the people who were originally on the land. It could be an urban area. So the question becomes, What do you do to support the local Native community, the urban Native community, if you give the land acknowledgment?
HUMANITIES: What are some of your favorite books about Navajo and other Native American cultures?
LOWE: There are so many books now about Navajo life. You can actually get a degree in Navajo studies now at our Navajo tribal colleges. But I didn’t know a lot of Native authors when I was growing up. It wasn’t part of the curriculum. I got introduced to Louise Erdrich through a summer program that I did between middle school and high school. I read the book Tracks, and it was one of the first times I had read a book by a Native author. Of course, it had nothing to do with Navajos—it was a completely different culture and completely different location—but I absolutely loved that book. A lot of the themes that she talked about were very similar, a lot of the situations, the rural community, the extended nature and importance of the Native family, the interactions between Natives and non-Natives, and the presence of the church, for instance, were all similar to my experiences growing up. And from there, I started to read all of Louise Erdrich’s books, and I still continue to read her books.
I was introduced to more Native writers at the University of Arizona in my English 101 course in my freshman year. It was the Native American section for English 101, a section open to Native students, and we spent a year reading different Native authors. I was introduced to N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sherman Alexie, and a lot of poets, too. It was wonderful to see that there was this wealth of material out there. It was the heyday of Native writers with Joy Harjo, Luci Tapahonso, Simon Ortiz, and others all being published around the same time. They all kind of came up together as writers. And now there are new writers coming out who have been influenced and taught by these early Native writers.
I continue to read Native authors, including quite a few Canadian Native writers, who are doing a lot of great work: Cherie Dimaline and Eden Robinson are two of my current favorites.
HUMANITIES: Diversity is a major theme for the Biden administration. And I wonder if you would tell me how diversity translates into an intellectual position on the humanities and into policymaking at NEH.
LOWE: You know, growing up on a reservation, I didn’t understand diversity at first. I wasn’t really introduced to it until I went to the University of Arizona. To me, it felt like diversity wasn’t something I had to think about because I grew up in such a unique cultural environment. Mostly everybody was Navajo. We had quite a few Hopi families who lived in the area, and there were white people, but I had no clue what real diversity looked like. We had very few African Americans at my high school, and we didn’t have very many Hispanics or Mexican Americans either. We didn’t have many Asian Americans. We didn’t have any Southeast Asians in the community.
When I got to the University of Arizona, I started to meet people from other cultures, and realized that, wow, there are lots of different people, including many with culturally rich traditions who had been in the United States for generations.
It was just kind of mind-boggling to me, like, oh, right, that is not what we saw on TV. We just see the standard American white families doing standard American white things, living in the city or the suburb, you know, white people, middle class white people.
So I was like, wow, this is really exciting and amazing. And I was really shocked at how many diverse people live just in Arizona. Then I moved to New England and that was like, oh, my gosh, there are tons of people from all over the world living here in New England.
Growing up in Arizona, I heard a lot about illegal immigrants. These are people, I was told, who shouldn’t be here. There was kind of this idea that America was supposed to be this standard, white, you know, middle-class country, and that if you didn’t fit that mold, somehow you were illegal or you were wrong. You weren’t supposed to be here.
And, of course, if you were Native, you were like, well, we were always here, whether people realized that or not. So, it really got me to realizing that we don’t say enough about the reasons we have so many diverse people in this country. There are reasons why they have been in this country for generations. There were things that were going on, whether it was a war or worker programs the government had been running.
People here come from all over the world, but we don’t talk about that, and we don’t make it part of the history that we teach. I think that becomes a huge problem for understanding who we are as a country and what makes us great as a country. We should do more to understand the real commitment and experience of all these individuals. We should know more about their different cultural backgrounds and the countries they are from. They are all so committed and focused to being here and living a good life.
I think that promoting diversity is important because it allows us to hear those voices. It allows us to see and understand those voices better. I mean, as a Native person, we’re always trying to say we need a seat at the table. We have to do that with every other culture group as well. We have to offer them a seat at the table and allow them to tell their own stories. So the emphasis on diversity and President Biden’s work to put people in these seats is great, I think.
HUMANITIES: Another issue getting more attention in recent years, but especially under the Biden administration, is the connection between climate change and the humanities. Is there a connection, and what is it? And what ought to be done in this direction?
LOWE: I think that there’s a very important connection because we have to be able to plan and envision how we will live in an environment that is changing, and probably a lot sooner than we were anticipating.
