Strength in Numbers

Data is power, argues Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College President Twyla Baker.

Twyla Baker started her career as a researcher, focusing on Native health. Now, as president of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, she argues for the importance of data sovereignty. All photos courtesy of Twyla Baker.

By Katie Scarlett Brandt

Twyla Baker’s path to science and, eventually, the presidency of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College began with a trip to summer camp as a young teenager.

At 13, Baker was living with her parents and four brothers on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation of North Dakota. The house was in the country and, Baker recalled, her bedroom was painted hot pink. Her mother and father spoke Hidatsa, but Baker spoke only “the colonizer language” — and often just sat and listened for her name in conversation.

“Despite not speaking the language, I grew up knowing our customs and knowing my place in the tribal structure, our kinship ties,” Baker said. “It was very different and continues to be a different lens that I view the world through.”

One of those kinship ties — a cousin Baker calls brother — enrolled her in an overnight camp that he had organized. While other campers had to apply and then decide whether to attend, Baker had no choice. She was going.

At Cross Ranch State Park, along the Missouri River in North Dakota, campers slept in tipis and spent their days identifying grasses, viewing turtle effigies, and discussing history. They were connecting to the land, their language, and each other. Baker was hooked.

“It was astonishing to me that [all of this] existed in my bloodline, in my people,” said Baker, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation. The experience at camp altered her reality. “It woke me up. I started to appreciate who I was, where I came from.”

History suddenly became very real for Baker. Back home, she read the book Waheenee, the story of Buffalo Bird Woman, and begged her parents for stories of their people. Her father, a history teacher, and her mother, a storyteller, obliged—especially on long road trips.

“I couldn’t believe all of that happened outside my window basically. I was in love with my history,” Baker said.

Baker took a winding path through college, attending several institutions, including Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, before earning her undergraduate degree from the University of North Dakota in 2002. She eventually completed a PhD from the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks. While earning her degrees, she became a mother herself, seven times over. “I walked across the [graduation] stage twice in full bloom, big ol’ belly. There was a lot of writing at 3 a.m. when it was quiet,” she said.

Twyla Baker entered college with a basketball scholarship. She ended up with a PhD in research methodology.

Though Baker didn’t know exactly where her path would lead as she pursued her degrees, she chose her areas of study with a keen awareness of the lack of researchers in Native communities — and the excess of educational, social, and health disparities. She earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Environmental Geology & Technology and Education respectively before pursuing her PhD in Research Methodology and Quantitative Methods. By the time she graduated, Baker had switched from learning the language and history of the MHA Nation to learning the language of numbers.

“I was going to be way out in the middle of nowhere, just me and my rocks and soil,” Baker said of her undergraduate degree. But through her PhD, she began gathering data for the National Resource Center on Native American Aging at the University of North Dakota. Studying elders, she said, “was a different way to look at the world. I have a good, strong understanding of how these numbers represent people. That was my superpower when I was doing things. I wanted to translate that data and help tell the story.”

To tell those stories, in 2009 Baker took on the role of director of the National Resource Center on Native American Aging. The surveys she had been conducting grew into an enormous database of Native elder health statistics, related to diabetes, suicide, and other health issues. The center continues to focus on tribal data sovereignty by developing the data into policy and advocacy work to benefit tribes.

“We were helping tribes understand their data and advocate on their own behalf,” Baker said. She worked to convince tribes that “these are your stories, and you’re in charge of them.”

Around that same time, Baker was conducting a study on elder abuse for her thesis. That work evolved into the National Indigenous Elder Justice Initiative, for which Baker served as the principal investigator. The initiative continues to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop advocacy and education specifically around elder abuse in Indian Country.

A decade later, Baker sees invisibility as one of the biggest challenges facing Indian Country. And she sees that invisibility reflected in data.

“Our [Native] numbers are so small, we’re classified as ‘something else’ in voting data polls on CNN,” Baker said, referring to recent presidential race data. Yet, she added, “We are a powerful bloc when we’re passionate about something. We’ve flipped entire states blue. We can stop pipelines. But this country continues to erase us, and it’s not just unfortunate or racist, but it’s dangerous. It’s fatal.”

Covid-19 has proven just how fatal. Statistics show that Native Americans have been colossally impacted, with one in 595 Indigenous people nationally dying of Covid-19, compared to one in 1,030 white Americans.

“It was really hard to watch that happen and continue to watch that happen because it’s our elders who are disappearing, who take with them these huge bodies of knowledge. It’s like a library set on fire every time an elder passes,” Baker said.

In early January, Baker expressed her concern on Twitter, writing, “I hope we vaccinate Tribal language speakers ASAP. Vaccinate tribal elders and knowledge carriers as quickly as possible.” The tweet received nearly 45,000 likes.

