A proud Northern Cheyenne Indian and Chicana, Desi Small-Rodriguez says that she’s a relative first, then a researcher and teacher, and thus considers herself a bit of an anomaly in academia.

“I need to remain accountable to my community,” said Small-Rodriguez, an assistant professor of sociology and American Indian studies in the UCLA College, who focuses on critical quantitative sociology, and the first Indigenous woman to be jointly hired by the sociology department and the American Indian studies program. “That’s how many Indigenous faculty feel. Academia can take you far away from the communities, lands and waters that ground you. I’m consistently reminded by mentors, always lift as you climb, because this is such a lonely path.”

In her research Small-Rodriguez examines statistics on those on the periphery of mainstream data collection efforts, like government surveys and the U.S. Census, to ascertain whether the people in these groups are or are not being counted. She says these efforts often do a poor job of collecting data on Indigenous peoples, undocumented migrants, those experiencing homelessness, the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups, thereby causing harm and perpetuating inequality.

“The U.S. is the most unequal country of any of the developed countries in the world,” said Small-Rodriguez, who joined the UCLA faculty last fall. “I’m interested in how systems amplify suffering and why suffering is being disproportionately experienced by certain populations and also systems of erasure, and how erasure perpetuates inequality. If your literal presence is completely erased, that is a unique form of inequality and injustice.”

Making data work to build equity

Small-Rodriguez sees wide-ranging applications for her work that could lead to systemic change in how data collection efforts are organized and operated and ultimately leading to better government decision-making and policy.

“Ultimately, I’m an optimist. I believe that just as structures of inequality were built and maintained, so too can they be dismantled and replaced,” said Small-Rodriguez, who recently received a grant to look into Indigenous women’s reproductive justice in the time of COVID-19. “And like most Indigenous scholars, I am called upon to work, advocate and serve in different directions. Being a professor is simply one of my dream jobs. I have many paths that will sustain me and I believe that eventually all roads lead home. This means that part of my work in academia includes making myself literally obsolete.

“I want to train enough young scholars to take over this work, so that one day I can be back full-time on my homelands living the Cheyenne way of life in good relation with all that is seen and unseen,” said Small-Rodriguez, who is cohost of the “All My Relations” podcast, which is the most-popular podcast in the Indigenous world with more than 1 million downloads to date.

Her move to Los Angeles delayed due to the pandemic, Small-Rodriguez resides on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana where she grew up. In the past couple of months, she has been encouraging her people in her community to get vaccinated against COVID-19, especially given how disproportionately hard Indigenous peoples have been hit by the virus early in the pandemic.

“I’m thankful for all the brave and amazing front line medical workers and our tribal leaders who continue to exercise tribal sovereignty so that we can get all of our people vaccinated regardless of age or health status,” she said.

Growing up in Montana, Small-Rodriguez applied to Stanford through early decision for a host of reasons: She knew it was a great school; found out it might cost her less than the University of Montana because of scholarships for Indigenous students; and it was only a day’s drive, albeit a long one, from her reservation where she continued to have familial and community responsibilities. She got in, never applied to any other school, and started Stanford at age 16.

“I graduated high school early to save myself from all of the risky things my peers and relatives were being pulled into: teenage pregnancy, substance use, violence, suicide, etc.,” Small-Rodriguez said. “Coming from a small reservation community that is deeply impoverished and all of a sudden being surrounded by immense wealth and privilege at Stanford literally shocked me for at least the first year. I had never seen so many BMWs or Mercedes in my life. One of the princes of Saudi Arabia was literally my dorm mate and we’re still friends today! But gosh I felt like such an imposter.”

She worked two jobs and studied hard.

“I read every word of every page assigned in my classes,” Small-Rodriguez said. “I was not going to drop out and confirm all of my fears that people like me weren’t meant to be at Stanford after all.”

A leap of faith into demography

While at Stanford, Small-Rodriguez became interested in demography and social science because her sociology professor, one of the only Indigenous sociologists and demographers in the world, noticed her knack for demography and statistics and offered her a job with a Māori doctoral student he was advising, who was doing research in New Zealand. At the time, she did not know anyone in New Zealand or even where it was or what the job would entail. But Small-Rodriguez went anyway and learned how to be a researcher and demographer working for the tribes in New Zealand for many years, and then doing the same type of work for tribes in the United States. She completed her master’s degree also at Stanford.

“My time in New Zealand was life changing,” she said. While there, Small-Rodriguez worked on tribal census projects, community surveys, and social determinants of health and policy research. “It’s where I learned how to do research and build data by Indigenous Peoples for Indigenous Peoples. I also learned about the boundaries of indigeneity and tribal belonging in ways that are far different than for Indigenous Peoples in North America. In New Zealand, Māori kinship is affirmed in very inclusive ways as compared to minimum blood quantum policies that we use here. That led to another area of my research understanding the boundaries of belonging for Indigenous peoples.”

Ultimately, Small-Rodriguez said she found her “wings” at Stanford. “I connected with people from all walks of life who remain my best friends nearly 20 years later. I studied abroad, learned about different cultures and shared struggles, played rugby, and started cultivating my sociological imagination. My Stanford experience also taught me important life lessons about systems of inequality and injustice, which ultimately led to what I study today.”

Small-Rodriguez points out that while the word data comes from the Latin “datum,” meaning something given, for Indigenous peoples, the term more often means “something taken,” and that data has been used as another method of extraction to be used by everyone else to extract something from the Indigenous, leaving behind very broken systems to rebuild and repair. She references everything from Indigenous bodies, to language to knowledge of the important connections with lands, water and animals as having become disrupted. She calls that data erasure an ongoing effort of genocide.

Amidst all the loss, the recent vaccination effort illustrates an area of hope. “The only reason that Indigenous peoples now have some of the highest rates of vaccination uptake is because of tribal sovereignty,” Small-Rodriguez said. “Tribes exercised sovereignty and have been able to protect their people in ways federal, state and local governments have not. Tribal sovereigns know how to get their people onboard because of their deep commitment to collective survival. In Indigenous communities, we are born and raised with a collective survival strategy — we’ve been doing this since we were invaded 500 years ago. This is something that we have seen shine through in the middle of this pandemic — something positive amidst so much negative.”