A year ago, Eric Leslie changed his major.
This week, he graduates as part of the inaugural class of Northern Arizona University’s Indian Country criminal justice program, a first-of-its-kind online degree that addresses the confluence of the unique aspects of criminal justice in Indian Country, criminology and criminal justice theories and cultural competency relative to Indigenous peoples.
The program, a collaboration between the Applied Indigenous Studies (AIS), Justice Studies and Criminology & Criminal Justice (CCJ) departments, was a perfect fit for Leslie, who was majoring in AIS with a minor in CCJ and an emphasis in Diné (Navajo). His post-commencement plans include law school, then returning to his homeland.
“My original plan was to work with the FBI or BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) or within any of the local law enforcement agencies within border towns along Navajo Nations or within the Native nations,” he said.
It’s a small class—just Leslie and Thomasine James are graduating this week. The program was approved in April 2019 and began that fall, which didn’t leave much time for recruiting. Karen Jarratt-Snider, chair of the AIS Department, said faculty members in the collaborating departments saw a need for this type of specialized education given how complex criminal justice is for Native nations.
“The political status of Native nations as sovereigns, the shifting and often contradictory eras in federal Indian policy, acts of Congress that were passed, and in some cases retrocession for some but not all federally recognized Indian nations, U.S. Supreme Court cases, federal statutes such as the Major Crimes Act and various executive orders of many different U.S. presidents all contribute to the complexities facing Native Americans and Indigenous peoples when they enter the criminal justice system in any role,” Jarratt-Snider said. “No other criminology and criminal justice degree program in the U.S. addresses the very unique circumstances of criminal justice in Indian Country.”
Leslie, who is from To’nanessdizi (Tuba City), returned to NAU after 12 years in the military, away from the Diné Nation. He wanted to be close to his family and reconnect with his culture and roots, including relearning Diné. He’s built relationships with his classmates, gotten to spend more time with his family—especially his grandmother, who died earlier this year—and presented his capstone research project during a Zoom roundtable at NAU’s Undergraduate Symposium. They were supposed to present at a conference in Portland, Oregon, but it was canceled because of the pandemic.
It was a letdown, Leslie acknowledged. But as he looks back at his undergraduate career, so many other good moments stand out. The most memorable experience was during the spring 2018 semester, when he took Diné philosophy with professor Manley Begaye and Navajo Hataałii (medicine man) Lorenzo Max.
“During this semester, not only did I learn about my culture, but it drastically made me understand the language I was relearning,” he said. “I learned that our language is our history and culture; it is not just a part of something. It incorporates the way of life of being Diné. This class also helped me adjust my way of thinking as a person during my transition from the military, from hóchxó, a bad way of thinking, to hózhó—being in balance with yourself, mentally and physically, and your environment.”
James, who is from Kayenta and comes from a family of Lumberjacks, came into the program with a similar background—a major in CCJ and a minor in AIS. Like Leslie, she found her home in the new program. The in-depth curriculum that combined U.S. and Indian law, along with the political arena in Indian Country, made it a good fit.
And it was, though not without its challenges. James said the professors and staff, along with other students in her classes, helped her reach her goal of graduating. She struggled some as she stepped out of her comfort zone and had to be disciplined and set rules for herself. That discipline, however, became critical earlier this spring when all of her classes suddenly went online. James didn’t always have access to the Internet to do her schoolwork, but that didn’t stop her.
It helped, she said, being so close to home and a part of her own culture as well as NAU’s.
“NAU sits next to one of the most beautiful mountains—the San Francisco Peaks,” she said. “The peak is a symbolic sacred mountain to my Navajo people; it represents our culture and religious belief that empowers us Navajo people to live in harmony with the Creator and Mother Earth.”
She’s already seen some of the fruits of her labor, including being a candidate for a competitive scholarship and being invited to join a national honor society. Graduating Friday, even if it doesn’t look like what she expected, is another acknowledgement of her hard work.
James isn’t sure what’s next for her; she’s interested both in a master’s program and working with the Navajo Nation or another Indigenous nation; she’d like a career advocating for improving the criminal justice system in Indian Country.
Not being able to celebrate with the first class is hard on the faculty as well, Jarratt-Snider said, though they’re still thrilled for James and Leslie and excited for the other students coming up behind them. They’ll hold a celebration on Zoom with the graduates and their families and are already looking ahead to the fall commencement, when they hope to have something special planned.
“We’re so happy for our graduates and will stay in touch with them to see how they fulfill the potential we’ve seen in them and this program from the start,” she said.
For more information on the Indian Country criminal justice program and how to apply, visit the program’s website or call (928) 523-6219.
Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
(928) 523-8737 | email@example.com