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A citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and Choctaw, Quinn Smith is one of two winners of the Sanford School's top honor for undergraduates, the Terry Sanford Leadership Award.

Quinn is an advocate for Native people on Duke’s campus and beyond. He is president of Duke’s Native American/Indigenous Student Alliance (NAISA) and has advocated for more support for Native students on Duke’s campus. He has completed numerous creative projects, like working with Duke Gardens to create audio documentaries of indigenous communities throughout the Carolinas describing their relationship with the land.  A Udall Scholar, he will be a Hart Leadership Fellow after graduation, working with Indigenous communities to advocate for indigenous land ownership.

Winner, 2023 Terry Sanford Leadership Award

Quinn Smith

Article by Sarah Rogers, which originally appeared on the Duke Engage website, November, 2022.

“I was always looking for an opportunity to intern with my own tribal nation and work within my own tribal community,” said Quinn Smith. “I really believe the [Brodhead Service Program] is unique, because there’s not a lot of opportunities to be able to choose your own community to work with.”

The Brodhead Service Program allows undergraduates to design their own internship in collaboration with a community organization.

A citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, a Public Policy major, and Documentary Studies certificate student, Quinn spent his summer as a Brodhead Fellow in Ada, Oklahoma, working with Chickasaw Nation Productions, the Nation’s media production company.


Quinn Smith behind the camera in Oklahoma. “I am in the process of shooting footage of a white buffalo for a future documentary about this sacred animal,” he wrote. Photos courtesy of Quinn Smith.

Like most Native Americans, Quinn doesn’t live on his tribal reservation, but in an urban area: he grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The program gave him the chance to live on the reservation for several weeks and reconnect with family. “This was the longest that I’ve ever stayed in Oklahoma…I think it’s really amazing that this program has allowed me to go back and live with my tribal community.”

Quinn worked with two departments of Chickasaw Productions: the multimedia department, which focuses on community journalism and documentary, and the Heritage Series, which produces long-form documentaries about the Chickasaw Nation.

The multimedia department covered events important to the Chickasaw Nation, like the Road to Healing Tour, an initiative of the United States Department of the Interior, currently led by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. The Road to Healing addresses the legacy of Federal Indian Boarding Schools by holding public hearings for survivors and their families to give testimonies. Quinn says it was one of the most moving experiences of his life.

“I’d say the most common experience of being Native in America is feeling like you’re being erased. And so when the government itself comes out to the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma, to this tribal college to listen to people, it’s quite moving. There were over six hours of testimony from survivors of boarding schools and from their family members, and the second person to give his testimony was a man who had gone to the boarding school that we were in, and his stories were absolutely traumatic.”

Quinn says one reason it’s important to document these events is because it can affect policy. “One of the reasons why storytelling is so important is because even legislators in Oklahoma, and especially policymakers in Washington, DC, have no idea about Native people. They might not even have a foundational knowledge. And so these stories are needed to alert policymakers to the needs that Indian Country has—or persuade them, unfortunately, that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.


Quinn Smith speaks with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, during an event on the Road to Healing tour.

“Another project that we worked on was elder interviews, and this is a project that is very important to me, and to a lot of Chickasaw people: to create an archive so that Chickasaw citizens, maybe a century into the future, can be able to listen directly to their elders and to learn from them. Unfortunately, I lost many Chickasaw elders in my family: my great-grandma passed away when I was four, and my grandfather passed away when I was eight, so I wasn’t really able to get this intergenerational knowledge. So it was great to be able to work on projects that I knew would help someone like me at an earlier stage in my life, to help a young Native person to grow up proud of their heritage, and hopefully get them to realize the benefits of working with their community, too.”

Language preservation is another important facet of this work. “Unfortunately, because of the boarding school system, most people don’t speak the Chickasaw language, and there are now only around forty first-generation speakers in the Chickasaw language today. So there’s a ton of work that’s being done to preserve the language, and being able to learn directly from elders is the best way. Because if you converse in Chickasaw with an elder, or hear them tell a story in Chickasaw, you’re going to pick up on more nuances of the language that you learn through a textbook.”

The Chickasaw Nation’s Heritage Series creates long-form documentaries about key events in the Nation’s history. Producing them involves complex, professional film shoots comparable to the ones Quinn worked on during a previous summer in Los Angeles as a production assistant. “For one, we went all the way up to this military fort to shoot a scene about life right after removal to Oklahoma, at the actual scene where it happened. It was crazy seeing everybody dressed up in the costumes of colonial soldiers, and then the Chickasaw warriors coming in.

“It was a very empowering experience. Everyone knew why we were there, and what we were trying to do, and everyone wanted to help but advance that mission, no matter if they were Chickasaw or not.”

It was a fulfilling experience for Quinn, both professionally and personally. “Sometimes we’d be driving to a shoot location somewhere in Oklahoma, and I would reflect upon the reasons why we were driving together, and thinking about how much my ancestors went through, and if they knew that we were all driving together to shoot a documentary about them…you know, how moved they would be by that, that we’re at a point now where we’re able to tell our own stories.”

Though, he adds, it’s still a struggle, because so many problems persist for Native Americans.

“Sometimes I think maybe I should just pursue the realm of policy, but my mentor and my family and coworkers up there in the Chickasaw Nation have helped me to realize that this is a worthwhile way to create positive change.”



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