Fragments of Conversation
Willamette's Native American History and Alumni
In October 2010, professor Rebecca Dobkins needed data. Part of Willamette’s venturesome anthropology department, she sought a list of graduates who self-identify as Native American to begin a new oral history project. With it came a new chapter in the story of Willamette’s genesis and its people.
There were just 123 alumni listed, though this says more about the limits of record-keeping than the number of Willamette’s Native American students over the years (if nobody asks, or people feel uncomfortable reporting, there are no data). Dobkins enlisted current students to interview alumni she found, and the experience affected students just as it did the alumni they met. Tough topics came up for the first time in decades — I struggled as a student because of racism; I didn’t explore my own identity — but the students wanted to ask, and the alumni wanted to answer. Productive exchange began.
What follows are some new perspectives on Native American influence at Willamette, some retrieved from periods of time when cultural identity wasn’t part of the conversation. Mere glimpses of the load of material Dobkins’ students produced, these excerpts can still teach us something about Willamette, its story and its trajectory.
Robert Tom ’60
Confederated Tribes of Siletz, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (Oregon)
Interviewer: Shane DePoe ’13
In brief: Tom attended Willamette in 1956-57 before taking a leave and returning to the University of Oregon. In 1977, he lobbied for the reinstatement of federal recognition for the Siletz Tribe, and he served as the tribe’s first general manager. He then worked for 17 years as Siletz’s education specialist and education director, and he continues to emcee pow wows (including Willamette’s) while participating in tribal affairs.
“I came to Willamette on a football and basketball scholarship. I arrived in the fall with three friends, and there were four fraternities on campus. I went along as two of them pledged; one pledged to the “jock” fraternity, but I pledged at a different one simply because others weren’t friendly to minorities. One friend left his fraternity and came over to mine (Beta Theta Pi) when he found out.
“While I was going to school later at the University of Oregon, our tribe was trying to restore its federal recognition. One day I was sitting at the table with my mom and she said, ‘Why aren’t you trying to help your uncle? He’s trying to do something good for the tribe — you’re not helping.’ That was 1973 and I had to decide which to finish: my degree at the University of Oregon or the work helping the tribe get reinstated. I withdrew from school and worked from 1973 to 1977, helping the tribe get its federal recognition.
“There’s a saying, ‘Don’t measure a person when times are good; measure him when he’s bad.’ We were in some awful situations over the decades, with racist people saying ugly things and resistance to the tribe being recognized. Just getting through those times and watching others do a wonderful job to represent our people — that experience is one of the highlights of my life.”
“Sometimes people don’t realize that young people hold onto traditions, but they do. Giving traditions — and people — recognition is important.”
— Rebecca Hall ’12.
In addition to her oral-history work, Hall is finishing a thesis project working with Vietnam veterans to understand their experiences during and after the war — as well as how other people treat them. “The trick is to not ask stereotypical questions,” she says. “Avoid walking into the conversation with judgment, and it can take you somewhere interesting.”
Mary Pearson JD’76
Interviewer: Alison London-Pusser ’13
In brief: Pearson practiced in Oregon and Idaho before working for 20 years as a tribal judge, serving as chief judge for both the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane Tribes. She was a founding member and vice president of the Northwest Indian Bar Association and vice president for the Northwest Tribal Court Judges Association. She has been an appellate justice for the Shoshone Bannock Tribal Court of Appeals since 2009.
“I was raised Catholic, the middle child. I didn’t know I was Indian until first grade — I found out I was different when I overheard someone say that my dad was a prairie ni**er while I was playing jacks on the concrete with another girl.
“Later, most of my experiences at the College of Law were positive, but I’d characterize several as racist. I had a civil procedure class. I asked my professor about a jurisdictional issue in an Indian law case, and he blew me off, saying, ‘Oh, that’s not important,’ or words to that effect. I never asked a question in that class again.
“After my first year of law school I worked for the Office of the Attorney General; during my second year, I worked part time for the Oregon Indian Alcohol Abuse Program and volunteered with Indian prisoners. In my third year, I worked for the Urban Indian Program and set up a legal service.
“I helped organize the Indian prisoners, and we created a nonprofit to deliver culturally appropriate services to prisoners — one of the projects we worked on was obtaining the right to practice religion.”
“The resilience of the native students and adults with whom I have had the pleasure of interacting is truly inspiring … I would hate to see a one-time use of this interesting topic.”
— Catherine Simonson ’12.
Simonson, of white and Japanese heritage, found meaning in her conversation with Lisa Morehead-Neuner ’88. “We shared stories of assimilation and acculturation forced upon our families for survival,” she says.
Lisa Morehead-Neuner ’88
Interviewer: Catherine Simonson ’12
In brief: After studying abroad at Ludwig Maximilian Universität, Morehead-Neuner moved to Germany. She earned her master’s in adult education at the Technical University Kaiserslautern, Germany, and she currently teaches English and history at the University of Applied Languages, Munich.
