Office of Civil Rights
November 1, 2013

Date: 11/01/2013 Description: Native American Heritage Month 2013: John Kowalski - State Dept Image My family has remained proud of our Native American (which we still proudly refer to as our “Indian ancestry’). My maternal grandmother is of Cherokee Nation descent. She was born and raised on a Cherokee reservation near Tahlequah, OK. Some of her earliest school memories were of her being forced to cut her hair and being forced to become a Christian. She remembered her life growing up as hard and lacking in most everything, apart from the love within her closely knit family. She also related how her uncle was most anguished about having to hide his heritage and class himself as at least half-white instead of full-blooded Cherokee in order to start up and keep his small business as only whites and half whites could own businesses then. Another of my ancestors carried to Washington one of the dedication bricks that is now part of the Washington Monument – a proud moment showing how Indians are proud members of their tribe, but also proud Americans. Some of my grandmother’s most-treasured possessions were her moccasins she wore as a child. A few years before she passed away (last year at 96 years of age), she gave me one of her moccasins which has traveled with me and has been proudly displayed in my offices around the world. She has traced her family roots to 1840 in Oklahoma, after our ancestors were resettled there in the Trail of Tears. Through my grandmother’s heritage, I am a registered member of the Cherokee Nation.

Our recognized Cherokee heritage is the result of my maternal grandfather’s life long struggle to get his and his wife’s (my grandmother’s) Indian heritage recognized. He died before it happened, but thanks to his noble efforts and tenacity, we now all have our heritage officially recognized. My grandfather is Ojibwe (Chippewa) from northern Wisconsin. My grandfather’s recorded heritage spans back to the 1830s when French voyageurs traveled to the area and intermarried with local populations (some say as a way to gain trapping rights on lands at the time). My grandfather’s cousin honored our family in WWII as a B-17 tail gunner over Germany. In my grandfather’s earlier years, he was a railroad inspector which required him to travel to various parts of the country, including through Oklahoma where he met, married, and settled eventually in southeastern Wisconsin.

Our Cherokee and Ojibwe heritage has always been a proud part of our family history, but one with sometime unexpected consequences. I had always (proudly) ticked that survey box indicating that I have native heritage. I did that also when I entered university. A few weeks after, I was called to the university’s office of civil rights where I was offered a full scholarship because of my heritage. The scholarship was offered to me with one condition – that I sign a statement promising that I wouldn’t drop out of school. Ashamed and offended of how I experienced “being Indian” meant to our university system, I refused the scholarship and went on to finish my university degree (the first to do so in my family). I only got up the courage to tell my family about the offensive offer years later.

I remain proud of my heritage. While others decorate their offices abroad with things collected from their various postings, I continue to decorate mine with mementos of my Cherokee and Ojibwe heritage – decorations that always make others think and always seem to strike up a conversation about Native Americana, usually with the question “So, what is the story behind that moccasin?”