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One-on-One with Phoebe Suina

Phoebe Suina, founder of High Water Mark. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Phoebe Suina, who studied math and chemistry at Albuquerque Academy, took a highly scientific approach when deciding whether to attend Dartmouth or Stanford.

She flipped a coin.

Dartmouth won, and Suina went east, staying long enough to earn two bachelor’s degrees in engineering and a master’s in engineering management.

She came home during the summers, though, and returned for good in 2001 to take a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The expertise she developed there, mitigating flooding potential after the devastating Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, eventually led her to form an environmental consulting company with partner Ryan Weiss.

Weiss has since left, and Suina is now sole owner of the Bernalillo-based High Water Mark, which has worked with numerous pueblos and local governments on floodplain, storm water and watershed management.

But her heart lies with Cochiti Pueblo. It’s where her family is from, and it’s close to the spot where she and her longtime partner, Rex Coriz, have bought a home that they are renovating with some help from their two young children.

As part of her culture, Suina said she is learning to speak Keres, a pueblo language that relies on oral rather than written traditions. The desire to master it came after an aunt sick with cancer asked Suina to pray with her in their native language.

“I would say if this is the fluency scale, I’m probably down here,” she said. “I had to learn it in like a day. I didn’t do it perfectly.”

“There’s a realization that I have to start thinking up here. That’s what keeps me up at night. We can’t lose our language.”

Your family has roots in Cochiti Pueblo?

My dad’s there. My dad’s committed to Cochiti; I’m committed. Very interesting story … my parents were divorced for 30 some years. They got back together after I’m all grown. My mom lives there with my dad now.

Did you go to school there?

No. I actually went to school in Rio Rancho. I did my middle school and high school at Albuquerque Academy.

What were you like as a teenager?

I’m a daddy’s girl. I was very much involved in sports, and I loved math and chemistry and science. I did cross-country, basketball, soccer and softball. … I was very much on the playing field.

Do you still play sports?

Yeah, I still run. I used to run full marathons and half marathons, and I’m hoping to get back into running. It’s my 2018 goal to do another half-marathon. I play basketball with my little girl; she’s 8 now. Both of my kids did cross-country last fall. … So I got back into running because of my kids.

What was it like for you at Dartmouth?

I went with a friend of mine – we were in middle school, high school, all our years – and we did a trip out to the east to look at Harvard, MIT, Brown, Dartmouth. … The day we got to Dartmouth, it was like the most picturesque day. All the kids were out on the lawn, the green, playing volleyball, soccer, students are reading. No humidity, not hot, not cold, nothing like that. We stayed in the best dorm. Both of us said, “This is where I want to go.”

Then what happened?

So when I got out there, it was like rain for the first two weeks. You didn’t see the sun, and being from New Mexico, we see the sun every day, almost once a day, even when it’s cloudy. For me, that was one of the biggest challenges. And then being so far from home. You know, that’s the other thing, when you’re a teenager you think you can conquer the world. … Now, I don’t take for granted what we have here. Nowhere else in the world do we have what we have here in the pueblos.

And what is that?

A community, our way of life, our perspective, our welcomingness, our traditional dances, our language, our traditional way of thinking, our perspective, all of that. … I mean, yesterday, I just danced in our corn dance. The basis of it is a thing of prayer, an activity where you can interconnect with another world. A lot of tribes have lost that – our language, the ability to converse in our language, which is not written, but that’s the connection back to that way of life.

Are you talking about Cochiti in particular or the pueblos in general?

In general, the pueblos. Cochiti, San Felipe, Santo Domino. My kids are half from Santo Domingo; their father is from Santo Domingo. So in those particular pueblos, there is such a richness in our way of life.

What is your favorite tradition?

I have so many. I love feast, preparing for feast. It’s crazy, but especially if I’m dancing, just the sense of all of us in the kiva together, the way the songs sound, the drum, the acoustics in the kiva, all of us super-sweaty in there, giving our best with good intention. Again, the core basics of why we’re doing that activity, to remember that core basic.

Which is?

Which is we’re dancing for everybody. They always tell us when we come out, the first dance is for the whole world, you’re praying for the whole world. And the next one is our country, and the next is our state and the next is our pueblo communities. Then the next is our family. And the last is us, for yourself. … And that’s how I’ve been taught, those core concepts – (especially) in this current era – of thinking of the whole world, our interdependence. Our air does not stop at borders, our water does not stop at borders. We’re all interconnected somehow.

Do you have a biggest regret?

You know, the way I think about regret is – this goes back to my choice in colleges. When I flipped the coin between Dartmouth and Stanford, I said no regrets. I make the most of wherever the coin chooses. And I think there may have been times when I could have done things differently, but had I not walked down that one path, I would not have learned, even if that path gave me something very hard to deal with or it was a mistake. If I hadn’t made those mistakes, I wouldn’t have learned from those mistakes … And so in terms of regrets, I don’t have any.

You’re lucky.

We’re all human, and we’re going to make mistakes. I tell my kiddos, “Honey, I won’t get mad at the first one, I won’t get upset at the second one. But by the third one? Then I know you’re not learning.”

What are your pet peeves?

It has to do with taking care of the world, your place and where you’re at. I see somebody drop trash, and they know they’ve dropped it and they don’t pick it up? (Throws hands into the air.) Someone’s going to have to pick it up.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

We recently acquired property between Santo Domino and Cochiti, me and my boyfriend, Rex Coriz. We’ve been together 11 years. We haven’t gotten married because it would mean if we follow the traditional customs, I would relinquish whatever rights I have from Cochiti and I would fall under Santo Domingo. Not that that’s a bad thing; it’s just a big change. … We’ve talked about it, and he respects that I take care of my family and I take care of my dad.

What’s it like for you to be a Native American female business owner? Have you experienced discrimination?

One of the things about being a female and a Native American, even going to Albuquerque Academy, and I reflect back on this because I have friends that couldn’t feel good in that environment at Albuquerque Academy – Native friends and they were like, “How did you do it? How did you excel?” And I was like, “I was just Feebs.” (a nickname) I never thought of myself as a Native American, as a female. Again, back to that of always doing the best you can with whatever circumstance you are in.

So back to your question, yes, I have felt discriminated against. Yes, I have had those encounters and felt diminished. Yes, I have been put in the corner just because I’m female, and yes I have been told you cannot sit at the table because you’re female or because you’re Native American. Yes, I have experienced all of that, but while I’m sitting in the corner, while I’m sitting over there, not at the table, I’m doing my homework. I’m preparing, I’m listening and I’m working. I’m absorbing whatever I’m able to learn even in the corner and not at the table.

Is there a lesson for others?

Just be who you are and have confidence in who you are. But also be willing to do the work. Even if you’re in the corner. Remember, you can only feel bad when someone hurts you if you let them. I think, too, that lesson I learned helps me because it also keeps me humble. If you think you know it all, if you think you’re it, you’re not going to learn anything new … or something is going to slap you in the face and remind you that you are not it.

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