Retiring anthropology professor leaves legacy for students at NMSU

NMSU press release by Minerva Baumann

After serving in administrative duties as a member of the Blackfeet Nation of his tribal government for 25 years, Don Pepion was hired to direct the American Indian Program at New Mexico State University. The anthropology professor will retire June 30 after 22 years of service at NMSU, including directing the construction of the American Indian Center and initiating Native American Studies at the university. “Don developed the curriculum for the Native American undergraduate and graduate programs and made these learning opportunities available to all NMSU students across campus,” said Rani Alexander, anthropology professor and department head. “Don is also an international scholar who values ​​experiential learning, and he brings a global perspective to both teaching and practice.” In addition to directing the American Indian Center, Pepion’s seven years as director of the American Indian program resulted in a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of Native students attending NMSU by the end of his tenure as director. “The reason we’ve been able to do this is because I’ve worked with many Native American tribes and specifically the various programs in the state of New Mexico that have provided us with the resources to go out and do recruitment and work with the Native American communities.” , he said. Pepion teaches that indigenous groups from around the world have fundamental common beliefs. Indigenous knowledge pathways are connected to the natural world, while Eurocentric knowledge or Euro-Western knowledge is disconnected from the natural world. “I teach aboriginal philosophy,” said Pepion. “Science is catching up with indigenous knowledge, or what has been called ‘primitive’ knowledge. Indigenous peoples would say that everything is alive, even the rocks – so-called inanimate things. Scientists would say that’s a primitive thought. But it really isn’t, it’s actually true because we’ve learned through quantum theory that it’s true.” Pepion was part of the team on a three-year federal scholarship project that partnered with other universities in Canada, the United States and Mexico through field schools and study abroad programs that gave students the opportunity to visit First Nations communities and learn firsthand about Indigenous perspectives political, cultural and ecological issues. “I’ve always had an educational philosophy of raising awareness of the Native American situation for all people,” Pepion said. “To help improve the quality of life for Native Americans, that’s really the bottom line, and I think the journey to get there, as I’ve found both as an administrator and as a teacher, is that it all starts with awareness and education. You can’t change what you don’t know until people can learn about the situation and make better decisions.” One of the NMSU anthropology students who went to Canada as part of the three-country exchange project was Ben Shendo, who now teaches culinary arts and Brazilian martial arts at the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque. “Don was a big turning point,” said Shendo, a member of Jemez and Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico. “I went to anthropology because of him. He kind of took me under his wing. Well, where I am in life now, it wouldn’t have been without Don, you know. He’s one of those founding people who shape your life, who you always think about, pray for and think of. I’m just one story out of many lives that Don has impacted.” Shendo used Pepion’s teachings as a stepping stone to a life of learning. In addition to Canada, Shendo has traveled extensively, expanding his knowledge of martial arts in Brazil and learning indigenous cuisine in Minnesota. During one of his trips from Albuquerque to Brazil, he stopped at NMSU to speak in Pepion’s class and met his future wife, Sibella Salazar, who recently received her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from NMSU and teaches a course in Multiculturalism. Another of Pepion’s students, Kayla Meyers, is originally from Wyoming and describes herself as a “white/Eastern Shoshone hybrid.” She is now a social studies teacher at Alma d’arte Charter High School in Las Cruces, teaching Native American Studies, Ethnic and Gender Studies, Spanish, and World History. She was drawn to NMSU to pursue her master’s degree to research the Native American experiences of the frontiers. Pepion served on Meyer’s dissertation committee, but his influence extended beyond the classroom. “His teaching was powerful and, without exaggeration, completely changed my life,” Meyers said. “He teaches on the basis of humanism and the liberation of the students. Rather than trying to fill us with information, he created an environment and path for us to actively discover our own liberation. “For the first time in my life I have found peace in my identity as a mixed race person. I finally had words to describe my indigenous worldview and to fill the cracks that a colonized world left in my heart. He was the first teacher who brought my own healing to my attention.” Miriam Chaiken, professor emeritus of anthropology and retired dean of NMSU Honors College, worked in Pepion’s department of anthropology. “Don is an effective and inspiring educator who brings his formal education and his own cultural background to his lessons so that students get the best of both worlds,” said Chaiken. “His work has inspired many students to embrace their indigenous traditions while pursuing opportunities in higher education. He really changed the lives of the students and helped them achieve their goals. It’s an amazing legacy.” Several colleagues mentioned an event that Pepion too modestly brought up. The professor demonstrated his equestrian skills in 2012 among hundreds of Indigenous groups performing at the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Pageant. He was also invited to have tea with the Queen. “It was a privilege and an honor to be chosen from our group to meet with the Queen,” said Pepion. “Several hundred indigenous nations were represented there. But the most important thing for me while we were there was the huge cooking tent that they put up for us so that as indigenous people we could share our dances and songs with other nations from all over the world.” At a recent retirement dinner, Pepion received a gift from the anthropology department of a blanket from Eighth Generation, a Seattle-based brand owned by the Snowqualmie tribe. John Isiah Pepion designed the ceiling. A member of the Blackfeet of Montana and Canada, Pepion drives home each summer to practice traditional ways. In retirement, he plans to continue these travels but also to continue his research. “So much of our culture and language has been lost, so helping us bring our language and culture back is my vision. “Change begins with the individual. And that’s what I teach – this process of change,” said Pepion. “Who do you want to be? Do you want to change something in this world? Each of us has to make a choice.”

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