A voice for Native Americans: Alumnus appointed Arizona's director of tribal affairs
As a Virginia Tech student, Jason Chavez spearheaded change for the Native American community on campus and in the region.
Now he’s leading change in Arizona as director of tribal affairs for the state’s new gubernatorial administration.
As a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a federally recognized tribe in southern Arizona, Chavez sees special meaning in his new appointment.
“The significance is not lost on me, as an Indigenous person,” said Chavez. “It’s really remarkable because I'm not here as an invited guest. I’m here to have a seat at the table, to help set expectations and make policy and decisions for the governor's office.”
Chavez was working as an elections official in his home county of Pima County, Arizona, before he moved with his wife to Virginia and decided to go back to school. At Virginia Tech, he earned his bachelor’s degree in 2019 and then his master’s degree in 2020, both in political science.
Moving from the Arizona desert to the Virginia mountains was a culture shock in more ways than one. Native Americans are one of the smallest minority groups represented at Virginia Tech. According to university data, only a few dozen students currently enrolled identify as such.
Chavez said being a part of an underrepresented group can be a lonely experience, but he found a home away from home in Native at VT, a student organization that supports Indigenous students and raises awareness of the issues that confront them. He was able to connect with other students who were experiencing the same feelings he was.
“When I was part of the student organization, there were maybe 11 of us, but we were able to make huge things happen,” Chavez said.
He was part of the team that organized the university’s first Spring Powwow in 2017, which has since become an annual event. He participated in outreach efforts to Indigenous tribes in Virginia. And, most notably, he led the campaign for Virginia Tech to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day, which was celebrated on campus for the first time on Oct. 4, 2018.
“Jason was an invaluable member of the Native at VT student organization, serving as a student leader and mentoring undergraduates,” said Melissa Faircloth, director of Virginia Tech’s American Indian and Indigenous Community Center, where Chavez was a regular patron. “We could not be more proud of or happy for him. It’s a big accomplishment and so early in his career.”
Chavez’s studies in the Department of Political Science also reflected his desire to make an impact for Native communities. He wrote his master’s degree thesis on how the costs of early voting affected election participation in the Navajo Nation.
After graduating, he returned to his home state and took a position as election outreach manager at the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. That job presented an immediate opportunity to apply the knowledge he’d gained from his research to make a positive impact during the 2020 election.
“Everything was unknown — how do you conduct an election during a pandemic?” said Chavez. “So it was rewarding to be able to apply my classroom knowledge out in the world.”
From there, it was his dual experience in elections and tribal outreach that led to incoming Gov. Katie Hobbs asking him to join her administration and revitalize the state’s Office of Tribal Relations.
As director of tribal affairs, Chavez serves as a liaison to the state’s 22 Native tribes and nations, including his own Tohono O’odham Nation, to create strong partnerships between the state government and the Indigenous peoples. This frequently involves traveling around Arizona to understand the needs of the state’s diverse Native population.
“There's 22 tribes and nations, and there’s 22 different approaches,” said Chavez. “What it means is building relationships and showing up.”
During his time in this position, he hopes to attend to some of the most critical needs of Arizona’s Native peoples, including creating economic opportunities, promoting access to voting and health care, and addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
“I’ve always known that Jason would achieve great things on behalf of his people and all Indigenous peoples,” said Sam Cook, associate professor in the Department of History and the director of American Indian Studies. “Jason came to college to confront the complex colonial legacy that has framed his people's history for centuries and to reclaim the kind of community viability that once characterized Indigenous communities across the continent. His intense focus and determination brought him to this point, and this is just the beginning.”
In his new role, Chavez is still striving to make Native voices heard, just like he did as a student.
“A big part of what we were trying to do at Virginia Tech was fighting that invisibility,” Chavez said. “We’re still here. Native Americans are not a thing of the past. And we're still doing great things.”