“I am a proud Diné woman,” said Michelle Bigman, a Water Contract and Information Analyst in SRP’s Water Rights & Contracts department.
She continued, “My maternal clan is Tsi’naajinii (Black Streaked Wood People clan), and my paternal clan is Bįįh bitoodnii (Deer Spring clan). My maternal grandfather’s clan is Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House clan), and my paternal grandfather’s clan is Tábąąhá (Water’s Edge clan).”
Bigman, who grew up in northern Arizona on the Navajo Nation, explained that this greeting is how she introduces herself as an Indigenous woman.
“We do this to know if and when we are amongst our relatives,” she said of sharing her clanship and kinship. “It tells you who I am.”
Empowering Native employees at SRP
This deep sense of cultural pride inspires Bigman in her work at SRP, both in her day-to-day role and as the chair of the company’s Native Americans Together in Vision and Empowerment (N.A.T.I.V.E.) Employee Resource Group (ERG).
Bigman helped form the employee-led, voluntary group made up of Native and non-Native allies in 2019 when many northern Arizona-based Navajo employees transferred to the Phoenix metropolitan area. The role of the ERG at that time aimed to provide support for the relocated employees, offering a place to connect with one another following the planned closure of the Navajo Generating Station.
Today, she and the other ERG members help organize events and activities that bring cultural awareness to SRP employees of all backgrounds, working to celebrate diversity across the organization.
“We started sharing our culture with Navajo Code Talkers Day and bringing Native American Heritage Month to the forefront,” she said. “[We] open up about our culture and what’s important to us at SRP. It helps people understand who we are as Indigenous people.”
A focus on community
Bigman and the group have also turned an eye toward the wider community with fundraising efforts for Phoenix-based Native Health, a non-profit that serves “individuals who generally experience barriers to holistic, patient-centered, culturally sensitive health and wellness services.”
Bigman and other ERG members were inspired to help meet this mission after a tour of the facilities in 2019 and have raised thousands for Native Health through fundraising sales and other efforts.
“With the platform SRP offers, it’s nice to give back,” said Bigman. And while COVID-19 required their fundraisers to take place virtually, Bigman is excited to be hosting events both in person and virtually this year. The pandemic helped with continuing their efforts in new ways to include all employees.
“With the easement of pandemic limitations, we are able to host more in-person events and fundraising opportunities. This year the ERG will be hosting a hoop dancer presentation, a food fundraiser and a storytelling event. We will also adopt 50 or more Native Christmas angels during the month of December,” said Bigman.
Bigman finds purpose and connection in this work and feels similarly about her career. Starting with the company in the early 2000’s, in fact, was a very natural step for her.
“SRP is in my blood,” she said. “My dad worked at the Navajo Generating Station and recently retired after 42 years and stayed through decommissioning. My brothers both came here to the Valley from NGS too.”
Her career brought her to the Valley in 2007, where she began working for the director of the Water Rights & Contracts group. She hasn’t looked back since.
“Just working with these different people, it has opened my eyes to different projects and opportunities. Working with different leadership makes my job exciting.”
Flourishing across many roles
Bigman’s work has also enabled her to accomplish life goals, including going back to school and being a working parent. And today, she taps into her leadership skills with the ERG operations, while also boosting knowledge of Native cultural traditions among SRP employees.
“I’ve been fortunate that while working in the corporate world, I have had the ability to educate others about my cultural traditions,” said Bigman. “I’m a firm believer that educating Native and non-Native people is how we don’t lose our culture. Through this we can carry on the legacy of our ancestors.”
Her passion for sharing culture comes from her clan and kin — those aforementioned relations, including grandparents and parents, who provided guidance and cultural teachings. She hopes to pass those on to her own children, one of whom graduated with his software engineering degree from ASU in May.
“Cultural education shows my kids to be proud of who they are. That you have a voice, that your voice matters,” she said.