We need to envision what a healthy living situation looks like. What is it that we need physically—as in housing, water, all of the necessities? Also what is it that we’re going to need culturally?
How do we draw on cultural knowledge to understand some of the changes that we’re seeing in the environment, that we’re seeing in climate? There are lots of stories from different cultural groups who have an understanding, hundreds of years of understanding, of certain climate issues, like volcanoes, for example.
Native Hawaiians don’t see volcanoes as tragic. Volcanoes cause destruction, yes, but they also create new life and new islands. And having a better understanding helps us to really have a longer, more positive vision for the future.
HUMANITIES: What did you study in college, and did you already have a career path at that point?
LOWE: When I started college, I knew nothing about college. I applied. I got in. I got a nice scholarship, so I was like, all right, I’m going to college. I went in thinking I would study math, but I was extremely naive. I had no idea what it meant to have a major, what it meant to really pick one academic focus and decide what you’re going to do, what kind of job you were going to have.
The only jobs I was exposed to at home were those of teachers, people who worked in the hospital, and the postal woman. There were not a lot of career examples that we saw growing up. Everybody kind of assumed I would be a teacher. But I did not want to be a teacher. But then people kept saying, What are you going to do with a math degree, teach?
And I thought, I don’t know what you do with a math degree. I don’t know what kind of careers you can get. And then I failed calculus. So that ended my interest in math.
Shortly after that, I started taking American Indian studies classes, sociology classes, and I became interested in how the Navajo Nation was set up. How was the reservation created? Why are we so poor? Why do we have such a low socioeconomic status when there are these metropolises like Phoenix and Flagstaff at our border that are better off? Why is it that things are so difficult?
I started to learn more about policies and decisions the federal government has made and how that affects tribal communities. And then I got really interested in looking at Native students and their experiences in college. When I went to college, it was still really, very difficult for Native students. They dropped out left and right. And I was told multiple times by faculty, staff, and other students that I, too, would just drop out. I had high school teachers, faculty, fellow students—non-Natives—tell me I was just going to drop out.
That made me really angry, but it also made me want to know where that mentality came from. Also, why was it so difficult to finish college? That led me to working with Native students as they came into college.
After finishing my undergrad, I went straight into the master’s program in American Indian studies, and I focused on American Indian higher education. And when I finished my master’s, I went straight into a doctoral program. I was working on campus. I was a staff member. And when you work on campus, at that time, you paid something like $25 a credit. So, yay, I could afford to go to grad school.
HUMANITIES: So, you’re working toward a doctorate in Native American studies. Tell us about the research you’ve been doing.
LOWE: The research I’m looking at assesses the hopes and dreams of college-bound Native students. These are high school students. They are all working on going to college. They’ve got the credentials. All of them are pretty much set to be admitted to college.
That’s their path, and they are applying to attend a summer program that will prepare them to apply to college and then make a decision on which college they want to go to. I’m looking at their hopes and dreams because we have not looked very closely at why Native students go to college. I am asking, What is the college access story for Native students?
We have anecdotal stories that we hear all the time. Native students go to college because they want to give back to their community. ‘I want to go home and I want to be a doctor in my community.’ ‘I want to go to college because I want to make sure that I gain the skills, the education, so I can come home, and I can make it better.’
But we don’t have any official studies of Native students and their reasoning for going to college. By analyzing what Native American college students are anticipating and envisioning, I am hoping to learn what we need to do within the university to ensure that we don’t lose these students. How do we make sure they continue to have this desire and not give up? That is my dissertation. It’s analyzing 574 student essays.
HUMANITIES: You’ve worked at Yale and at Harvard. Can you tell me what your jobs were, and were you working with students? I’m not sure I have a clear idea of what the executive director of the Native American Program at Harvard does, or what the director of the Native American Cultural Center at Yale University does.
LOWE: Yale has cultural centers for student affinity groups on campus. There’s an African-American cultural center, a Latino cultural center, and an Asian-American cultural center. And, in 1993, there was a very small group of Native students. The director of the Latino Cultural Center at the time was very supportive. His wife was Native. And they decided they would create their own Native American Cultural Center.
So they had a sign made, and they put it on the building. It said, “Native American Cultural Center.” That didn’t mean it had support or was structured officially for Native students. But there was a donor who wanted to create a Native American Cultural Center and really support it as a standalone center like the others.
