Native matriarchs invite ASU student intern to join their inner circle
Frequently, Arizona State University students completing an internship perform so well they are offered permanent jobs.
But it’s another thing entirely when an intern is invited to join an employer’s inner circle — which is exactly what a group of Indigenous matriarchs did.
Kelly Vallo (Navajo/Acoma Pueblo) received a special red ribbon skirt — the symbol of membership in the matriarchy — welcoming her to the Healing Our Nations, Offering Resiliency (HONOR) Collective. The collective is a collaboration of Indigenous women, transgender, two-spirit and nonbinary individuals who identify with the feminine, who bring healing to those affected by the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relations (MMIR).
“I’ve always been a healer of the people. That came from my grandparents on my Navajo side,” said Vallo, who graduated in May 2022 with a master's degree in social work. “Both sides of my family, Navajo and Acoma, have always been healers. It has always been my life’s journey to be a healer. I learned that, as social workers, we are offering healing to individuals. A majority of social work revolves around trauma and helping people overcome traumatic experiences.”
By the time Vallo had entered her degree program, she had been a social worker for more than 14 years. She sought her graduate degree with a concentration in policy, administration and community practice to learn the “macro” side of social work.
Last fall, Vallo, of Nazlini, Arizona, began a yearlong internship with Indigenous Strategies, a Tucson-based consulting firm that assists Native tribes, tribal nonprofits and related agencies seeking to collaborate in education, leadership and social work. Indigenous Strategies is a part of the collective.
“The collective works on the healing aspect with individuals, families and communities,” said Melodie Lopez (Hopi/Navajo/Pueblo/Mexican), Indigenous Strategies’ president, who supervised Vallo. “It’s a different area of MMIR. It’s social work, which itself is a very healing profession.”
An extra layer of what is appropriate
Lopez, who is one of the founding matriarchs of HONOR, said she and the other matriarchs knew right away that Vallo not only understood the importance of helping victims and families, she possessed powerful feelings about it.
All social workers must adhere to high standards of ethical behavior, Lopez said, but working in Indigenous communities requires an extra layer of understanding what is appropriate in how to speak, what to say and to whom you speak.
Vallo grasped all of this almost immediately, Lopez said.
One of Vallo’s first assignments was conducting a value system presentation that asks where a person comes from and what is important to them.
“It was a bit challenging to talk about myself. In our Navajo culture and tradition, it is not our custom to talk so much about yourself. It has been a challenge for me to blend my traditional teachings with today’s contemporary lifestyle. However, through my education as a social worker, talking about yourself and your accomplishments is identified as a form of self-care,” Vallo said. “Through an Indigenous framework, self-care is important; you have to care for yourself before you can care for others. The value system assignment was a great way for me to envision what I wanted to do with my career and education.”
The process helped Vallo understand her role and her values, how she wanted to assist and develop a different way to engage with oneself and one’s community, she said, which involved much self-evaluation and self-reflection.
Vallo served impressively on a collective subcommittee addressing MMIR issues, Lopez said. Then, about halfway through her internship, she was given permission to represent HONOR at a statewide MMIR event. While Lopez said she is unable to disclose the subject matter involved due to client confidentiality protocols, she praised Vallo’s work.
“Kelly did an amazing job of balancing the needs of the statewide organization and HONOR and conducting herself within the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics,” Lopez said. “It was a very delicate balance. Kelly embraced this challenging role where she generated ideas and platforms no one had created beforehand.”
Invitation after only nine months ‘unprecedented’
The HONOR Collective is composed of 30 to 50 individuals, but there are only 11 matriarchs. Matriarchs are the planners, decision-makers and “worker bees,” said Lopez, who is one of the collective’s three founding matriarchs.
Matriarchs are asked each year if they wish to continue.
“We do not bring in new matriarchs very often, about once every two to three years, but they are mentored for at least one year before deciding to stay and accept the responsibility,” Lopez said. “Kelly was asked to become a matriarch after nine months of her internship. This is unprecedented.”
Vallo wasn’t just another intern, Lopez said. “She was someone who knew the issue and was passionate. She found the strength within herself, because to heal others, you have to be healed yourself. You need to come into a community with strength yourself.”
Vallo, who today works for the Phoenix-based Inter Tribal Council of Arizona as its Native youth coordinator, said her work for Lopez and for the collective spoke completely to what she wanted to do on a macro level.
“It was difficult finding an internship that correlated with my values and beliefs, especially when working with tribal communities. Indigenous Strategies was exactly what I was looking for. Their mission statement spoke to what I wanted to do as a healer,” she said.
'Reversing the Westernized concept of healing'
“Melodie, as a mentor, helped me develop my skills as a critical thinker. Her guidance has helped me create a far more Indigenous perspective as a social worker. She said, ‘Let’s go back to your culture and your traditions. Let’s go back to respect, relationship, responsibility and reciprocity,’” Vallo said.
“The four "R's," which we implement within the HONOR Collective, were developed through Shawn Wilson, an Indigenous philosopher. They help in creating safe space and healing to the community. That is the Indigenous framework we utilize,” Vallo said. “We are reversing the Westernized concept of healing and implementing more of an Indigenous framework. In Native American culture and traditions, healing has always been of the utmost importance, and we have always provided healing through our cultural and traditional teachings and ceremonies.”
Vallo said being presented with the skirt was the most emotional moment in her life, as important to her as receiving her MSW degree. It shows how far she has come in her journey, and how far she must continue. It has its own ceremony and process, she said. To be presented with a red ribbon skirt, she said, brings healing in itself.
“Being asked to be a matriarch with the HONOR Collective is the greatest honor to me. Many tribal communities have matriarchal societies. I am part of a modern-day system of matriarchs,” Vallo said. “We don’t just serve the community. We are the community.”