10 Questions with Corey Ashley

Creator of Diné Adóone’e, Senior at Stanford University

Corey Ashley is Ta’neeszahnii (Tangle clan) and born for Tódík’ǫ́zhí (Salt Water Clan.) His cheii’s clan is Mą’ii Deeshgiizhinii (Coyote Pass Clan) and his nali’s clan is Naaneesht’ézhí Táchii’nii (Charcoal Streaked of the Red Running into the Water.)

Corey is Diné (Navajo.) He is currently a senior at Stanford University studying Science, Technology, & Society. He is from Sanders, Arizona, a small community on the Navajo reservation. He is passionate about intersecting his Diné identity with technology in order to revitalize the culture and language. Corey created “Diné Adóone’é,” an app project focused on helping Diné people express clan kinship among each other using the Diné language. He aims to continue to have a career dedicated to helping his Native community by advocating their narratives in spaces where their voices are seldom heard or acknowledged.

1. When did you know you wanted to be in tech?

I decided I wanted to be involved in the tech industry in high school, around the same time I decided to forge a path no one else in my community was on.

I went to Valley High School. It was an F-rated school, with a performance rating far below the average of other schools. There were only four careers encouraged: construction, welding, nurse-assisting, and the military. I didn’t want to be any of those, so I wondered about other jobs. Something I was interested in was computer science. Apps were getting big, and it presented something different.

At Stanford, I wanted to become a computer scientist so I could build apps. My path got derailed when I failed CS106A (the introductory Computer Science course) my first quarter. There was a huge disparity between the rez education I received and Stanford’s baseline course expectations. I had to figure out a new way to do the work I wanted without the skills that other students had coming into Stanford.

I knew I still wanted to do work in tech though, so I decided to become a Science, Technology, & Society major. In this major I’m able to learn how to apply technology to certain contexts and think about its role in society. More specifically, I was able to think more about how technology can be a tool for cultural and language revitalization for Diné people. My goal is to foster a platform and community dedicated to solving Indigenous issues through tech.

2. Can you tell me about someone in your life you looked up to when you were younger?

Growing up, I was amazed by the strength and resilience of my mother, Bertha Katie Begay. I looked up to her so much, and still do today because without her, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

She arose from extreme poverty in the deep rez. I’m talking dirt floors, no transportation, no water, no electricity, sometimes no clothes…. the list goes on. Even though poverty was her reality, she was able to brave though it all. I really believe it was this way of living that drove her to step out of her comfort zone and push herself. She left the rez to become the well-achieved, amazing woman she was, and with almost no help at all. She had no role models to look up to. She sought success through school because she knew there’d be a path to a better life. She got her AA degree in Early Childhood Education and eventually settled down at the Head Start in Sanders.

This summary is just the backbone of her life. I could probably write a book about her plight and strength to overcome it; maybe someday I will because she deserves it. Mom was the definition of a resilient Diné woman to me. She passed away to cancer in April of 2017. Rest in beauty Shimá. Nił hozhodoo Hananłę’shima. Áshinee’.

3. Where’s your hometown?

I grew up in Sanders, Arizona. Sanders is a border-town community on the Navajo reservation. I lived in an area called rural community. Many families had to relocate there due to the Hopi and Navajo land dispute where my mother grew up.

Sanders is a tiny community, not even close to being called a town, near Interstate 40. There is next to nothing there, and it’s fairly underdeveloped given how long it’s existed. If you didn’t work for the state/tribe or in the convenience stores, you were unemployed. You need a reliable vehicle to make a living, which is something not easily accessible there given the conditions. It’s very easy to become apathetic without access to the necessities and opportunities other places have. Sanders is far from perfect in that regard, but somehow I made it out and was able to go to Stanford.

4. Can you tell me about a time you faced a struggle?

There are a lot of struggles I’ve faced in my life. The most recent struggle I experienced was losing my mother to cancer. It was something I never thought would happen. The emotional toil and feelings of helplessness were immense. I have a lot of regrets about how I dealt with it. I left Stanford last year because I was torn up mentally and emotionally going to school while my mom was dying. I thought I could do school like nothing was wrong, but clearly I could not. It showed up in my academic performance and affected my everyday interactions. One day it blew up in my face, and I broke down. At that point, I decided I needed to leave school to be with my mom during her final months. I was disappointed for not being honest with myself about how much her situation was impacting me, for believing I was okay. This struggle was the toughest thing I have ever been through.

5. Can you tell me about something you’re immensely proud of?

I am really proud of the Android application, “Diné Adóone’é,” I created with the help of other Indigenous students here at Stanford. It’s an app that tells Diné people how they’re related through their clans using the Navajo language, which is how the Diné traditionally express kinship. I got the idea for the app while taking Navajo Language my freshman year. I worked with other Native students skilled in Android development, Oliver Bear Don’t Walk IV and Gracie Young. It’s the first project I engaged in that incorporated my identity with tech.

I’m really proud of finishing this project because it’s the beginning of my journey helping my community. It’s the perfect example of Indigenizing technology as a method to solve problems that Diné communities are facing. I’m addressing the culture and language loss that is imminent.

6. What’s something that’s been on your mind a lot lately?

Rezilience. It is something that every Indigenous person, especially my relatives on reservations, possess. This strength goes unnoticed most of the time by Natives who have it and those who refuse to acknowledge it.

Reflecting on my experience, this power is normalized amongst the people in my community, Sanders. We are conditioned to think that our hardship is supposed to happen, when that’s not the case at all. I think of it as survival mode. In survival mode we forget our identity; it becomes something not useful, not sacred anymore.

Rezilience is not exclusive to those on reservations, as Native identity becomes more convoluted as Natives acclimate to different cultural contexts. They still carry it as well. I do feel like Indigeneity is not acknowledged enough in the reservation context because people are too busy surviving. As for outside the reservation, this knowledge is inaccessible so it’s dismissed.

Despite the way things are, rezilience is still within us. Rezilience is embedded in our identity as Indigenous people and in me as a Diné hastiin. It’s part of the reason why our ancestors were able to endure everything that happened to them, and how we are still able to continue despite dismal circumstances. This realization is why I am able to keep going. Rather than letting the power go to waste, I use it as a catalyst.

7. Favorite food?

I could survive on spaghetti for the rest of my life if I had to. Some other favorites of “minez” are Navajo tacos and mutton stew.

8. Mac or PC?

PC for sure. Never owned a Mac, and probably never will.

9. If you could try another job for a day, what would it be?

I play guitar and love going to concerts, so I would definitely be a guitarist in a band. I have a deep appreciation for music, especially metal. Being a guitarist for a metal band, shredding away on stage at one of those huge festivals, would be so awesome! The energy and atmosphere are amazing, and I want to experience them from the band’s point of view. I mean I already have the hair for it, so why not?

10. If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?

I would let younger Corey know it’s important to know who you are as a Diné person. It’s what’s going to ground you and get you through inevitable adversities. Get to know the strengths you possess, use them to find your passion, and know that you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. Find your own path. Do what you can to decolonize your mind, then indigenize your spaces because you’ll be only one most of the time. Do work that empowers your people and uplift our narrative. Skoden!

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