November is Native American Heritage month. Please enjoy this piece by our Student Programs Administrator, Kathleen Cloutier.
On the Road the Explore My Native American Ancestry
I would like to thank the Statistics Department at Harvard University for the opportunity to celebrate my grandparents in this public forum. I am normally a very private person, yet I owe it to them to share their story.
Both my grandparents on my father’s side passed away, and unfortunately, we did not have a chance to say our goodbyes in person. I always hoped to talk with both about them growing up with their Native American heritage; only, they never wanted to talk in depth about it.
It was in a time when being Native American wasn’t perceived as “acceptable”. I also would have wanted to talk with them about their efforts to be successful in a society that wasn’t encouraging them to be themselves. So, they couldn’t be themselves; they instead tried to fit in. They were scared to say who they are, what they actually love doing, what opinions they have. They lived in fear of being persecuted about who they are and what they stand for.
Growing up, I could tell they were different though. Perhaps that’s possibly why my grandparents were reluctant to talk about their parents, their grandparents, or about their Native American traditions. My grandfather always struggled with English. He didn’t know how to read or write. But it was something I couldn’t ask about. In Maine, at that time, people were trying hard to not be different, to not sound different, to not have a different voice. And yet, my grandparents were different.
My grandfather only went to school up to the fourth grade; I indirectly heard that he was given a hard time at school for not speaking English properly. For not sounding like a native speaker, even though he was Native. So, he never learned to read.
Later on, however, as World War II started, he was sent to fight in Japan. I’m not quite sure whether he understood why. After all, he was sent by the same people who weren’t fully accepting him for who he was. Yet, like in anything else he did, he went to serve and did his best to be an outstanding soldier.
After World War II, both Gramie and Grampa spent their lives working extremely hard, in a shoe factory in Maine. Grampa, in particular, was continually oppressed in many ways, and never dared to stand up for himself. He learned that he had to comply and should not question. Yet, with his gentle personality, he constantly displayed empathy and kindness to all of us. He was continuously dreaming of hunting and fishing freely and respectfully in the Maine wilderness, and not following the rules that were imposed on him. One of the things that brought him joy instead, was to make us maple syrup, as probably his ancestors used to make for their grandchildren.
Unfortunately, from what I’m learning, my grandparents’ ancestors not only lost their land and their traditional way of life, but even their names seem to have been erased or changed. Instead of having their own names, for generations, many had to adopt a name that would make them fit into the new society. So, it’s extremely challenging to even track them and identify all details about who they were. There are pieces of Native American ancestry in my genealogy that I am aware of, in addition to the image of my grandparents I hold. But a lot of work would be ahead to find out more.
I feel that I have been discouraged from looking into this, and instead of learning and cherishing Native American traditions, I was somehow hidden away from them. Even now, for many people who have Native ancestry, like myself, it’s extremely complicated to learn about the tribes, to identify the roots, to learn about ancient traditions. And that’s despite all these advancements in technology.
It’s never too late though, so at this point I look forward to learning, researching, cherishing and embracing my Native American ancestry. Therefore, I’m appreciative that diversity is brought to the forefront and that there is a space held for me to explore my Native roots, instead of continually keeping quiet as my grandparents did. And as I continue this personal journey, I hope that Native American culture will be part of both our Statistics Department’s and Harvard’s conversation and focus on diversity. And along the way, as I explore more my Native American roots, others will benefit from my findings as well. I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one looking for answers. Thank you all very much for the opportunity to share my story.