New Program Manager of Fellowships Listens to and Tells Stories
February 25, 2021

New Program Manager of Fellowships Listens to and Tells Stories

Rachael Nez (Navajo, Diné Nation) (they/them) is a documentary filmmaker, academic, and teacher. Born and raised on the Navajo reservation, Rachael is passionate about media technologies, heritage languages, and working with Native communities. Rachael holds a Ph.D. in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis.

Besides academic work, Rachael has served as an associate professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts, teaching courses in video production, cinema history, and storytelling, and has also collaborated with tribal communities throughout the United States, Canada, Hawaii, and Australia, working with tribal elders to produce learning language materials, film projects, and digital stories in their Native languages.

Rachael was recently named First Peoples Fund (FPF) Program Manager of Fellowships, working remotely from Davis, California.

Rachael stood before a classroom of elders who stared back with that deer-in-the-headlights look. The elders had brought family photos and stories to the community workshop. Rachael was guiding them through capturing their narratives in digital media. 

At the moment, the elders could not imagine comprehending all the complicated technical jargon. And could they possibly do this in the allotted 4 days? 

Rachael encouraged them and let them know that it was indeed possible, and by the end, their stories were in video—family photos and cultural traditions to share with their communities and classrooms.

“They wanted to be able to show [the community] their stories, and have them see and hear them,” Rachael says. “The workshop consisted of many different ways of working with the material they presented and asked, how do we create special meaning out of this? When the projects were completed, we had a screening for them. They watched in amazement. They were so gracious and appreciative. Going through that process was amazing.”

Rachael’s community work led into the world of academia.  As part of dissertation work, Rachael looks at how Indigenous language workers use media, storytelling and theater to sustain Indigenous languages. Rachael’s work was often through digital storytelling workshops with elders, the ones who hold the most knowledge about the languages. But their unfamiliarity with technology presented a challenge they aren’t sure how to overcome. Rachael took the time to explain the terminology, introducing them to a new language as they preserve their ancient ones. 

“Through these digital storytelling workshops, I was able to share my tech knowledge with language educators, community teachers, and elders who were interested in preserving, maintaining, or strengthening their languages using technology,” Rachael says.

As an artist, First Peoples Fund has always been on Rachael’s radar, admiring the work FPF does in elevating Native artists and supporting Indigenous Arts Ecologies. When the opening came for Program Manager of Fellowships, Rachael dug into the details of the position and applied. 

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1. Photo of Rachel Nez 2. Photo of Rachel's mother and aunties

Now settling into the new role, Rachael is prepared to work with Native artists through the Artist in Business Leadership and Cultural Capital Fellowship programs. Rachael will work collaboratively with the entire Programs Team to ensure that community partner outreach, project placement, support of artists, and training activities support the overall program outcomes and FPF’s work to build the Indigenous Arts Ecology,  our theory of change which is the ancient relationship-based, collective system of local and regional arts ecosystems rooted in ancestral knowledge and inclusive of environment, spirit, people, and lifeways.

When Rachael saw and heard from the 2021 fellows during their orientation, the mixture of visual and performing artists was striking.

“I was amazed by the creativity of the artists, blown away by the things they could do and how they were doing it,” Rachael says. “One of my passions is working with Native communities and assisting them with the skills and tools I have to help elevate their talents, whether it be arts, language, youth, or mentorship. I’m looking forward to working with the individual Native artists.”

Rachael has always worked with Native communities to strengthen and uplift the people in them. Rachael often starts these relationships by sitting down and listening to the peoples’ stories, developing a heart for this during years of growing up on the Navajo Reservation.

“My elders and my mom instilled upon me the values of being respectful, listening and helping, of being kind and courteous,” Rachael says. “Helping communities with these tools I've obtained through my educational and life journey is my way of keeping true to those values.”

Rachael’s mother taught them to always listen to the words of grandparents, to the stories they were telling, even if scolding. 

“‘Pay attention to that and listen,’” Rachael says. “She taught me this idea of listening, listening, listening, and then helping community, and being respectful and appreciative of the things given to you.”

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