Although the U.S. is slowly moving towards equality for all, there’s still much work to do, mainly for higher education. In the realm of higher education, there are many challenges that black, brown, and LGBTQ2S+ students still face today. And no one understands these challenges better than Charlie Amáyá Scott, who’s on a mission to make these spaces a much better place for them to succeed.
Charlie Amáyá Scott, who goes by Amáyá, is a Diné non-binary femme person who’s certainly had extensive experience of navigating the world of academia as a Queer, Trans, and Indigenous student. Born and raised in the central part of the Navajo Nation, Amáyá graduated from Brown University with an A.B. in both Sociology and Honors in Ethnic Studies as well as the University of Rhode Island with an M.S. in Human Development and Family Studies. Now a doctoral student at the University of Denver in Higher Education, Amáyá aspires to design equitable and inclusive policies and pathway programs that center the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color [BIPOC] navigating higher education, making these spaces a much better place for them to succeed. In the meantime, they advocate and facilitate workshops supporting Indigenous scholars’ educational aspirations and speak on various issues that affect them as a non-binary Indigenous femme navigating the educational landscape along with addressing issues of harm within BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ communities utilizing social media, blogging, and photography.
We visit with Amáyá about their journey in academia, their partnership with non-profit organization Breakthrough on a TikTok series, and their mission of disrupting the narratives of colonization while challenging the power dynamics that allow settler colonialism to prosper.
Thank you for joining us today, Amáyá. Where are you from?
I’m from the central part of the Navajo Nation, born and raised in Chinle, Arizona. My mom’s family is from both sides of Canyon De Chelly, and my father’s biological family is from the Teesto/Dilkon area.
What’s your tribe?
I’m an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and have ancestors from the Zuni, Hopi, and Yavapai communities.
What are your preferred pronouns? What would you like us to call you during this interview?
My English pronouns are they and them. They are not preferred, and I emphasize English because I come to understand that in my language, Diné bizaad, pronouns do not necessarily exist yet because of colonization and the translation of our language, they “supposedly” do.
How do you identify yourself in the LGBTQ+ space?
I am Queer, and I am Trans. And I define those terms as being both specific yet also very broad. I don’t necessarily define my queerness; rather, it encompasses our ancestors have once celebrated a sort of marginality, a deviancy that may or may not. Yet, it is personally a play on the English word, a reclamation of a taboo. Now for Trans, it’s very much similar, yet there is such an expansiveness in being Trans that I appreciate, and it is also very accessible. Everyone outside the Trans community has some idea of what we mean by Trans, yet not everyone knows when I tell them that I am a non-binary femme person. It is just easier to say Trans instead of giving a whole lecture about what it means to be non-binary and femme.
Now, in my community, there is a whole explanation, but that does not necessarily equate to being part of the LGBTQ2S+ community.
Please explain your educational background.
So, I’m a first-year doctoral scholar in higher education. I do not know what my general focus is going to be. I am yet interested in social media, memes, collegiate pathways, relationships to land and their influence, and how colleges and universities are organized. I have a Bachelor’s in Ethnic Studies and Sociology. I have a Master’s in Human Development and Family Studies with a concentration in college student personnel, essentially student affairs.
What made you interested in pursuing higher education?
Well, I initially became interested in pursuing higher education because of my mother, who was the first in her family ever to attend college. For her, education was a means for improving her life and her family’s. For me, though, education is a pathway towards justice, especially for others like me, who are Queer, Trans, and Native. We know of the American Indian boarding school era, in which Native children were stolen from their families and forced to attend these violent schools. They were forced to learn to be an American and forced to recycle logic of colonialism that was antithetical to many Indigenous communities’ way of being and knowing. For me, being in education, being in these elite-white spaces, means disrupting those narratives of colonization and challenging the power dynamics that allow settler colonialism to prosper. I’m interested in continuing my educational journey because I have so much to learn and also so much to give to other Queer and Trans Natives. They are also navigating these violent spaces.
Primarily in Rhode Island, where you received the majority of your higher education, there were changes in laws that protected the LGBTQ community in housing, employment, and healthcare. However, when it came to education, there’s no law that addresses discrimination against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Being a non-binary Indigenous femme, what was your experience like navigating the educational landscape in Rhode Island? What about Colorado, where you’re going to school currently?
I only knew that Rhode Island was quite supportive of the LGBTQ community, yet I was unsure what capacity. During my time studying abroad in Ireland, I began to think more about my identity and what it meant to not identify as a woman or a man. Strangely enough, it took me being across the Atlantic Ocean to learn who I was and also to begin falling in love with myself.
When I returned to Brown after studying abroad, I asked people to begin calling me Charlie and to start using they/them pronouns. It took folks a while to get used to it, yet many were quite supportive. I think there was probably one hiccup, yet that was resolved rather quickly; the hiccup was my email and my name on my ID. Brown had very gender-inclusive policies, which was made possible from years of student activism before, so I am always grateful for those who did the work before me because it made my experience so much more seamless and easier. That is something I hope to continue doing, and something I was trying to express in my response earlier.
For Colorado, because I have not legally changed my name yet, it has been more limiting than Brown. Yet, I was able to choose my email and also change the way my name is displayed. I think what initially bothered me the most is that people have immediate access to my legal name because some of my colleagues work in the Office of Financial Aid or the Office of Graduate Admissions. Yet, no one has ever said my legal name at the University of Denver (DU), and I like to think no one will ever share it.
I look forward to the day I can change my name legally and not worry too much about encountering transphobia.
