What’s My Story?
I grew up in a city far from my mother’s hometown and my father’s homeland. My mother left the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to go to college in Rochester, NY and in her senior year she met my father who was visiting the area. My dad was staying with a brother who had immigrated here from Germany. My parents fell in love, married, and settled here.
This area where I grew up is filled with many Irish and Italian families. (There are many other ethnic groups in the Rochester region now) When I was young, I was shy and wanted to blend in, so when people at school asked me what I was, I answered, “German.” I always got the confused looks because of my dark complexion, brown eyes, and dark hair. Being the oldest child in my family, I had the role of being the “only Indian” in my school. Once my classmates found that out, my life changed. I endured name-calling and other things, and I felt different. I leaned on sports which I loved and did well in most games I played. Sports help me be accepted and valued.
My first real experience with prejudice came when I was 16. I’m grateful my parents were able to take us on trips to Germany and to South Dakota regularly, to get to know our family members and our family history. However, on this trip we had a special circumstance to visit the reservation. My grandfather, David Black Cloud, wanted us to have a naming ceremony. All of us received our Indian names during this trip. It was exciting for me, and I cherish the memories. Anyway, we stayed in a hotel in a nearby town off the reservation, and whenever we went anywhere, people would only look and speak to my father. If I were asking a question, they would look through me and speak only to my father. That feeling of being invisible is something I will never forget. When I returned home, I told very few people about my trip.
It wasn’t until sometime after college that I began to understand how some of my friends were proud of their identity…and mine. I kept hearing people say to me, “Oh, I wish I were Native American, that’s so cool.”
I began to accept my identity and read more. Television shows changed and began airing Native American history and the struggles of the 1800s. I remember watching a program one day and my daughter was hooked and sat down to watch with me. She kept asking, “Why don’t they teach us this stuff in school?” Great question!
I began to look at my teaching materials and noticed how the artwork and content didn’t match. Sketches and clip art were stereotyped and definitely didn’t match the right Native culture. As my knowledge grew, so did my awareness that our children were not learning the right facts about our own Nation’s history.
We continued to travel every few years to the reservation to visit our family. I wanted to learn more about our family history from my cousins who lived there. I admired them, their customs, the activities they did, their regalia, their family life. I was always sad when we had to leave.
Then, in 1994, one of our cousins mailed a newspaper article to my mom. I was at the kitchen table when she opened it, pregnant with my last child. We were all surprised to learn about her uncle, John Bear King, and his special service in WWII. The newspaper article and photo explained he was an Indian Code Talker in the Pacific Theater and the last man in his group was alive and talking about what the seven men did. (There were only six men in the photo, and at the time the surviving Code Talker couldn’t recall his full name.) Reading the article and seeing the photo of the men in the jungle stirred lots of emotions in me that day- excitement, wonder, joy, pride- AND lots of questions.
What was a code talker? Did the code talkers help win the war? Why are we only finding out about this now?
Being the keeper of the family tree file, I set out to answer these questions. I intended to find a book at the library, make a copy of the page that gave more facts about great-uncle John Bear King and the code talkers, and put it in the family tree file for my kids. This was certainly a story to keep for the family history!
Little did I know this day would be the start of a 21 year journey!
Great News- My book Sioux Code Talkers of World War II is coming soon! Click here for more details.