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Professor West’s Story Brings Native American Heritage Month Into Focus

November, 2018
  • Native American artifacts were on display in the Harrington Learning Center.
    Native American artifacts were on display in the Harrington Learning Center.
  • A photo of Professor Doe West's grandmother
    QCC Professor Dr. Doe West's grandmother was a Native American from the Lenape tribe.

November is designated National Native American Heritage Month, a time to recognize, reflect and learn about the significant contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the United States. Native American culture is not homogenous.  Every nation and tribe within the nations are unique, yet they have erroneously been grouped together.

On October 24, QCC's I Stand With Immigrants Day of Action brought together students, faculty and staff as they shared their stories and personal experiences. One of the most captivating stories was given by Professor and Chair of the Human Services Department, Dr. Doe West, who discussed her Native American heritage.

There are few, if any on campus who can speak with more knowledge on this subject than Dr. West, whose grandmother was a Native American. Her grandmother’s heritage was Lenape or Lenni-Lenape (later named Delaware Indians by Europeans). In the 1600s they were loosely organized bands of Native American people practicing small-scale agriculture to augment a largely mobile hunter-gatherer society in the region around the Delaware River, the lower Hudson River, and western Long Island. 

 “It was important when we were having the conversation about the governmental treatment of immigrants and those deemed ‘the other’ to remember Native Americans experienced such issues as the break-up of families and violence created by fear and prejudice,” Dr. West said.

Dr. West talked about the shame associated with what happened to Native Americans, noting how an entire culture was ravaged by diseases such as small pox and measles that were brought with them from other lands. The Native Americans were also virtually wiped out by the European settlers due to the lust and greed of wanting more and more land. 

Dr. West told the story of her grandmother who was taken from her tribe by missionaries at the age of 8 after her parents died to “save her” from the “savages.” Her grandmother was taken to a white woman’s house in New York where she became a slave for the family working in the kitchen.

“They called me ‘the girl,’ but I knew what I was; I was the slave and that’s how I was treated,” Dr. West said her grandmother told her. By the age of 11 her grandmother had escaped the home after cultivating a relationship with the owner of a hat factory and worked nights cleaning the factory in exchange for being allowed to sleep in a storage room.  Child labor issues allowed her that terrible option.

By age 12, she had caught the eye of Dr. West’s soon to be grandfather, the son of a farmer and local butcher, who saw her at a grange (community) dance. Her grandfather’s parents were horrified that their son would want to be with an Indian woman; however, since her grandmother was light-skinned they agreed to allow them to be together if she dressed, talked and acted like a white woman and renounced her heritage. 

It wasn’t until Dr. West was 8 years old that she learned of her heritage from her grandmother, who recognized something within her spirit and felt she was to be taught the ways of her people, she said.  It remained something private between them as long as she lived with the family due to prejudice that remained in that area.  Dr. West finally attended her first pow-wow when she entered college and her eyes were opened further to the plight of Native Americans; as well as the beauty and importance of her heritage and that of all tribal nations.

“Seventy years ago Native Americans could not vote,” she said, adding that many on the reservation today only have post office boxes and so a law was developed that made it necessary to have a street address in order to vote. “It was a next clear denial of rights,” she said.

Dr. West said that today the Native Americans are finding new strength and community support as others add their voice to theirs in such environmental struggles as Standing Rock. 

A historic milestone you will see celebrated by a sign on her wall was the recent election of two Native American women, Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland into Congress.

But it is a sign on her door says it all.  “If you’re an American your heritage is Native American, slave, refugee or immigrant that’s it.”

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