Best of Systers, Community Voices

I am a Miwok Indian and a #WomenInTech

by Andrea Delgado-Olson

andreafamilyBeing a member of a Northern Sierra Native American tribe of California, the Ione Band of Miwok Indians, makes me very fortunate.  I belong to a tribe that helps maintain my connection to the Miwok culture. The word Miwok means people in the native Miwok language.  Moving into the future while maintaining my heritage requires balancing my identity on a fine line. American Indians/Native Americans are thought of as people from the past, when we are clearly in the present. Often, these tribes are thought of as only being in North America when in fact they are in South America as well.  The fact that society uses past tense to teach about American Indians/Native Americans makes it nearly impossible to relate to the present.  This depiction of my culture made me struggle with my identity as a Native American up until my early teenage years.  I try my best to do my tribal member duties, but it is difficult to attend monthly tribal meetings, maintain regular contact with the tribal office for scholarships, and participate in the tribal elections, so I want to contribute to my culture in some small way.  However, feeling connected to the history of the tribe is not the same as being who I am today.  Strong tribal woman role models, like my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother are important to have for young tribal members to look up to, as I did.  I started NAWiC because there are very few American Indians/Native Americans in higher education and the professional working world to act as the role models to young women, and I want to change that for future generations.

I have been attending Mills College in Oakland, California since January of 2013 completing my undergraduate studies in Child Development.  As a graduation requirement I needed to take an Ethnic Studies course, and I chose American Indian History from 1900. This sparked the topic choice for my thesis, THE EFFECTS OF LANGUAGE LOSS ON IDENTITY: A MULTIGENERATIONAL CASE STUDY ON THE IONE BAND OF MIWOK INDIANS.

basket-photo.gifI learned the significant themes from this thesis were disconnect/regret, lack of access to language, nostalgia, desire to connect/reconnect, self-identifiers (negative and positive), and stereotypes/assumptions/expectations by others (negative and positive).  I was amazed at the results from interviewing my family and how they coincided with my own experiences growing up. Identifying as a Miwok as a young teenager, I had been asked if I lived in a tipi, and other such naive questions asked by people lacking knowledge of what a Native American should look like today. I don’t know the language, nor do I weave baskets, and this has left me feeling a disconnect to my culture.  This led to a strain on my identity as being a stereotypical present day Miwok Indian, as expected by others.  I eagerly volunteer my identity to those who ask, but when the subject deepens I lack the knowledge others seek.  The negative experiences I encountered, and that are reflected in my research, make me wonder if there are other Native American tribal members who encounter the same treatment.  Strong and positive American Indian/Native American women role models are needed to promote strong influencers for the future.  With that thought I made the decision to start making changes, and I believe that strong women can lead and support other strong women.

Roundhouses are where traditional dances and ceremonies are conducted by Miwok people, both past and present.

At the 2014 Grace Hopper Celebration in Phoenix, Arizona, I worked as a Hopper in order to attend the conference.  I was placed to work at one of the panels where I overheard a group of attendees talking about’s underrepresented women in computing.  I asked my team leader if there was a group of underrepresented women for American Indian/Native Americans.  She was intrigued by my request and told me that there was no such group, but that there was a lot of interest in one and that they needed someone willing to start it.  I reached out to my professor at the time, Umit Yalcinalp, who is the founder of Turkish Women in Computing, and she informed me that it was a simple process to apply to start a group, and she was willing to be a resource for me.  I knew that starting this group would be a large endeavor, but one that was necessary.  I wanted to start the group to be a resource for other Native women considering entering the tech industry as I did, to be an inspiration to women, to inform them that getting into the tech industry is attainable, and that there are other American Indian/Native American women out there who are willing to help them get started.  Lastly, I wanted a way to give back to my tribe, the Ione Band of Miwok Indians, for their support and generous scholarships that allowed me to attain my educational goals in hopes that my achievements will inspire other young tribal members to do the same.

