Though I have lived in the Hampton Roads area for nearly twenty years, specifically Virginia Beach, I grew up as a young Native American boy on Compton Blvd., (Yes that Compton) in California. When I was young, I knew literally nothing about Native history.
My Native American tribe is Mohawk, from the Akwesasne Reserve in upstate New York. My reserve actually sits on the New York and Canadian border. It wasn’t until I was at least thirty-years-old until I discovered that my grandmother, (who spoke the Mohawk language fluently) had been taken to a orphanage along with her sister when she was a little girl.
My great-grandmother (who did not speak English, only Mohawk) was told she could not have her children back because she had signed them over. Devastated, my great grandmother broke in late at night and stole back her children, which included my grandmother and her sister.
When my grandmother had children later in life, she and her family fled to California, fearing Canadian authorities would take her own Native children as they often did.
I only spent a little bit of time with my grandmother as a child, she would sing to me songs she knew such as “Oh my darlin’ Clementine” or “She’ll come riding six white horses” in her small kitchen in California. She watched over me when I had the chickenpox. She put mayonnaise on my head when I once got gum in my hair. But in all the years I knew my grandmother, she never told me she was Mohawk, she never shared with me the words of our Mohawk language or the songs our ancestors sang. Being an Indian meant losing your children, so she hid who she was.
In later years I discovered, she died in a hospital much too young for her age, there was suspicion she died of negligence, because the hospital did not care about some random Indian woman taking up space in a hospital bed.
It wasn’t until my late thirties (I am 50-years-old now) that my wonderful wife Delores suggested I connect back with my tribe. After only a few phone calls, I discovered all my family’s history was documented by the Catholic Church, who followed their religious conversions very closely. I was indeed a member of the tribe and I was listed on the tribal roles.
But I did not yet feel worthy to be a part of the tribe. I felt I had not contributed anything to Native culture aside from one class in college. (It was a Native Studies class, and the teacher, resentful I assume because he had a student which really was Native American — I received a D in the class. The lowest grade I had ever received in my life.) I sought to be a ‘better Indian’ than I had been in my life thus far.
I decided one day I would travel to Akwesasne, but I ‘needed to feel more connected,’ I thought. I poured myself into my own independent studies and felt ravenous to learn, which had been an unfamiliar feeling and unlike my attitude in high school. I had long ago discovered school textbooks were a horrible source for any sort of Native histories, as they were largely focused on the white side, or colonial contributions to history and little else.
In the course of my studies, I came across a book publishing company, interested in hearing about independent stories of contemporary Native people. I ended up writing four books in the Native Trailblazers series on Native and Canadian First Nations role models for kids.
I then connected with Indian Country Today as a journalist, the largest Native American news publication in the United States, over the course of several years, I have contributed well over 2,000 articles of news based on Native people. I continue to write for them today as evidenced here.
In the midst of all my research – I traveled to Akwesasne after I had obtained a contractual job through the tribe as a video / filmmaker to create a “New Employee Orientation Video.” I was elated. Not only was I coming back, I was going to learn a TON about my tribe. When I was there, I also met my extended family, who remembered my grandmother. I felt complete, and I was also asked to join the dancing celebration at the longhouse by an extremely respected elder Tom Porter.
As I have continued to learn about my culture, I have uncovered an alarming amount of hidden history that has been hidden from our children of today.
Here are just a few facts:
- Columbus never landed in America – ever. He and his men were responsible for the genocide of untold thousands of indigenous peoples of the caribbean. Who had their hands cut off for not finding enough gold and more. In a letter to a friend, Columbus wrote nine-year-old girls were in demand by his men.
- Pocahontas never loved John Smith. She had a Native husband and a child before she knew John Rolfe, she was impregnated by a stranger after being kidnapped and John Rolfe married her to get a Native tobacco recipe.
- My grandmother was part of the “Indian Boarding Schools” movement in which U.S. and Canadian religious authorities took by force Native children from their families and forced them to appropriate white culture. If the spoke their native language in school, they were beaten. They were victims of ALL types of abuse and later were returned home with no explanation to the families. Children and parents could no longer speak to each other.
- According to the Weyanoke Association, approximately 80% of Black americans in Virginia have a Native American ancestor. As Blacks and Indians grew their alliances in history, Walter Plecker incorporated “Pencil Genocide” in which Native or Black, Plecker and his minions went in and physically changed birth records to “colored.
- The Iroquois Confederacy was the pre-eminent influencer to the United States government. The tribes methodologies of internal workings were the basis of of U.S system of ‘checks and balances’ as illustrated by our Congress, Senate and the office of the President. All of this said, the term “Merciless Indian Savages” was still included in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
I hope some of what I’ve shared has opened a few eyes. We are all in this together, we all struggle, but some more than others. Those that have privilege don’t realize they have it, and will forever demand their place as the victors of war.
If you found history boring in school, it is very likely because the history you were being taught had nothing to do with your ancestry.
I once heard, “History is written by the Victors of War,” this may once have been true, but it doesn’t have to remain this way. Learn about your own history as I have been doing, it is more than empowering.
Indian Country Today’s Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter