Searching for a way to reconcile childhood on the reservation with her adolescence in Houston, Robin Máxkii discovered a life of activism, technology and science.
I think tech is heavily a part of under-served urban and rural communities, because you’ve got to figure out a way to make stuff work – that is the basis of hacking.
The central branch of the Houston Public Library was a treasure, because through the hall that connected the old castle-like building to the children’s centre, there was a bank of computers. Robin Máxkii had moved full-time to Houston at the age of 11 after living on the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation in central Wisconsin, and she was thrilled that the city library could help her get online. But even when the centre was mostly empty, there was an unnecessary hurdle: each computer imposed a half-hour time limit for browsing.
'I just decided that I was going to click everywhere in order to get around this because I wanted to use the computer', she recalls. 'There had to be a way; it was just ridiculous'. She eventually clicked to the computer’s settings and simply turned off the time limit, giving her free reign to look up anything that interested her.
It wasn’t a hack in the sense of being able to brute force something, but I realised that I could tell the computer what to do. There were so many obstacles, and then once you’re on it there are endless possibilities.
After a few years working as a production assistant in the film industry in her late teens and early twenties, Máxkii found herself living in a hostel in Albuquerque. Her room had eight people. She slept with her rucksack containing everything that she owned. She watched students at the University of New Mexico walking around the neighbourhood at the start of the new school year.
On her blog Native Notes, where she had passionately written about native issues for years, Máxkii got an anonymous comment. It stated that if she wanted to actively change the community that she wrote about, she should go to college. 'That was the seed that was planted', says Máxkii. 'That was a catalyst. Here I am complaining about things, and there's a solution.'
'I remember using Google to search for the basics', she says, and despite some unfamiliar terms, worked out how to fill in FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, as well as how to write a CV and a university admissions essay.
Máxkii had heard about tribal colleges and universities – controlled and operated by American Indian tribes – through her family and community. Out of the 35 tribal colleges across the United States, Máxkii decided to attend Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Founded in 1968 as the first tribal college, it was fiercely committed to native issues, and she chose it because 'it means that our community is teaching us, and our community is setting the measures for success'.
The potential I saw in my first meeting with Robin was her intellect… and my role was to gently push her, and she’s doing the same for her peers.
Dr Miranda Haskie
Miranda Haskie teaches sociology at Diné College, and was the first native that Máxkii met with a doctorate. She remembers Máxkii sitting in the front row on the first day of class, and observing her become increasingly active over her years on campus, teaching students to fix their computers, holding mini tech fairs and even attempting to set the Guinness World Record for the largest piece of frybread.
Students feel safe around [Máxkii] to reach and seize their potential. She’s modelling what the outcome of those opportunities could be. And through that example, they see what they could become.
Dr. Miranda Haskie
During a summer internship with the Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., Máxkii needed to gather data from tribal college websites for a project. Instead of manually visiting each page, she coded a way to aggregate the information. That bit of work caught the eye of QEM president Dr. Shirley McBay.
All these big people work on the Hill. What is keeping me from interning there?
'I thought I blew it', Máxkii says, 'that I was in trouble and I was going to get fired'. But that’s not at all why Dr. McBay challenged what she was doing.
'She said, "Why aren’t you pursuing tech?" It was a weird moment where I understood that it’s not that common for [interns] to use Ruby or Python', referencing the popular coding languages. Dr. McBay encouraged Máxkii to keep pursuing computer science. 'When I think of coders, I don’t think of people like me. But that’s the problem', says Máxkii. 'It’s about seeing what you can do.'
That lack of visibility and recognition motivated Máxkii to continue interning in D.C. and pursuing STEM education advocacy. She approached it in much the same way as she did gaining access to that computer back in Houston.
After speaking at a panel event at NASA, Máxkii spotted the CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and got excited. 'To me, she’s like a celebrity, so of course I knew I had to approach her.'
It was an opportunity to make significant headway on one of Máxkii’s big ideas: a hackathon specifically for native students at all levels interested in STEM. 'I had been passing this around to various organisations, and the reaction was to assume that natives weren’t really interested in it', she says.
Without fear, Máxkii pitched her idea, even pulling out her phone to play a video of her interviewing tech executives on a PBS series. 'For two years, I had been told no, and I finally got a little bit of the door opened, so I just kept going with it.' Máxkii secured the go-ahead to organise a hackathon event for the AISES National Conference.
For two years I had been told no, and I finally got a little bit of the door opened, so I just kept going with it.
Coordinated by Máxkii in 2016, hackAISES was the first collegiate American Indian hackathon, drawing attendees ranging from secondary school students to computer science PhD graduates. It was so successful that it became a regular event: this year’s AISES conference in Oklahoma City has the third annual hackathon on its agenda for 3 October.
We have goals. We have dreams. And we don’t let anyone get in our way or drag us down.
Keenan Lee Barlow
Keenan Lee Barlow and Máxkii met during college and became fast friends because, like Máxkii, whose childhood was split between communities, he grew up in Salt Lake City before moving to a reservation. 'I feel like I’ve always known [her]', he says. 'It’s just one of those friendships where you connect with somebody. She reminds me of a sibling.'
Máxkii gave him a tour of campus and helped him find classes – but most importantly, she helped him work out how to apply for scholarships from the American Indian College Fund and Navajo Nation, among others. It’s that kind of resource-sharing that has become a fixture of Máxkii’s life.
Máxkii has turned her attention to graduate school applications, but she’s still incredibly conscious of working to amplify her community in the spaces that she reaches. 'Right now the indigenous voice is missing from the general science community', she says.
She wants to target under-served communities, allocate more resources and empower the people there to know that 'they’re a part of the larger picture'. She wants to promote inclusion, to bring people in and make them 'realise that they’re not just smart but completely capable' of contributing to scientific fields.
As a native woman I felt like I was walking this tightrope, but it’s about feeling empowered and knowing that you can do both. You can be a researcher or computer programmer and bring your culture with you.