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Saturday, April 13, 2024

“Education happens in many ways”: An Interview With the NM Asst. Secretary for Indian Education

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Suzanne Hammons
Suzanne Hammonshttp://dioceseofgallup.org
Suzanne Hammons is the editor of the Voice of the Southwest and the media coordinator for the Diocese of Gallup. A graduate of Benedictine College in Kansas, she joined the Diocesan staff in 2012.

KatieAnn Juanico attended St. Joseph Mission School in San Fidel, NM, and currently serves as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Education for the state of New Mexico. She recently returned to St. Joseph to give the keynote address at the school’s 100th anniversary gala.

She credits her time in both Catholic and public schools, her culture, and her parents for shaping her intellectual and spiritual worldview. In January, Juanico spoke to the Voice of the Southwest about her background and her goals for education in New Mexico.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KatieAnn Juanico. Courtesy Image.

Voice of the Southwest: Would you mind giving me and our readers a little bit of a background on growing up in New Mexico, and how you got into education?

Okay, so, again, thank you for having me. My name is KatieAnn Juanico and I currently serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Indian Education Division for the New Mexico Public Education Department.

I’m coming up on eight months, actually. I know the day to a tee because I will never forget my first day and then the phone call for this opportunity.

I’m from the Pueblo, of course, which is located just across the bridge from St. Joseph Mission School. I like to say that I’m a participating enrolled member, which to me means not only do I have a tribal census number to my Pueblo, but I also often go home. That’s important to me, to participate in cultural ceremonies, for the community to see me in that aspect and, you know, know that I’m a true member of the community of where I was raised.

I want to acknowledge my parents, Marietta and Melvin Juanico, as they are a part of my story, and my time at St. Joseph Mission School. I attended St. Joseph Mission School [from] kindergarten through sixth grade. At the time there wasn’t a seventh or eighth grade available, so I basically stayed there until I could no longer stay there.

And I actually mentioned my parents because part of the reason my sister, my brother, and I attended St. Joseph Mission School was because of my parents’ employment. My dad was a bus driver and also the maintenance facilities person all the way through when I was in sixth grade. My mom was a bus driver and also a teacher at the school. And so I never forget to acknowledge the fact that my parents were working so that my brother, my sister, and I could go to the Catholic School and were having the tuition payments deducted from their paychecks. So I just wanted to make that clear and acknowledge my parents for, you know, finding the light for us to attend an institution that I don’t know was accessible to many families in the community.

Past sixth grade I then transitioned to public school, which I’m also proud of. In this role, it’s important to me that I’m a product and can speak on behalf of my experience within the public school system. I transitioned to Los Alamitos for middle school and then I’m a graduate of Grants High School, where I spent all four years of high school, ninth through 12th grade.

If I could talk about my interest in education, I think it stems from my time there. I’ve always had an innate passion for teaching and learning. I remember always loving school and wanting to go to school. And I think St. Joseph’s school offered that.

I also know that my personality clings to routine. I like to know what’s coming next. And I think again, St. Joseph Mission School offered that as well. We were on a tight, strict schedule, [like] most Catholic schools. I knew what to expect. But for me, that worked.

And so after high school…I transitioned to the University of New Mexico. So I truly am a product of New Mexico and the education that is within the state. I’ve attained my Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education knowing that I wanted to be a teacher at some point in some capacity. Once I got the wheels spinning on what college life looked like, I knew I wanted to attend graduate school.

And it’s really there where I’ve expanded my mind, my experience. I’ve been challenged with people that are smarter than me, which feels good from time to time. I’m currently a doctoral candidate in the educational psychology program.

What are some of your goals for your role here, at the state level?

You know, I have a unique opportunity to speak on behalf of tribal communities, including the Apache and Navajo Nations. And I think I do that best when I first listen to the tribal leaders and their own priorities and goals for their students. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge them as the experts of their cultures and language. Sometimes it depends on who you’re talking to at the moment and what’s at the forefront of their mind.

I do not want to disregard the opportunity that we have to actually go and visit Pueblos, Tribes, and Nations to gather that data. I want to speak highly of Secretary Arsenio Romero of the Public Education Department who has made that effort last within our first six months. We actually visited 21 out of the 22 Pueblos, Tribes, and Nations within the state of New Mexico. I think that speaks volumes to the amount of effort that we’re making to support Native American students within the public education system. But also speaks volumes about the way we’re trying to build relationships with tribal leaders, because it really is a joint effort when we talk about education. Some of my goals in particular are learning but also speaking on behalf of tribal communities in the capacity of a cabinet member.

We have a unique role in that. We have the ear of the secretary. We are reminding him of the goals that are related to Pueblos, Tribes and Nations.

Some of the other goals I hope to see within my limited time here is that we continue to increase the number of community members from Pueblos, Tribes, and Nations to attain a 520 Certification, which acknowledges their cultural capacity and knowledge of language and culture that they can then teach within the public school classroom. I also would like to see more students – high school seniors in particular – graduate with their bilingual seal. Again, telling students that they are coming from a place of experience, that they come to the classroom with this cultural knowledge that they didn’t learn necessarily within those walls. And that leads to acknowledging families that put their time and effort into their children and acknowledging the community and families as their first educators.

How do you think schools can best help families to take that cultural legacy and carry it forward?

So, I’m a firm believer that this first happens within the home, from the family. I’ve been very fortunate to have a great foundation and I’m speaking from experience, the knowledge that my parents have shared with me. I have been able to navigate my cultural experience and my ties to my community, as well as mesh them with Westernized society.

I mean, I live here in Santa Fe, but I still go out to pray every morning, which I have been taught in our cultural language from my family. So, again, family and community are the first educators. In the classroom they are great models of what this looks like within Bureau and tribally controlled schools.