Yet, as devastating as Covid-19 has been, it has also been an education — for everyone. “Covid has definitely given people pause and had them thinking about things differently, a different sort of world. Some people couldn’t handle it, and that’s where you get anti-maskers. They’re slaves of the status quo,” Baker said. “But the future is coming whether we accept it or not. Hopefully we can think differently and innovate and use this knowledge that has existed to be better iterations of ourselves, better human beings.”

Baker is ready to help make that happen. Though she’s held many titles — daughter, student, mother, researcher, college president — she sees “being a servant of the people, however that presents itself” as the core of her identity.

“I have a strong sense of responsibility not just to my tribal nation but to all people,” Baker said. “Wherever I go, I’m a tribal woman. I’m lucky my parents knew who they were and made sure their children knew who they were. It colors how I view myself in this world, how I engage the world.”

Sometimes, she’s the first Indigenous person a non-Native has ever spoken with — a role she takes seriously. “I need to engage and educate those around me because there’s a history and a story that has existed here for millennia,” Baker said. “It’s a beautiful thing but a really heavy charge.”

Still, as a teenager, she always intended to leave Fort Berthold. “I knew that whatever it was I was chasing didn’t exist here. I knew I’d have to go out and get it and bring it back,” she said.

Leaving helped her see her home more clearly. “We make up such a tiny, tiny portion of the world population. I’m from this singular tribe from amongst [562] tribes in the U.S. My languages are only spoken in this place on the planet,” Baker said. “It’s a huge blessing but an enormous responsibility.”

As part of that responsibility, Baker wants to help her people flourish, to revitalize everything they’ve lost or had stolen. “I want to help continue to build whatever iteration of us is going to be moving into the future. That’s what I love about tribal nations: We’re always evolving, always adapting. We’re just as contemporary as we are traditional. Adaptation is traditional.”

It won’t be easy work, but as a tribal college president, she’s in an ideal position to inspire that change. And she isn’t a stranger to challenges either.

Baker returned to Fort Berthold in 2013. She had just defended her dissertation when she received a call from a mentor, Alice Spotted Bear, who told Baker about a dean of students position opening at Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College. Baker didn’t feel like she could say no to Spotted Bear, but told her she couldn’t live in the standard home — a FEMA trailer — with seven children.

Spotted Bear went back to college leadership and the tribal business council, requesting they purchase a house for Baker. And Baker’s brother, there for the conversation, live messaged Baker updates. “The motion passes,” he wrote at the end. “Twyla is coming home.”

Baker still lives in that house today. “It was always my intention to come home. I wasn’t sure in what capacity or how. I wanted to work for my people, and Creator provided that way.”

Six months passed, and Baker was asked to fill in as interim president of the college. In 2014, she became president, but the school was in rough shape, its accreditation status threatened.

“I won’t sugar coat it. The college was in trouble at the time I came back,” Baker said. But she worked out of a higher necessity. “This was my college, my people’s college. And I had such a great team. We weren’t going down without a fight.”

Seven years later, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College is stronger than ever, and Baker has solidly shifted her focus from Native elders to Native youth.

“I draw energy from them and get to watch them evolve,” she said. “My students are constant inspirations, especially now. When I hear their stories and what they’ve been through, and then I see them walk across that stage — it makes me cry.”

Baker also says she loves that her students can see themselves in her. It’s a representation she carries beyond school hours. “I try to be as accessible as possible. I can’t afford to be in an ivory tower. My students can’t afford that. I’m not a president who is a community member. I’m a community member who happens to be president.”

And she still watches the data. Students who first attend a tribal college are more likely to complete a four-year degree at mainstream institution than those who go directly to an outside college. “It’s the support they get here, forming good habits, and getting used to the expectations of rigor. That’s what I got from being a student here,” Baker said.

In an alternative reality, Baker would likely be out in a vast, open wilderness, with the rocks and soils. Or she’d be in a garden, working with trees.

“I fully intend to get back to that, maybe when I’m an old, old lady and have my skinny gray braids,” she said. “My blood, my DNA, my creation stories come from this place. I’ll be tied to this land forever.”

She calls her role as college president the blessing of her life. “I still don’t have a good grip on how I got so lucky. There are only 37 TCUs in the U.S., and I happen to be presiding over one of them. From walking these hallways as a student, that’s a blessing and a half.”

It’s also an ever-evolving shift in perspective that simultaneously grounds Baker, reminds her of her past, and pushes her toward the future.

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Katie Scarlett Brandt, a writer based in Chicago, is a regular contributor to Native Science Report.

Published February 18, 2021

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