2024 Haury Indigenous Resilience Leadership Awards Celebration Honors Levi Esquerra of Native American Advancement & Tribal Engagement Office

April 10, 2024
Haury IR Leadership Awards

Standing in front of the 2023/24 Haury Indigenous Reisilience Leadership Award announcement slide, from left to right are Mary Grier, Haury DAF Board Member, Prof. Toni Massaro, Haury Executive Director, Prof. Williams, College of Law, awardee Levi Esquerra, NAATE, and Nancy Petersen, Haury Assistant Director, with a cutout of Ozzy Osbourne and Wilbur.

Torran Anderson, Indigenous Resilience Center

On April 1st, with 80s rock playing in the background, the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice (the Haury Program) and distinguished guests gathered for a surprise celebration of the Honorable N. Levi Esquerra (Chemehuevi) of the UArizona Native American Advancement & Tribal Engagement Office (NAATE) as the recipient of the 2023/2024 Haury Indigenous Resilience Leadership Award. This surprise event was not an April 1st joke but was intentionally built around the humor and joy that Mr. Esquerra brings to work, including his favorite music, an invitation to wear black clothes, Ozzy Osbourne presence (as a cutout), Ozzy-style colored glasses being handed to guests, and featuring some of his favorite foods. Also invited and attending was Mr. Esquerra’s family, including his wife, three daughters and his two grandchildren.

The Agnese Nelms Haury Program Indigenous Resilience Leadership Award program was conceived in 2020 to elevate Native voices, recognize people who advance Indigenous Resilience, and inspire others to follow in their paths. “The Haury Program also recognizes those who have been mentors to the Program,” shared Prof. Toni Massaro, Executive Director of the Haury Program, “and help the Haury Program engage in work and philanthropy with Native American communities and people that is respectful, place-based, and impactful. Mr. Esquerra has been an exemplary leader in helping the Haury program to do things right and better, and serving the communities we want to serve in the ways that would be welcome. And to do these things right is incredibly important for the University as well. We respect the time that goes into mentoring people like us, taking him away from other commitments and family, and tonight we want to honor Mr. Esquerra in the way that hopefully would fit him.” 

“Imagine the United States would only have one diplomat for every country they deal with – that is what Mr. Esquerra and his small team are to the University of Arizona. They are the connector with 22 tribes in Arizona and several more beyond, enabling us all to work respectfully and show up properly,” continued Prof. Massaro. “He is building bridges for the University of Arizona as well as working hard to ensure success for Native students, faculty and staff while they are here with us. Mr. Esquerra also brought a new approach: don’t just ask the tribes to come here, we have to go to them. And he and his team consistently do that, including  showing up during the Covid pandemic. It takes time, and energy and thought to really meet the needs of the tribal nations,” Prof. Massaro added, and Mr. Esquerra is “patient, thoughtful, creative but also funny – and a good laugh is such a gift!”

Mr. Esquerra came to the University of Arizona in 2020 from serving as the director of the Center for American Indian Economic Development at Northern Arizona University's W.A. Franke College of Business for almost two decades. There, he led the center's mission to provide business consulting, training, and educational workshops to support entrepreneurship and economic self-sufficiency among tribal members. In 2020, Esquerra was named the first SVP for Native American Advancement. In 2021, NAATE organized the Inaugural Tribal Leader Summit and also spearheaded the University’s Native Languages of Arizona Campus Sign Initiative as a part of NAATE’s broader efforts to make the University a welcoming and inclusive place for Native American students, faculty, staff, and visitors, and to honor the Native Nations of Arizona. Five signs have been completed so far (Tohono O’odham, Hualapai, Hopi, San Carlos Apache and Quechan), and more are on the way. Esquerra and his team work hard on ongoing relationship building with Tribes on behalf of the University, including inviting tribal leaders to campus to engage with Senior Leaders, students, faculty, and staff, organizing the Native American land acknowledgement honoring Tribal Nations at the start of each football season, establishing campus partnerships, collaborations for Native American Heritage month, collaborations with the Pac-12 and NCCAA to honor Native American heritage and Arizona’s tribal nations, and establishing IGA’s and MOUs with tribes for future collaborations. 

Haury Board member and trustee, Mary Grier, shared a special gift created by Kevin Paul, a member and former council member of the Swinomish Tribe from Washington to honor the shared vision for the University of Arizona being a place of belonging for Native American students, faculty, staff and also tribal nations in Arizona and beyond.

