K. Tsianina Lomawaima - 1972 Scholar

Many Presidential Scholars find their way into academic careers. but how do they get there? After all, how many small children dream of being college professors when they grow up? Although some Scholars follow a straight line path into college and university teaching and research, others find their destination at the intersection of Aptitude and Opportunity.

One such story comes from K. Tsianina Lomawaima (known as Kimberly Carr when she was a Scholar from Ohio in 1972). Today she is a prominent Native American academic and author who has earned national recognition for her landmark books, To Remain an Indian (Outstanding Book Award, American Educational Research Association); and They Called It Prairie Light (North American Indian Prose Award, American Educational Association Critics’ Choice Award). A Stanford MA and PhD in anthropology, she is currently a professor at the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University, Tempe.

Tsianina's dad was a Muscogee Creek and her mom was a German Mennonite. Her family moved frequently around the Midwest--Kansas City, Denver, Chicago—finally ending up in Cincinnati, Ohio.  They often moved during the school year, so Kimberly attended many different schools in different states. She adopted the traditional family name Tsianina when she was a teenager.

"I always did well in school, but I didn’t have a clue what a career in academia meant," she says. She began college at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, as a double major in pre-med and art. She planned to become a medical illustrator, after meeting a pre-eminent achiever in that field, Mary Maciel, who worked at the University of Cincinnati Medical School.  Tsianina took an anthropology course, thinking it was archaeology, but soon learned it also subsumed the study of native peoples. That's when she transferred to the University of Arizona where she earned a bachelor’s in anthropology.

"I had no idea what graduate school was about until my undergraduate advisor at the University of Arizona, Dr. Richard Diebold, suggested I apply to Stanford. Wishing to do what I could to [honor] the experiences, knowledge, and perspectives of Native American people and communities, I began my dissertation research by focusing on a central part of my dad’s life, growing up in the institutional setting of a federal off-reservation boarding school," Tsianina says. She interviewed her dad and more than fifty of his contemporaries who attended Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma. That’s how They Called It Prairie Light was born.

Tsianina says she did not truly understand what a professorial job entailed until 1988, when she became a professor of anthropology and American Indian studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. But she learned quickly and her career flourished. From 1994 to 2013, she was a faculty member in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, acting as department head from 2005-2009. She served as 2012-2013 President of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association/NAISA, which she helped found in 2007, and as 2005 President of the American Society for Ethnohistory. She was awarded the Western History Association Lifetime Achievement Award for American Indian History in 2010. This year she was named a fellow of the American Educational Research Association and elected to the National Academy of Education. 

As for the role that Presidential Scholars played in Tsianina’s professional journey, she says, “Being named a Presidential Scholar opened my eyes to possibilities I never knew existed. For one thing, I met such wonderful scholars in our few days in DC—people from places around the states and territories I never would have had the opportunity to meet, or have a clue, even, that they existed. And they were all super smart. It was inspiring.”