By Abby Williams 

Kimberly R. Huyser extended a welcome to the First Monday audience in Diné, the Navajo language, as an introduction to herself and her talk.

“This allows other Diné peoples in the audience to recognize me as a relative,” Huyser said. She emphasized the importance of recognition, saying this is how she can build connection and family with those in attendance. 

Her First Monday talk, which focused on how social factors influence the well-being of American Indian and Alaskan Native Peoples (AIAN) , was preceded by an acknowledgement of the Ute people and the Ute land that CC currently occupies. The land acknowledgement, given by Re Evitt, associate professor of English, recognized colonialism and its current impacts and extended gratitude toward the Ute people for their work as stewards of the land. 

After this acknowledgement, Dwanna McKay, assistant professor of race, ethnicity, and migration studies, introduced Huyser, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico. McKay recalled the barriers and academic invalidation both she and Huyser have faced as indigenous women in primarily white spaces and emphasized the importance of Huyser’s groundbreaking work.

“I am so proud to call her my friend,” McKay said.

Huyser’s work is groundbreaking because she is able to represent diversity and complexity across AIAN lived experiences through quantitative data, a dedication and methodology that other sociologists mistakenly warned would prevent her from getting a job because it is “too narrow of a focus.” 

In her work, Huyser searches to gain a deeper understanding of the social conditions that undermine health and identify the cultural and social resources leveraged by AIAN peoples.

Huyser gave background on the previous literature that concludes that AIAN peoples have lower socio-economic status and educational attainment and higher rates of poverty and unemployment — a finding she said was consistent with her own lived experience. However, she also said there was more to be uncovered.

“For me as I started to think about this literature … there are things that are not fully understood by those statistics of entire poverty,” Huyser said. “My work has started to systematically analyze the nuances, to get at the heterogeneity.”

A motivation of her research is to acknowledge the diversity of the AIAN population, with 573 nationally recognized tribes, not counting more than 300 unrecognized tribes currently petitioning for status — a population that cannot be distilled by generalizing statistics. 

In 2010, Huyser was the first to systematically analyze AIAN SES and education by single race and multi-race; she found a persistent income disadvantage compared to whites. She then went further, asking: “How to disaggregate this? How do we truly honor the complexity of AIAN identification? And, how does this influence statistical outcomes?” These questions led her to her next focus, examining the differences between tribes and the significance of reservation land.

Huyser focuses on reservation lands as a protective social factor. She studied the relationship between the proportion of individuals’ lives that they spend on American Indian reservation lands and the psychological distress experienced by these individuals, members of two American Indian tribes. Huyser found that persons who have lived most their lives on reservation lands have lower odds of psychological distress relative to persons who have spent part of their lives off reservation lands.

Huyser drew attention to a number of “resilience factors” that come with living on reservations, including community support networks, social events, traditional language and culture practices, and familial roots that serve as “stores of strength and reliance.” These reliance factors explain, in part, Huyser’s findings.

Referencing the findings of her studies, she asked the audience to look past the big headlines of poverty and AIAN people and think deeply about AIAN people’s diverse experiences. She also encouraged audience members to think critically about the methodological framework and bounds of social study, and more broadly, our social lives.

“Think about the complexity of our lived worlds,” Huyser said.

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