President Robbins extended congratulations to Mr. Esquerra for receiving this award and thanked him for his work: “I can’t imagine a better partner, and the Haury award is well deserved for all you do for our campus, students, and building bridges and relationships, as well as the positive energy.” “When we were just starting out,” he added, “I asked you to teach me. You helped me to grow as a person and a leader. You especially taught me three things: it takes patience, it takes mutual respect and only then we get to the trust, the third thing needed. It is incredibly important to me and the University of Arizona to continue building these relationships in Arizona and beyond.” 

Mr. Esquerra also played a key role in 2022 opening of UArizona’s first tribal micro campus to serve the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, working closely with Prof. Rob Williams of University of Arizona College of Law and Indigenous People’s Law and Policy Program. During the celebration, Prof. Williams, in a humorous way, recalled “the creation story” on how Mr. Esquerra came to the University, based on the University of Arizona’s Strategic Plan for Native American Initiatives, and credited Dr. Francis Begay for her vision on needing a position reporting directly to the President based on years of experience on the campus. Prof. Williams spoke of how busy they were together on so many initiatives, and in the spirit of the theme of the celebration, gifted him a rock concert T-shirt.

Levi’s team members, Tina Gargus, Jacquelyne Valenzuela, Aleshia Howell and Christina Andrews, also shared their experience of working with Mr. Esquerra. They spoke of Mr. Esquerra as a mentor and role model, and referred to his leadership style with great admiration and appreciation; for example, Ms. Valenzuela spoke to how he doesn’t gatekeep his knowledge and experience but shares with anyone who is interested. He also rolls up the sleeves and stays true to his motto, a quote from baseball players Roberto Clemente: “any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world, and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.” Mr. Esquerra has also been commended for seeing beyond all the challenges, and doing all he can while “we are all here for a time and a season,” Ms. Gargus recalled as one of his favorite quotes. Ms. Howell compared building bridges between the University and the tribes to weaving, and Mr. Esquerra to “the weaver at the loom, incorporating the fibers given by the tribes so that the bridges can withstand the weight of challenges.” Ms. Andrews recalled meeting Mr. Esquerra for the first time and walking away thinking “he really knew what our people are needing.” She thanked Mr. Esquerra for giving the voice to all Native people and also to herself, as a Hia-Ced O’ohdam (Sand People). “Good leaders are hard to find, and you are the best of them,” she concluded.

Mr. Esquerra thanked the Haury Program and the attendees for the wonderful surprise and for all the support to family, friends, colleagues and mentors. Mr. Esquerra recalled how his friend, Claudia Nelson of Native Peoples Technical Assistance Office (NPTAO) sent him a job description, and at that time he felt that job was written for him so he applied. Four years later, he said, “I don’t do what we do to be recognized, I just want to move the needle and I think we have!!”

In addition to Mr. Esquerra, in 2023/24 the Haury program also awarded Indigenous Resilience Leadership Award to DigDeep is an organization dedicated to closing the Water Gap once and for all by bringing clean, hot and cold running water into American homes. The Haury Programs honors them for their work on the Navajo Nation in alleviating water insecurity, and helping many communities during the Covid 19 pandemic. The Haury Program had an honor to contribute to the Navajo Water Project and thus saw first-hand the positive impact of DigDeep with being a part of the Navajo Water Access Coordination Group (WACG). WACG was formed under the joint leadership of the Mr. James Adakai (Department Manager II, Capital Projects Management Department, Navajo Nation Division of Community Development), and Captain David Harvey (Deputy Director Office of Environmental Health and Engineering, Division of Sanitation Facilities Construction, Indian Health Service), both 2020 Haury Indigenous Resilience Leadership awardees, to respond to water needs of off-grid families during the COVID crisis. WACG is composed of Navajo leaders, Nation and Federal agencies, non- profits, universities, and a philanthropy. 

Mr. Esquerra and DigDeep joined several other accomplished leaders in Indigenous Resilience efforts at the University of Arizona and in tribal communities. Inaugural 2020 Honorees were Mr. James Adakai, (Diné) of the Navajo Nation Division of Community Development, and Captain David Harvey, of the Indian Health Services, as mentioned above. In 2021, the honorees included Dr. Karletta Chief, (Diné), Director of the Indigenous Resilience Center, Dr. Crystal Tulley-Cordova, (Diné) of the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources, and Nikki Tulley, (Diné), UArizona Ph.D. candidate. In 2022, the Haury program acknowledged the work of Dr. Karen Francis Begay, ((Diné), Assistant Vice Provost for Native American Initiatives, UArizona Office of the Provost, Kathy Jacobs, Director of UArizona Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions and Claudia Nelson, Director of UArizona Native Peoples Technical Assistance Office (NPTAO). 

For more information on the Haury Program and past awardees please visit this website.