Emma Robbins on Indigenous Empowerment

Emma Robbins speaking at the Indigenous Peoples March (IPM) Rally in January 2019. PC: Lorrie King.

Emma Robbins speaking at the Indigenous Peoples March (IPM) Rally in January 2019. PC: Lorrie King.


When work is centered around your community, it takes on a whole other weight. Emma Robbins, Navajo artist and activist, pursues her life’s work with passion and purpose. Her ultimate goal: Indigenous women empowerment.

“I’m the oldest of three girls in a family that was traditionally Navajo. We're a matriarchal society. It has shaped me to be as bossy as I am. It's important to be a bossy Native woman otherwise people will walk all over you.”

Emma’s childhood was split between the Rez and U.S. metropolitan cities, which introduced her early on to overarching community issues of equity, representation and privilege. “I have a white mom and brown dad. It’s hard - you never fit in one area or the other. The older I’ve gotten, the more I feel appreciative instead of embarrassed by it, which I often felt as a kid.” Her mom’s family lives in Chicago and her father’s in Cameron, Arizona near abandoned uranium mines, some without running water or electricity. “I never realized how messed up that was until people pointed it out, and that informed a lot of what I’m doing now.”

Emma currently works at DIGDEEP, a nonprofit providing clean and safe running water to communities without access. As the Director of the Navajo Water Project, she helps with the particularly pressing water access issues in the Navajo Nation. In fact, 40% of the Navajo Nation doesn’t have running water. In the U.S., 1.6 million people don’t have running water.

40% of the Navajo Nation doesn’t have running water.

Her favorite project to date was providing clean water to the only special needs school on the Navajo Nation, St Michaels Association for Special Education (SMASE) through a combination of filtration installations, and heater and plumbing replacements. Emma looks forward to replicating these water initiatives throughout the Navajo Mountain in Utah and Arizona.

Emma’s community work doesn’t stop there. When she isn’t working on water access projects, she’s thinking about ways to effectively empower Natives through art, social justice and activism. “I feel like I’m bossy and loud-mouthed. I want to give people voices who aren’t necessarily able to do it themselves.” She has researched missing and murdered Indigenous women, fought against cultural appropriation and participated at Standing Rock (check out her article on Nylon).

Her next big project? An Indigenous community arts center in metropolitan cities and on the Rez. Why? There’s a gaping need for permanent Native community fixtures. “I don’t see my Native friends or community members and activists unless it's at a rally. I want to create a space where Natives can come and gather, have movie screenings by Natives, tell our own history, curate exhibition spaces and promote things like food sovereignty specific to Native communities.”

Her immediate call to action? Getting Natives, allies and non-Natives to spread the word about indigenous social justice issues. “Things spread like wildfire, and if you could be that spark, then that’s important.”

Emma Robbins wearing a “Standing Rock is everywhere” t-shirt.

Emma Robbins wearing a “Standing Rock is everywhere” t-shirt.


  • LEARN ABOUT NATIVE COMMUNITIES. “Learn about Native cultures and other Native nations surrounding you. It’s crazy that we need to learn about colonialism [in school] and only learn a side-note about enslavement of our black brothers and sisters and the massacres of Natives. Just know that shit man. Education is key. If you’re spending that much time on your phone, learn about Native nations.”

  • RESEARCH ON YOUR OWN, THEN ASK QUESTIONS. “Do as much research on your own as you can before asking questions. I don't want to be your Wikipedia. If you can't find the answer, then ask me. Or look it up, and then ask my opinion. I will always be happy to discuss and offer insight, but meet me half way.” 

  • KNOW WHOSE LAND YOU’RE OCCUPYING. “Knowing whose land you’re occupying is being respectful and honoring those First Peoples. That’s the root.” If you want to check out whose land you’re occupying, check out Native Land.

Know a badass that KULTURA should interview? Let us know.


Marushka Hirshon is a Tahitian-American nonprofit founder, community organizer and freelance journalist. She graduated from Stanford University with a B.S. in Science, Technology and Society with a focus in Environment and Sustainability. Follow