At Yale, I became the first director of the Native American Cultural Center. We shared a building with the Asian-American Cultural Center, and there was a lot of tension between the two groups because we had to share the space. As the director, my job was to come in and help to build the cultural center, support students, do programming with the students, and work as an assistant dean in the college’s dean’s office.
I worked with some other programs, university-wide, for undergraduate students, and then I got recruited to come to Harvard. I became the executive director for their Native American program, primarily an administrative role. There were three main areas that the program supported when I arrived.
Student support was one, and that begins with recruitment: trying to get Native students to apply and, if accepted, to matriculate at Harvard. It continues with supporting students once they’re on campus, and this includes undergrads as well as graduate students. Support involves making sure they have the network they need, connecting them to alumni, and helping them to be successful. And we did alumni affairs, to encourage our Native alumni to continue to be supportive of the program and our students. We had research funds that we gave to students to support work on Native topics and to support Native students who were doing research.
We also ensured that faculty doing research on Native subjects were connecting appropriately to the tribes they were researching or that they were working with. This way no one would be blindsided by research that came out of Harvard that the community thought was inappropriate. Nothing like that happened, thankfully. But it was important to make sure the connections were there and the resources were there to support appropriate research and make sure that it was being done in the best way.
The final part was connecting programs at Harvard to tribal communities and to tribal members. Harvard has a wealth of extension programs and centers that work with communities. We wanted to make sure that these programs have Native communities in mind, that they were thinking about doing work outside the institution with these communities, and that Native communities were also connecting to resources at the university.
HUMANITIES: Did you learn a lot about the Native American communities of New England during these years?
LOWE: Yes. I had met some Natives from New England at the University of Arizona, but I had little knowledge of their culture. At Harvard, I had the distinct pleasure of being able to learn more. I have visited most of the communities, met with them, gotten to know what their needs are, what is it they look for when they think about engaging with Harvard or other local institutions. This could be working with the tribe to recruit their students to Harvard or engaging with the tribe and inviting their participation in our university events. It’s been really great.
It’s an eye-opener for our Native students who have only been around Natives in places like the Navajo Reservation or in South Dakota, for example. The Native people of New England are very, very different. They look different, and their cultures are very different, along with their history of contact with white settlers. We’ve always tried to make sure that the local tribal communities are able to present and share this history with students.
HUMANITIES: For about six years, you were a member of the National Council on the Humanities, appointed by President Obama. Could you tell me, first, what the council does, and what did you learn about NEH and the humanities while serving on the council?
LOWE: The council is the final review stage for applications for federal funding. The council okays and recommends the applications that should be funded.
Then those recommendations go to the chair for the chair to decide on. When I was on the council, that was pretty much all we did. You came for your council meeting. You read your committee book. You voted on whether or not to move forward applications for funding or to not move forward applications for funding.
We didn’t have a lot to do with any of the day-to-day goings-on at the agency. Every once in a while, we might hear a little bit about something that an office was working toward or the agency was doing. But we were primarily just coming in to review the applications, review the recommendations for funding, and voting on those.
I learned a lot about the reach of NEH, the funding that is out there, and the number of institutions that are funded. And it’s always great to see NEH-supported projects come to fruition, like an exhibit that was funded three or four years ago. It’s great to know that our funding helped to make that happen.
But I also saw that our funding was going to the same old, same old, the already well-funded institutions, the well-known institutions, the large institutions. And I noticed how few small institutions, community colleges, and, in particular, tribal colleges applied and how they were often rated less favorably and not recommended for funding.
That made me wonder, so I asked Chairman Peede, Can we see these numbers? Can we see where the funding is going? And under Chairman Peede we started to receive breakdowns showing how many applications came from which state and you could see, hey, we don’t get any applications from Idaho or from Wyoming, for example. And I fully understood that people have to apply and they have to have interest, but why are some areas of the country consistently not applying to our grant programs?
I felt many people and institutions just had no understanding that NEH existed, that there were funding opportunities here, and that there were a number of different areas where they could be applying. And because I was on the council, and I was still traveling into different communities, particularly for Harvard, I got a lot of questions from people asking me, What is this NEH thing? What do you do?
Or I would hear about programs that people were doing or thinking about doing, and I would say, you know, you should apply for an NEH grant. You should look it up, check online, and see if there’s something that fits your program. I started to feel like people were just not aware that we were giving this funding, that we had these opportunities.
