I am 9 years old standing in my grandma’s backyard in Québec, Canada, watching the ships slice through the frigid water of the St. Lawrence Seaway. She lives on what people call a reservation, a piece of land that the Canadian government gave to the Mohawk Native Americans. A place where they could be with other Native Americans. A place they could call their own. My nine-year-old mind, however, is swimming with so many thoughts — why am I only surrounded by Natives? It’s almost as if we’re being separated from the rest of the world.
As the years passed, I longed to learn more about my Mohawk ancestors. After all, it’s half of who I am, and I wanted to get to the bottom of why we were treated differently from other people and why others saw us as less than. Why, for example, was my dad called a savage when he played baseball in neighboring towns? I am saddened by how harshly we judge one another. Never attempting to see what might lie beyond our physical appearance. Aside from a thin epidermal covering, we’re all the same. Within us, there’s the same pounding heart that yearns for love and acceptance. The very same things make us happy, sad, angry, hopeful, and excited.
Kahnawà:ke is the reservation where my dad grew up. Translated from Mohawk to English, the name means “by the rapids.” It is by these rapids that I skipped rocks, daydreamed, and searched for answers. I spent most summers with my grandma, or tóta, learning a little Mohawk and a lot about my people. Here I am known not as Elle but Kaia’tano:ron. I am named after the first, and only, Mohawk Catholic saint from our town. I take great pride in my name. I can only pray I will live my life with the same grace and dignity that she did.
Summers were spent at a slower pace in Kahnawà:ke than that of my frequently uprooted Navy brat life in the States. I savored every moment. My tóta and I would take leisurely strolls past St. Francis Xavier Catholic Mission to Kateri School, where she attended as a child. The building itself looks like any other old northeastern brick school, but it holds many secrets. It is what is known as a Native American day school, run by the government and Catholic Church for the purpose of not only educating but stripping Mohawks of their language and culture to assimilate us. My dad, uncles, aunts, and grandparents attended Kateri, often being hit or berated for speaking their native language or writing with their left hand. They were the lucky ones.
My Auntie Dee suffered a worse fate when she was taken from her home and forced into residential school for most of her childhood. I remember her gentle hands as she rolled dough for the endless batches of scrumptious cookies she would bake for her friends and family every Christmas. Auntie Dee didn’t talk much, but she had a way of connecting through her shy smile and kind eyes. She never spoke of her days at the residential school, but I often wondered how those years affected her sweet spirit. Although she is now gone, her quiet strength and resilience remind me to persevere no matter how insurmountable the challenge, which brings me to where I am today.
As I begin my second year here at Florida State, I am constantly reminded of the sacrifices made by my ancestors. I hope that they are watching over me, proud to see a Native American attending a college as prestigious as FSU. Proud that — even though it took centuries — everything they went through opened the door to a plethora of new, invigorating opportunities. Proud that they broke the glass ceiling, paving the way for generations of future Native American students.
So here I am at 19 years old. The years have flown quickly by and, more and more, I discover myself thinking back to my carefree summers on the reservation. Remembering the words and lessons from my tóta. Thankful for all I’ve learned of my ancestors. Hopeful for the future. Excited that I am the second person in my Mohawk family to attend college. Longing to make proud a family who has fought and struggled through generations so that I could have the opportunities I have today. Most of all, I’m deeply humbled and profoundly grateful.