I had a few trepidations about attending my first college reunion. I did not have the traditional great Dartmouth experience during my four years in New Hampshire. In fact, I had a full-blown panic attack the first time I attended a non-Native alumni event at Dartmouth. PTSD is a beyotch. Coming back to the stage of so much pain and drama, albeit with some friendships and smiles as well, made me more than a little apprehensive. As I picked up my rental car at Logan Airport in Boston I wondered how I had let my long time Native Americans at Dartmouth (NAD) sista convince me to return to the wilds of the Hanover plane. Oh well, life is nothing if not a journey of discoveries. I picked up my oldest NAD friend (no he is not 103, we met on our high school senior year fly-in after my first plane ride ever. That, dear readers, is an entirely different saga for another column). We slowly started the northward journey.
On our trek to our alma mater I recounted my first expedition to this institution that helped cement my educational foundation. Ironically, it is in a large part what I learned here that has helped me serve the Native community. My parents took me from our home on the Hoopa Reservation to the small town of Willow Creek, CA that was located on a highway just barely large enough to merit a bus trip to the main north-south artery of Highway 101. I saw my two younger brothers on the hood of our family rez mobile smiling and waving bon voyage as the bus chugged up the hill, out of town and away from my homelands on the rivers of Northern California. My father, of no account, and my mother, who ensured I took all the right classes to be college eligible, despite my youthful protestations, looked on as I was swept of to start a new stage of life.
In, what to me was the big town of Eureka I was dropped off to catch a connection to San Francisco. There I would turn east for a five-day Greyhound ride. I was plopped right in the middle of the Tenderloin, the Golden Gate’s seediest side, at midnight to await my 6 AM departure. I sat there all night huddled next to my Mom’s Marine duffle bag full of my suave native apparel of jeans, second hand shirts and some cheap tennis shoes along with my suit which served double duty for my prom and senior pictures, the matching faux leather shoes and my one and only tie. In her military footlocker I had packed up what to me was my precious and most important needs for college, my stereo, tapes, vinyl records (long before CDs) baseball glove and a few childhood mementos. I sat there trembling all night with my cheap $10 “walkman” glued to my ears scanning the crowd for would be thieves just looking to rob this neophyte from Hicksville.
Come sunrise the next morning I jumped aboard the silver bus for the nearly weeklong passage across America. I sat next to what I thought was a relatively cute and nice young woman in her mid twenties. Turns out she thought the bus trip to see her mother was a great time to detox off a 5 year heroin binge. Between her spasmodic twitching and the guy behind us with the catheter, cackle and wooden leg, that he would take off frequently to scratch his purplish stump, sleep was nearly non-existent. Thank heavens for extra batteries and cheap Chinese knockoff music technology. I disembarked, days later and many road years wiser, in the havens of White River Junction, VT to be picked up by the smiling office assistant of Dartmouth’s Native American program.
Landing in middle of the luxurious Ivy League was an eye opener coming from my modest upbringing. My roommate was the son of a president of a prestigious East Coast University. He was paying his own way through college with the dividends on stocks and bonds his grandparents bought him when he was born. Needless to say that this was quite different than the massive financial aid package I received from the college, $150 saved from my summer job and the handful of food stamps my mom thrust in my hands before I got on the bus. In my dorm’s freshman orientation group I found out I was sitting next to the Crown Prince of Ethiopia (who’s uncle was Haile Selassie, the Rastafarian deity), a guy who’s 80 year old father was the financial advisor to the Board of Directors of Merrill Lynch and who would routinely deposit a couple of thousand dollars of monthly spending money into his son’s checking account, and a girl who’s father bought her a professional soccer team for her 18th birthday. Also among my classmates were Michael and Nelson Rockefeller Jr. Turns out I was now living firmly ensconced in the 1%.
Most of my four years of college was spent living at odds with the political ideals and financial lavishness of these new found “chums.” Among them I would find those siblings in NAD and the Co-Ed fraternity that I became a member of, a few who would become my lifelong family and friends. By going to this reunion I was putting myself back in that cauldron that tempered the person who I would become. Turns out having all grown older both my classmates and myself have also grown a bit wiser, more open-minded and accepting of one another.
I felt honored to be asked to be part of the memorial for our classmates who had passed on. It was a moving and poignant ceremony and perhaps was the reason I was supposed to be at the reunion. I shared part of my Native Karuk culture with Dartmouth in singing at the event and was amazed at the impact it had. I had several people come up to me to express their appreciation for my role in the memorial. I spoke to more classmates during the weekend, because of my participation, than I talked with during my four turbulent years in Hanover. I came away with a better feeling about the institution through the grace of my classmates that have through the years, opened up emotionally and softened their spires that I felt as an undergraduate. Despite the discontinuity of realities between the majority of my classmates and myself that exists even today, regardless of the angst and anguish of issues such as Dartmouth’s Indian mascot that typified my undergraduate years and notwithstanding the financial chasm that separates most Native Alums and our schoolmates perhaps there is a bit of Dartmouth green in my blood after all.
Just my two dentalias’ worth.
Andre Cramblit is a Karuk Tribal Member from the Klamath and Salmon rivers in northwest California and the Operations Director of the Northern California Indian Development Council. He lives with his wife Wendy and son Kyle in Arcata, California.