Your goal is to design equitable and inclusive policies and programs for BIPOC navigating higher education. Specifically, what sort of programs and policies? Why should there be more resources like these for BIPOC in higher education?
Yes! That is one of my many goals and hopes. So much of my work before my doctorate program focused on cultural relevancy and cultural competency. To be quite honest, not higher education, in general, cannot be equitable and inclusive towards Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). The knowledge is there, yet the application of knowledge is not. And so, you have many individuals in positions of power and influence at colleges and universities. Many of them do not know (or care) about their Black students, Indigenous students, and students of color. With that lack of knowledge (or care), you have programs and policies that only hinder the student success of BIPOC, rather than encourager or support it.
For example, at DU, the mascot name is the Pioneer. A lot of scholarships discuss the role and importance of an environment in facilitating student success and its organization’s history and culture. The celebration of pioneers can be very inhibiting towards Native students, considering the role of pioneers in colonizing, which is now known as the United States. If DU considered a policy against harmful imagery or messages towards Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples, they would be required to change the name of their mascot and the imagery of their mascot, which would arguably make DU a much more equitable and inclusive space.
And that was just one example, there are so many possibilities that celebrate and supports the success of Black students, Indigenous students, and students of color, and if higher education would just listen to the Black, Indigenous, and scholars of color who have done this work and who continue to write about this kind of work, higher education would be a much better place for us.
In your spare time, you also photograph portraits and landscapes. Is photography an outlet for you?
Yes! It was something I got into back in my undergraduate, actually, at the end of my junior year. I became interested in photography as a byproduct of colonialism and how aesthetics contribute to settler-colonial understandings of what it means to be Native and Indigenous.
And then, from there, it became more of an outlet in looking at the world through a Diné critical lens and how I might challenge the history of exploitation that photography produced.
You have a blog called Dine Aesthetic(s), what is the purpose of your blog, and in what ways do you hope it serves readers?
I do! So, the way I describe Diné Aesthetic(s) is a space in which I reflect, analyze, critique what it means to be Diné in the 21st century. It is now a personal blog where I write about what it means to be Queer, what it means to be Trans, what it means to be a survivor of sexual violence, and what it means to be a 25-year-old in a doctorate program, and so much more. Sometimes, my writings are very academic, like I’m sharing my paper, and sometimes they’re like journal entries.
I think at the beginning of starting my blog, I wanted it to be a space where I share my journey of reclaiming my own Diné aesthetic, and what I mean by that is my understanding and outlook on what it means to be Diné. And now, I want it to be a space where people read what I am going through and know that they are not alone, especially other queer and trans Natives. Yet, also that everything in the world is connected to how we address systems of oppression. I know that there are some, for lack of a better phrase, controversial blog posts, especially when I address anti-Blackness or critique the usage of two-spirit. All of this, I want to write about a lot more nuanced as I grow, learn, and love myself a little more each day.
Lately, you’ve been taking off in the social media realm with your posts where you highlight the continuous problems indigenous people face today. How and why do you use social media to tackle these issues and bring them to light?
Honestly, it still surprises me that I am a supposed “influencer.” Yet, initially, I got back into social media because I needed an outlet outside of academia, and I wanted to write about things that were outside my studies. Social media was a means for that. I was not able to reflect on my queerness or what it personally meant to be Trans. I could not talk about my experience growing in the Navajo Nation or talk about instances of violence I experienced or saw. Social media became a way for me to share all that and more.
At first, it was just Twitter, and I would just write about power dynamics within my community and also within “Indian Country.” From there, I started to become more visible and addressing issues of harm within our communities and how we can challenge ourselves to be better and what we could do to move forward. Yet, unfortunately, social media tends to recycle conversations, and honestly, at this
point it is exhausting talking about white fragility within “#NativeTwitter,” and so I’ve been trying to focus on other conversations, especially within the LGBTQ community and my nation.
I would say that I use social media as a medium to amplify my voice and build a digital community with others. There are issues that I experience and that I want to highlight with my platform, and I know that others experience similar strands of violence that I do. For me, social media is making these issues known and rallying people around causes while lending my support to other people’s causes too. Social media has also allowed me to build friendships with people I probably never met beforehand. I have some longtime Twitter or Instagram friends that I look forward to meeting.
You partnered up with Breakthrough, a non-profit organization on By & For: A TikTok Community, a TikTok series exploring timely issues affect BIPOC in fun, informative short videos. How did this come about? What sort of educational videos are you planning on posting/doing?
Yes, collaborating with them is pretty fun. The team is amazing, and I am quite fortunate to have their support. My first contact with Breakthrough was through Moni Vargas, the Creative Director of Programs and Strategy for Breakthrough. And Moni reached out to me via Twitter after one of my TikTok videos went viral on Twitter. The reason it went viral on Twitter is that TikTok took down my first video. The video was using a trend to highlight what Thanksgiving was actually about, yet also celebrating the fact that Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples are still here. But Moni saw the video and loved it and asked to meet with me.
And from there, she saw more of the TikToks I was posting and loved the way that I’m able to integrate these complex issues into 15-second videos. Now I am a creative collaborator with them via TikTok. Some of the videos at work, well, to be honest, just happened. I see a trend that I like and start thinking of possibilities for the #ByandFor while also keeping in mind the month’s theme for Breakthrough. This month, which is also Pride Month, centers around the engagement of queerness and the arts. I was thinking of sharing about how my community celebrates queerness and how art is engaged or integrated into that celebration.
Follow Charlie on Instagram at @dineaesthetics.