I have been waiting for a while to tell this story, and with November being Native American Heritage Month, I felt it was the right time. It is a story of many Indigenous people across North America, of loss, and an attempt to reclaim heritage in a place where we are often forgotten. That is the story of my family, and it is the story of Indigenous Peoples in my district.
First, I want to talk about an issue that is of great consequence here in Central New York-- the Columbus Square Statue in downtown Syracuse. It shows Columbus standing atop four disembodied heads of Indigenous Chiefs. I have included a picture to show just how offensive it is. The “Old Guard” in Syracuse, the folks who support my opponents, want the statue left in place. I am the only candidate in the race who has, publicly, called for its removal. What is little-known by even those here in the district is that Benito Mussolini partially funded the statue. When I tell people this, they are floored to hear it. I have met with people here about its removal. This shows that the South is not the only place that has “heritage” that must be removed and called out. This is personal to me because of what governments here in North America did to destroy the heritage and livelihood on Indigenous Persons. I will describe three ways it was done, and all are tragic and happened to my and my wife’s ancestors.
Recently, the stories of boarding schools have come to light. This is where federal and state governments would force the removal of Native children and put them in these facilities. These were often located churches or other civic institutions. Only until the past year or so has the new caught wind of the deaths of these children and heard their survivor stories. At a march in June to bring light to the plight of Native children, which took place from the Onondaga Nation to the statue, I spoke to survivors of the Mohawk, Cree, and the Oneida Schools. All spoke of unspeakable horrors of death, indignity, and even sexual trauma endured by children at these schools. This is personal to me in that my wife is a descendant of Joseph Brandt (Tiyondanega), a famous Mohawk Chief. Once elected, I will demand answers for hers and all ancestors.
The second way White society looked to strip heritage was by making Indigenous Peoples chose between their land and their history. In places like Oklahoma (Indian Territory), my state of birth, after the Civil War, Natives were made to make that choice. If you chose your land, then you could not claim Tribal heritage. If you chose your heritage, you lost your land. It is a choice no one should have to make. This is what happened with my father’s family. Only until recently did my family discover this. We found that my paternal grandmother was of Adawe (Ottawa) and Cherokee ancestry, and they were “trustees.” A trustee is someone who chose the land earlier but applied for tribal eligibility later. This is the case for many in a place like Oklahoma, and it was done intentionally to cause a loss of identity and to cause tension in the Native community. In this case, tribal sovereignty is key to help resolve those issues, and I support greater leniency in Native business affairs so they can support or compensate all whose ancestors had make such a difficult choice.
The final way happened to my mother and her brothers and sisters. In Oklahoma, there was the old “Indian Child Welfare Agency.” The intent of this organization was to adopt Native children to give them better homes. That is what this agency said, but they had a more sinister practice. In many cases, Native families had little in ways to support their children (see my point above). The children often suffered from malnutrition, mental and physical disorders, and learning disabilities. It is that way to this day. Agencies like this, instead of helping those families with their children, often blamed the parents and took the children. Because, even in state like Oklahoma, there was still a stigma with being Native. So, the agency would intentionally adopt these children as “white” so Caucasian families would adopt them. This is what happened to my mother. In the past year, thanks to the work of my youngest sister, we had our mother’s adoption unsealed, and found that she is Cherokee (father’s side) and Cheyenne (mother’s side).
We always knew we were of Native ancestry, but not to this extent. I look more Native than my sisters with my darker skin, dark hair, and brown eyes, which is just like our mother. My three sisters are all blonde with blue or green eyes. Because both of our parents had their heritage stripped from them, we never got the chance to experience and take pride in our culture. During this month, I ask you to take a moment to reflect on our nation’s history, and what you can do to help bring justice to Native people.