Student explains difficulties of proving his Native heritage

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Cameron Piercy is a tall young man with blond hair and piercing blue eyes. At the time of our first interview, his pale skin was marred by a small sunburn on his nose.

“People don’t know I’m Native American until they find out I’m president of the Native American Student Association,” said Piercy, junior in communication studies and political science, with a smile. “Sometimes I have to show them the card to prove it.”

The card in question, Piercy’s Tribal Membership card, states that he is a registered member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and lists him as 1/16 Choctaw. Piercy’s Choctaw lineage comes from his great-great-grandmother on his mother’s side of the family.

There are some who might believe 1/16 is not enough for him to be considered Native American. Piercy recalled a time when he and his mother were in the waiting room at the Choctaw Nation Health Care Center and a fellow Native woman looked at him and scoffed, “I remember when this place used to be full of sick Indians.”

Piercy is not offended by the misconceptions of others, but he does understand their doubts. Piercy said the Choctaw Nation is actively expanding their membership, and have changed the criteria to join. At the time he was born, Piercy would have been the last generation of his family to be eligible to join the tribe, because his own children would have had too small a percent of Choctaw blood. Today, Piercy said his grandchildren could be eligible to join.

Not all tribes are as flexible with their membership, and not all people of Native American descent are officially recognized as Native Americans. Georgia Perez, the association’s adviser, is one-quarter Sac and Fox, but cannot become a member of the tribe because she does not have an immediate parent who is registered.

“It’s a shame that I’m considered Native American on paper whereas Georgia is not,” Piercy said. “It’s a problem for many: what is Native and what is not.”

Perez has tried to become a registered member of the Sac and Fox, but said she soon discovered it was a dead end.

“It does bother me that I can’t claim my heritage,” Perez said. “I have a much richer life by my interaction with the Native American students.”

As a registered member of the Choctaw Nation, Piercy is provided with a $1,000 scholarship each year by his tribe for his college education. He is also a Gates Millennium Scholar, a prestigious scholarship funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for American college students of African American, Asian, Hispanic or Native American heritage. Neither of these scholarships are available to unregistered Native Americans.

Piercy said cognitive dissonance, which is a feeling of discomfort caused by having two conflicting ideas at the same time, is one of his favorite ways to describe his life.

“I am one thing; I’m also another thing, and how does it fit in?” Piercy said.

One thing that Piercy has never been doubted, however, is how much he loves his Native heritage.

Piercy’s home town is Comanche, Okla., a small community in southern Oklahoma with a little more than 1,500 people on the 2000 U.S. Census. Some of his earliest memories are of attending powwows with his grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-aunts.

His great-grandmother, who is 93 years old, has been a big influence on Piercy’s life. She attended a boarding school as a child, where she was forced to speak English and punished for speaking her native Choctaw language. Since then, she has taken classes to re-learn Choctaw and has taught some phrases to Piercy.

“It’s very important to my grandma that she preserve her part of our heritage,” said Piercy. “I want my children to know their culture. It’s a shame they’ll probably never get to know great-grandma.”

Piercy has used his educational opportunities at K-State to share his Native culture with others. He joined the association soon after arriving and became president this semester.

Last May, Piercy was one of five students from K-State to attend a powwow at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence. For some of the students, it was their first powwow, and Piercy was glad to share the experience with them.

Joining the association has also given Piercy a chance to learn more about other tribes from all over the U.S., share their differences and celebrate their similarities.

Piercy said it is important to him to preserve and share Native culture, not just with his own children, but with everyone.

“It’s theoretical that many native tribes will die out,” said Piercy. “Culture can’t live on without people pushing it; remembering what it was like. I don’t want Native culture to go away.”

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