But as we think about schools in general, I think one way we can do it is to nurture the people that are actually doing the teaching: the teachers, the administrators, support staff, and even those individuals who make the high impact decisions, such as school board members and our state leaders. We can think about nurturing cultural backgrounds through advocacy and initiatives that we support, using our voices to show the priorities that are relevant to the pueblos, tribes, and nations. I also think there’s a lot to be said about buzzwords that we’re familiar with – cultural sensitivity, culturally appropriate education. We know these things are important. Research tells us that.

But I also have to advocate for basic human principles that I learned at St. Joseph Mission School – the power of being kind and respectful to others and other people’s perspectives and differences. I think that goes hand in hand with acknowledging cultural capital and learning that happens outside the classroom.

Do you have any advice in particular for Catholic schools on how to be aware of culturally appropriate curriculum?

What’s been working for the state is tribal consultation. Reaching out to tribal leaders, who can then identify their own experts on language and culture and how that should be embedded into the classroom.

I think that it’s always respectful to ask tribal leaders if they think this is something that should be taught within the general education classroom. Speaking as a Pueblo woman, there are certainly things that shouldn’t be taught in a general education classroom that I’ve been taught are for home, or for your parents, for the tribal leaders to teach you.

There are many experts within the community – elders for sure, those knowledge holders that we want to tap into and acknowledge that they have the wisdom to share what they’ve learned and what has worked.

What kind of impact just did St. Joseph School have on not only you and your family, but the community?

I recently lost a classmate from St. Joseph Mission School and attended her services – around Christmas time she passed away. And it was really then that I reflected on my time at St. Joseph Mission School. This is from my own perspective, but I know that it probably applies to a lot of students and families that have gone through and attended St. Joseph Mission School – there’s a sense of community there, definitely. I was the guest speaker for the gala that [the principal] invited me to, and I had not stepped back at the school for quite some time – I want to say 20-plus years. But the minute I walked onto that campus, it was a sense of welcome, and I knew where everything was. Everything looked the same.

It was just emotionally overwhelming to be back in that environment. That sense of community was there. I also want to acknowledge my classmates who I see through social media are making huge impacts as well. And I know that came from St. Joseph Mission School because we were such a small class, I think 10 of us! And we went from kindergarten all the way through sixth grade. If I look at all the roles that we’re playing in different states and nationally, I think our class is doing extremely well.

I also want to talk about parent involvement. I mean, we have pictures of my parents being the lead hamburger flippers and doing all that fundraising so that we were able to participate in sports and have these fun events at school. I even remember my parents building relationships among [other] parents because they all work together and fundraise together.

But not only that, it’s where I made my First Holy Communion. It’s where I learned to read did so very well. I remember that vividly – wanting to be the first one to read through all the levels of the books in my class. And I was able to do that.

It’s where I learned my prayers. It’s where I learned another support system of a higher power. I’ve learned that at home, with my cultural knowledge, that we pray to the sun as it rises and as it settles for the day and ask for good intentions for the next day. But going to St. Joseph’s School and learning my prayers in a Catholic way solidified that we’re not alone, and in times of need, we have someone to turn to or talk to when we need it. And I think that’s what kept me grounded in a lot of the challenging pieces of my role currently, professionally, [or] even outside of my work role.

And then last, I want to talk about the knowledge that I learned about respecting teachers, parents, elders, tribal leaders, but also spiritual leaders. There were many of them that had good things to share during my time. My favorite teacher was Miss Padilla. She was my second-grade teacher. I could literally cite all my teachers’ names from [kindergarten] through sixth because that’s how impactful it was on me.

You mentioned the gala – how did that go? I mean, you kind of mentioned it felt like coming home a little bit.

Oh my gosh, it was so nice. [Principal] Antonio [Trujillo] let me invite as many guests as I wanted. I only took my boyfriend, which was, you know, insightful for him. He had never been on that campus, and he could see the sense of community. My parents get invited every year because they’ve contributed so many years of their employment there. And so it was nice to have my parents as well as my significant other and, you know, teachers that have been there forever and Antonio, seeing him in different capacities. I mean, it was just so heartwarming to see.

Even the slide was still there, and I went down the slide in my dress and heels because I wanted that memory. It was a good night.

Do you have any final thoughts on education that you’d like to leave us with?

For myself, and I think for a lot of students, this holds true: we have many role models along the way, whether that be teachers or community members or just an interaction that we have in our daily lives. Education happens in many ways.

And for me, I like to credit and acknowledge my role models. I mentioned my favorite teacher, Miss Padilla. I also had a favorite advisor in high school who opened up doors for me, who helped me fill out scholarship applications.

I hope that all Native students have someone that they’re tied to in that way. I also had a supportive class sponsor in high school. I was the class president for most of my years in high school and graduated as class president. It was the first time that I experienced truly being a leader. I remember navigating elections and relationships, but also learning the most important characteristics of a leader.

I have to again acknowledge my mom, who is still an educator [and] has been for many years. She is one of the strongest, stable role models that I’ve had in my life. She taught general education classroom subjects, but she also still teaches language and culture.

And that’s who I want to be. [Those are] the footprints that I want to leave in this role here. I want people to remember that I took the job knowing that there are challenges in all aspects of education, but also that I was true to my own community, my own family, and the cultural values that I learned, and I use that to drive me forward each day. Even though time is limited, I still want to make impacts here.

Featured image courtesy of St. Joseph Mission School.


  1. Thank you, Suzanne Hammons, for these wonderful articles posted in the Voice of the Southwest.
    It thrills me to become updated on what is happening in the Diocese of Gallup and the Indian reservations.
    We lived in the Southwest for two years and were foster parents for a family in the Zuni pueblo.
    I pray for many blessings for the outreach you are doing and for the many tribes of the Southwest.
    Thank you….


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