When Carma Claw started teaching this summer at Fort Lewis College, she became the first Navajo business professor in the country.
While Claw is breaking ground in an academic setting, building successful businesses has been at the core of Native American culture for centuries, she said.
“We have always been in business. We had trade routes before there was the existence of modern-day markets,” she said.
Today, building successful businesses on reservations is key to sustaining tribes as unique nations, and the study of those enterprises was the focus of her doctoral studies, she said.
“This idea of self-sufficiency and autonomy and self-determination through the operations of business is a really fascinating area for me,” Claw said.
The “dog-eat-dog mentality” of Western business is not congruent with Native American culture. But tribes can redefine business to include Native American values, such as planning for how their choices will impact the next seven generations, she said.
Claw’s own life has been a balance of pursuing a career in business and higher education in a Western setting, and keeping her Navajo values first in mind – a lesson her family instilled in her. Her family also encouraged her to pursue education, and it was her mother’s prayer that she would reach the highest level of scholarship.
Claw always loved learning and reading. As a child, she used to run out to greet the San Juan Bookmobile when it came to Aneth, Utah, every two weeks in the summer. The town did not have a public library, so she always checked out the maximum number of books allowed.
“I was always a voracious reader – curious – intellectually curious about a lot of things,” she said.
Working in industry, first for a Department of Defense contractor and then for a small engineering firm specializing in communication systems, didn’t appease that curiosity, she said.
But Claw never considered pursuing a doctoral degree until she was asked specifically by a member of the PhD Project at a conference. The PhD Project works to help African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans pursue doctoral degrees and become professors, to help increase the diversity within businesses, according to its website.
The question at the conference planted the seed that maybe doctoral studies were for her, but it took her 10 years to decide to enroll.
When she graduated this spring from New Mexico State University after five years, her family embraced her achievement as a shared accomplishment.
“The best thing about it was: They said ‘How did we get here?” Claw said.
Their attitude reflects a Navajo cultural tenet that great accomplishments are achieved together; her family’s support was key to her success in college, she said.
As a business management student, Claw studied sovereignty as a source of competitive advantage for business on reservations, a topic barely explored in academia. She interviewed representatives from 13 tribal nations across the country and studied census data from 160 tribes that confirmed her original hypothesis that sovereignty can be exercised to help build business, she said. For example, sovereignty can offer legal immunity and allow tribes to shape laws and regulations that are favorable to business, she said.
She examined the number of private jobs available, employment rates and college attainment on reservations to help reach her conclusions, she said.
Claw used her interviews with tribal leaders to help determine how she would measure success, and those conversations led her to key in on employment as one of her measures, she said.
“One person I interviewed said: ‘If you are not employing your own citizens within your own nation, how successful can you actually say you are,’” she said.
In her new role as a professor, Claw said she hopes to prepare business students by drawing on her own experience in industry. She can also share stories of her sister and brother-in-law’s experience starting the first Navajo-owned business on the reservation in her hometown.
She would like to prepare students interested in business to return to their communities to work, no matter where they are from, if that is their goal, she said.
Often, Native American students are encouraged by tribal leaders to pursue education and then return home to give back, she said.
But that can be challenging because it requires students to acculturate to a new environment, and when they return home, they may not fit in as they once did, she said. It’s an experience Claw had herself, she said.
She would advise graduates who return home to simply participate in their communities and events as they did before, and over time that feeling of acceptance will return, she said.
Native American college graduates can also give back from a distance, in a way that makes sense to them, she said. Claw has donated to her high school and given presentations there, she said.
“Somewhere along the way I recognized I don’t have to come home to give back or to be a part of my community,” she said.
But she is pleased to be home at FLC and working with the diverse student body.
“I really felt like this would be a perfect fit for me,” she said.