“My mother is of Karuk background, but she was raised by her parents in a way that made it clear that you are to integrate into white society. We still thought it was neat that we were Indian, and it was interesting that I didn’t recognize the stigma that’s attached to that until I was a young woman.
“I married a European aristocrat, so everyone coming here to visit had their mind boggled. My grandmother was thrilled — a Klamath River Indian marrying into Austrian aristocracy — but at the dinner table, with silver and everything, she was uncomfortable and said she didn’t even like being near the jewelry cases in department stores because she was afraid someone would think she was stealing something. That really brought home the fact that she always felt like a second-class citizen.
“From a distance you can understand yourself better sometimes.”
Marie Watt ’90
Seneca (New York)
Interviewer: Kelsey White ’14
In brief: Well-known as an artist, Watt studied after Willamette at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, N.M., and interned at the National Gallery of Art. In 1996, she earned a MFA in painting and printmaking from Yale University. She taught for 10 years at Portland Community College. “Marie Watt: Lodge,” a mid-career retrospective exhibition, appeared at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in spring 2012.
“In kindergarten, we all went around in a circle and said what our ethnic backgrounds were, and I joked I was part cowboy and part Indian. My mom grew up in upstate New York on a reservation and eventually got involved with the Indian community in Seattle. My dad grew up in Wyoming; his parents were ranchers and educators, so there’s the cowboy element.
“My mom was a Title IX Indian education specialist and did a lot of cultural programming. According to my dad, I resisted going to her programs, but looking back they shaped my values significantly. She was an advocate for native students and offered services that encouraged their educational journey and successful completion of high school. Prior to 1978 and the Indian Child Welfare Act, native children around the country got adopted into non-native homes, and there weren’t cultural resources to help educate them and their new families. She helped these young people learn about their tribal identities.
“When I was at Willamette, there wasn’t much of a visible native community, though there were Hawaiian natives with whom I was familiar. It’s kind of funny — I feel like Willamette is a cooler place now than when I went there. The relationship WU has with the Chemawa Indian School is a prime example of creating a link. It actually excites me about Willamette, and, for my occasional curmudgeonly anti-alumni-ness, it makes me proud and happy to have an affiliation with the university.”
Margaret Hoffman ’03
Interviewer: Rebecca Hall ’13
In brief: Though she began college at the University of Portland, Hoffman and her sister Lena helped found Willamette’s Native American Enlightenment Association. She served post-graduation with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua; today she works in health poromotion/disease prevention, promoting awareness at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage.
“Willamette was small and supportive of students trying to do different things, though there wasn’t any native student organization when my sister and I got there. I had joined the Hawaii club at the University of Portland, and it pulled me in because we were all from two disconnected states, someplace far away where the culture is different. Eventually, my sister and I, with two others, started Willamette’s Native American Enlightenment Association. We started going out to Chemawa Indian School to tutor and get to know the students and teachers there.
“I knew in high school that I wanted to go into the Peace Corps — something healthrelated — so I went as a health education volunteer. I was there for two-and-a-half years. And the whole time I was in Nicaragua I was thinking, ‘You know this is what you should be doing at home.’ So as soon as I got done, I went home and found jobs that would get me to rural Alaska to do the same kind of health education.
“A lot of people, when they come from a village or a Native community, find it hard to go someplace like Willamette, where it’s so different; you don’t have the usual support system. Getting involved with the Native community, in school and at Chemawa, helped me finish down there. There are many good programs now at Willamette.”
Lena (Hoffman) Jacobs ’05
Interviewer: Ceara Lewis ’13
In brief: Hoffman spent part of her sophomore year at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in the Department of Alaska Native Studies. She spent the spring of her junior year studying abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico. Having recently earned her master’s degree in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley, she manages the leadership development initiatives of the First Alaskan Institute.
“My sister and I grew up all around Alaska in about seven different communities; we took our Athabascan heritage with us everywhere we moved. My heritage has been part of my identity since I knew what an identity was.
“I started at Willamette and finished at Willamette, but I moved around a lot in between. Before, I had a six-year plan to major in psychology and then go to grad school to become a clinical psychologist, but in my first semester of psychology I decided that was too much science. That’s when I found anthropology, and I took all the classes I could at Willamette related to indigenous cultures. I found more in Fairbanks and took a full load of Alaska Native studies courses because they’ve got a major up there for that.
“The Native American Enlightenment Association at WU really helped with my transition, and I got involved with tons of student organizations through the Office of Multicultural Affairs. I volunteered at Bush Elementary,
Willamette Academy, other places.
“Now something I say to the students I work with — many don’t know what they want to do when they graduate high school —is that you don’t have to have it all figured out right away. Giving yourself the freedom to look for and choose what is right for you is important. It doesn’t have to be one direct path or one right way of doing things.”