I especially wanted to make sure that people working with Native language issues were aware of funding at NEH. And I wanted to help NEH figure out the best way to support Native language programs. So I did actually work with some NEH staff to help identify an organization that could take funding and create subawards for communities for their language programs.
Because I was interested and I wanted to help connect tribal communities with NEH, I was a little more active in talking to some of the staff and trying to get a better sense of how this could work.
As a council member, I asked whether I could contact some of the applicants who had not been recommended for funding just to say, you know, please reapply, please talk to the staff, please ask for the reviewers’ comments so you can think about what would strengthen your application. Because I was told, fairly often, that when an applicant is rejected or not recommended for funding, they often don’t call up and ask for the review notes, and they don’t reapply. But some do. They reapply and, after the second or third time, they get funded. So I was like, well, they just need to keep applying then.
HUMANITIES: Were you referring to the cooperative agreement with First Nations Development Institute, which helped fund several language-revival programs? That was big.
LOWE: Yes, and there was a lot of conversation on what organization would best handle that funding and make the appropriate connections with tribal communities.
HUMANITIES: This is the question I have to ask every new incoming chair. What is your vision for NEH?
LOWE: I knew you would ask. Everybody was asking me that at the beginning and I was like, I don’t have a big vision.
My vision is just that I want to make sure we are reaching communities we haven’t normally been reaching, that they know who we are, that they know they can apply to us for funding, and that they start to be more successful at it.
If you look at the map of where funding goes, you see these big gaps. We have got to do something about that. And I’m excited now to do that after seeing where the ARP and the CARES funding has been awarded, seeing what kind of impact smaller grants can have on communities.
I just want to reach the people we haven’t reached, and I want tribal colleges, medium-sized colleges, small colleges, community colleges, I want them to apply all the time, in great numbers.
HUMANITIES: I want to ask you about the hiring of a chief diversity officer and adding an office of outreach. Those are some of the structural changes that you are making at the agency. How do they fit into your plans?
LOWE: The Office of Outreach is going to be key for making those initial contacts between the agency and communities that we haven’t been serving. Far too often, individuals don’t know who we are, don’t know what we do, or even what the humanities are. This office and the director are going to talk to communities and hear what the needs are and connect those communities to opportunities for funding at the agency.
This is going to really help us reach those populations, and it means we’re going to go knock on doors. We have to be on the ground. We have to be talking to them.
We can’t just sit and say, oh, well, they’ll come to us, right? They’ll figure it out. They’ll look at the website. They’ll apply. We have to actually go out. We have to visit communities. We have to go have conversations so that people know who we are, know that we are very interested in supporting their programs and their needs.
This was something I did very often, both at Yale and Harvard. I traveled to a lot of the tribal communities and would just say, We’re part of the Native American programs and we want to introduce ourselves. Also, we want to hear what is going on in your community. We’d let them know about opportunities for students and other programs happening on campus. And tribes were very excited. They were like, oh, nobody ever comes up to visit us in our offices and in our tribal communities. And I think that’s important. We have to get out. We have to start talking, and that’s where this director of the Office of Outreach comes in.
The chief diversity officer will focus on the internal work to help the staff, help me, to help us make sure that we’ve got the best skills and the background information that we need to have to better address our work in diversity, equity, inclusion, and access across the agency and in our grant programs.
HUMANITIES: Did you, while growing up or maybe more recently, think of yourself as a leader? And, if not, when did you begin to think of yourself as a leader?
LOWE: I don’t think of myself as a leader. I was always taught to be humble and to do the work. Like, okay, we’ve got to get this work done, let’s do it. And come here, you help me, or let me help you, right? That’s how I think about it.
I remember telling my family that this nomination would be coming out. It’s a confidential process, you can’t talk to anybody about it, so I didn’t even tell my parents I was being considered for the position. Then, a couple hours before the announcement was coming out, I called my dad and I said, Dad, just so you know, you might hear my name in the news because this announcement is coming out. He said, oh, okay, good, congratulations.
Then he said, “Make sure you stay humble.”
And I said, “Okay, Dad, I’ll do that.”
I don’t think it’s a Navajo thing, but I was raised not to draw too much attention to myself, because you can bring negativity into your life if you bring too much attention to yourself. It’s more important to see and know where you are needed most, and then go into those spaces, work hard and do what you can to address the needs.
HUMANITIES: Thanks for talking with us.
LOWE: Thank you.