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Emily McDonnell in front of The Gift Sculpture near the Student Union.
Emily McDonnell (photo by Jess Abel)

Ph.D. student Emily McDonnell (American studies) is a proud citizen of the Navajo Nation. She shared a traditional Navajo biography with us — she is Tó’áhání (Near the Water), born for Bilagáana (Greek-Irish). Her cheii, or maternal grandfather, is Tł’ízí Łání (Many Goats), and her nalí, or paternal grandmother, is Bilagáana (Greek-Irish). She was raised and educated in the Navajo community of Kayenta, Arizona. She earned a B.S. from the University of Arizona with a minor in American Indian Studies, and an M.P.A. from the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University. She is currently a Humanities for the Public Good Fellow at the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs. We caught up with McDonnell for  Graduate and Professional Student Appreciation Week.

Through her work, she said, “I hope to inspire the next generation of Native scholars and make my community proud!”

Q: What led you to Carolina to pursue your graduate degree?

A: I chose to come to Carolina for several reasons. I lived in Arizona my entire life and I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by the Native American community at every stage of my education. I wanted to see how Indigenous identity functions in other spaces, and Carolina has provided the opportunity to engage with and learn from students and community leaders from tribal nations from all over the state.

When choosing where to pursue my doctorate, it was also important to me to choose a public institution that is rooted in serving the public through its work. I come from the public sector and from a very community-oriented space. I believe that Carolina will give me the tools to continue serving my community and Native Nations in an even stronger and more impactful capacity.

Q: Tell us briefly about the focus of your research or area of study.

A: As a first-year Ph.D. student, I haven’t narrowed down my focus of study completely, but more broadly I am interested in exploring American studies through a global lens. My research interests include the intersection of policy and geography with material culture and community/economic development. These themes intersect heavily in the tourism industry. Policy regulates so many aspects of Native American life, including the spaces we have access to or whether we have sovereignty over those spaces or not. The legacy of colonialism continues to influence how tourists think of Native Americans and this is largely reflected in the tourism industry which does not always include Native perspectives or input from communities. I want to explore how material culture in these spaces is an expression of contemporary Indigenous identity and how Indigenous-led tourism can be used as a sustainable form of community and economic development.

Q: Describe a favorite experience (internship, project, travel, teaching, etc.) related to your graduate work.

A: Back in December, I attended my first meeting with representatives from the Tribal nations in North Carolina. This gave me a good understanding of group dynamics and the most pressing issues facing the communities here. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and I could tell they were genuinely excited to meet me.

Q: What are you passionate about in your field?

A: I am passionate about telling contemporary Native American stories through my work which is both an incredible responsibility and privilege. Unfortunately, there are many people who still do not realize that Native Americans are present in urban spaces, higher education, etc. They think of us in a historical context, and through my work I hope to change that narrative by highlighting contemporary Indigenous identity. We belong in all spaces, and I hope to inspire the next generation of Native scholars and make my community proud!

Q: It’s a Saturday afternoon, and you’re taking a break from your graduate work. Where would we find you?

A: You can find me drinking an iced coffee and taking advantage of the many outdoor spaces in Chapel Hill. I grew up in a very rural area, so I really like having so many trails right outside my door!

Q: What one-sentence advice would you give to future graduate students?

A: Make time for self-care while in school.

By Kim Weaver Spurr ’88




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