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Native american Heritage month 2023

November 29, 2023


SWAAAE celebrates Native American Heritage Month by recognizing Mr. Arlando Teller a citizen of the Navajo Nation and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s first-ever Assistant Secretary for Tribal Government Affairs.

Teller’s grandfather was a Navajo Code Talker and, although the above quote cannot be traced directly to him, it imparts Native American wisdom that is infused in Teller’s own story about his career journey and the philosophy he shares with the next generation on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).


Mr. Arlando Teller, Assistant Secretary for Tribal Government Affairs, U.S. Department of Transportation

Participants and representatives of SWAAAE included:

  • Interview: Mary Ortega-Itsell, CM – Owner and Principal, Genesis Consulting Group, LLC
  • DEI Chair: Lisa Watada - Senior Vice President, Aviation at WSP USA
  • Interview Prep: Maranda Thompson - Department/Project Manager at Mead & Hunt, Aviation Services


Mr. Arlando Teller has an extensive background in transportation and entered the aviation industry as the first Native American graduate from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He interned with the City of Mesa, Falcon Field Airport and advanced his career as an airport planner for the City of Phoenix’s Aviation Department and later as the Aviation Management Intern for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Teller then moved to Walnut Creek, California where he worked on multimodal transportation projects as a transportation planner and tribal liaison for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

Returning home to the Navajo Nation in 2009, Teller served as Senior Transportation Planner for the Navajo Nation’s Division of Transportation, was promoted to Program Manager for the Department of Airports Management, and was eventually promoted to Deputy Division Director. In 2018, Teller was elected State Representative for District 7 in the Arizona House of Representatives and sat on the Transportation Committee and Land & Agriculture Committee. He also served as Vice Chair for the Indigenous Peoples Caucus and as a member of the Aviation/Aerospace Caucus and Co-Chair for the Arizona Aerospace Association.

How has the DEI movement impacted your professional journey?

When I was coming up in the aviation industry, the concept of DEI was part of the larger Civil Rights Movement and its reaches had not penetrated many industries, although it was very much needed.

I believe my journey has been assisted by those Indigenous Elders who have advocated for tribal inclusion for years. The USDOT Assistant Secretary in the Office of Tribal Affairs would not exist without the 22 years of advocacy for Tribal inclusions by my elders. Their consistent voices for tribal concerns at local, state, and federal levels created a space for the tribal voices to be heard at the national level.

Why is the DEI movement important to you, our industry, and those
in leadership positions? How are you advocating for DEI?

As an Indigenous person, I still see many challenges to working with federal agencies.
There is so much misunderstanding, mistrust, and bureaucracy still in existence. I believe that the acceptance of DEI in the workplace, no matter the arena, better promotes working between cultures – bridging worlds and producing policies and work products that meet expectations of more than one voice. DEI allows for more voices to be heard and counted.

“For the first time, DOT has centered Equity as a Department-wide strategic goal. This is a critical step to institutionalizing equity across the Department’s policies and programs, with the aim of reducing inequities across our transportation systems and the communities they affect.”

The Office of Tribal Affairs provides the opportunity to help tribes work towards improved transportation infrastructure for Indigenous Peoples large and small.

What advice do you have for other Native Americans that are looking
to pursue a career in the aviation/aerospace industry?

Young brothers and sisters, my advice:

  • Be persistent, the doors do not swing open automatically.
  • Plan. You cannot get to your goals without a path.
  • Establish goals, but only share them with your closest person.
  • Make your goals time specific: 2-year, 5-year, and 10-year.
  • Maintain your vision, do not be distracted.
  • Kindness makes so many things happen.
  • Create networks.
  • Be proud of who you are.

How did you come to Embry Riddle?

The interest in airplanes came as a young boy herding my grandmother’s sheep on the Res.
I would look up in the sky and wonder how that bird could fly so high and where was it going. I took my first flight when I was seven years old, and my mother took me to Chicago. We flew TWA out of Phoenix, and the Pilot of the aircraft saw me and allowed me to stand in the cockpit for just a second. That kindness and the impact on my journey has never been forgotten.

When in high school, a recruiter from Embry Riddle came to our high school career day, I made a beeline to his table and asked questions. Applying, getting accepted, and actually attending Embry Riddle was a financial and emotional challenge. Being away from my culture, working part time, and the expectations of excelling were a challenge I will never forget.

If you could make sure everyone in a workplace understood
one thing, what would it be?

Your actions and attitudes speak louder than your words.
As a youth, I practiced patience and tolerance. Now I change minds by my actions.

How do you celebrate Native American Heritage Month?

I celebrate and live my Heritage every day, 24/7.
The blood that flows through me has survived genocide, boarding schools, and erasure through language subversion. I am the proud grandson of a Navajo Code Talker, who taught me to live, honor, and acknowledge our sacred ways as we travel through our journey.

Additional Information:

White House Council on Native American Affairs -

U.S. Department of Transportation on Equity -

SWAAAE, its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, and our membership recognizes the weight of history, the challenges Native Americans face, and the importance of Indigenous Peoples to American culture and to our Aviation community.

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