My goal is for there to be little disconnect among tribal communities that have been disbanded and scattered around the globe, not only to local tribes or tribes across the United States, but Native people across the Americas.  The local story of my tribe is relatable to other tribes of the Americas.  For the Ione Band of Miwok Indians, we are spread across state lines with no form of community other than meetings, elections, and holiday potlucks.  There is a 40-acre plot of land that was meant to be designated to members of the Ione Band of Miwok Indians, “The US tried and failed to create a 40-acre Indian rancheria for the Ione Miwok. Families settled on the land, and finally in 1972, the land was awarded to 12 individuals and other members of the Ione Miwok, but not collectively to the tribe. Negotiations and legal struggles over land ownership and tribal recognition continued for decades.” 1 With the loss of land, disconnection grew among the tribe.  To alleviate the disconnect among tribal members who chose to reside out of the area, there was a tribal website that provided tribal updates, information about tribal affairs, and links to government information such as scholarships.  This site gave members like me a small window for missed information.  This website is no longer active which leaves no access to current tribal events, or information between tribal members and the council, other than printed newsletters that come bi-monthly, or phone calls. Being so far from the county where the tribe is located, or out of the country for other tribal members, poses a challenge to get to important events as they arise.

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Cedar Bark Houses were the traditional homes of Miwok People.

Tribal communities long to feel connected to their culture and other tribal members of the community as a way to inspire and support one another.  Building virtual communities for tribal members will provide another opportunity to keep in touch with other tribal members as well as tribal events/news.  One of the council members developed a language website as well to document the language that was quickly being lost among the Ione Band of Miwok Indians.  As mentioned in my thesis, language loss plays a key role in one’s identity.  The Miwok language is endangered and only spoken by a few of the elders.  My original thought when deciding to take computer science courses, is that I’d find a way to give back to my tribal community.  I knew there was a need for a website, and the maintenance of the language website was vital to tribal members having full access to their heritage language.  I am still dedicated to this objective, and hope that I will have more resources within this community to help me make this a reality, not only for my tribe, but for many others who are facing the same threat of language loss.  There is an educational group at a local high school, Argonaut, in Amador County for Native American, and non-Native students to learn the Miwok language.  The student that founded this group was an 8th grader at the time, in 2013.  The group is called NERDS, Native Education Raising Dedicated Students.  It is movements like this that inspire me to get this community promoted and established so that programs, projects, and leaders can get the recognition they deserve, as well as become a resource and inspiration for others to do the same.  I would like American Indian/Native American communities to have access to other tribes accomplishments to inspire their own.  I would like the tribal communities to become stronger and more self-reliant, something they have strived to achieve for so long, to be sovereign.

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Indian Grinding Rock at Chaw’se State Park – Volcano, CA – This bedrock slab contains 1,185 mortar holes, traditionally used in Miwok food preparation, making it the largest of its kind in North America.

Technology in tribal communities would unite the communities, prevent language attrition, teach others how to promote community, and provide strong Native role models to younger generations.  There is an assumption that some Native tribes are getting into the technology industry to capitalize on the online gaming industry.  It is also an assumption that all Native tribes open casinos for pure gain.  In my experience, the assumptions and stereotypes are all too true.

basket1.jpgI would like to follow other means of attaining self-sufficiency without doing harm to others.  I do not believe that casinos are the answer to the financial dilemmas of tribal sovereignty. Computer science can be an alternative solution.  There is so much to gain, so much to learn, and so much to teach in the technology industry. The possibilities are virtually limitless.  Interactive websites can teach language, educate children, and keep language alive.  They can also unite a community and provide a platform for dialog among other Native tribes.  Opportunities for growth, development, and community make technology the new way for American Indian/Native American tribes to unite the past with the present and continue into the future.


1. (no longer active)

2. (reference for the debate on whether to use the term  Native American or American Indian)

3. NERDS Native Education Raising Dedicated Students


About the author

Andrea Delgado-OlsonAndrea Delgado-Olson is pursuing her Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Computer Science at Mills College, Oakland California, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Child Development, also from Mills College.  Andrea has been an early childhood educator for over fifteen years, twelve of which have been working with young children at a single preschool in the Bay Area.  She is a wife and a mother of three children, ages 16, 10, and 3.  She is a member of the Ione Band of Miwok Indians, a California Native American tribe of the Northern Sierra foothills.  Andrea attended the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2014 where she learned that there are several groups of underrepresented women in computing, but none for American Indian/Native American women.  As a result, Andrea recently founded Native American Women in Computing (NAWiC).  The vision for this group is to provide incentive, support, and resources for other Native women coming into the technology industry and to increase the representation of American Indian/Native American women in tech.  The NAWiC group will provide a collaborative environment for Native women who are established in, and new to the tech industry.  Participation in tribal affairs has been important to Andrea’s family for generations, and NAWiC continues her involvement in the tribal community.