By Tori Levy
Walking into a class filled with 20 other students, I felt out of place. I was a new freshman who knew no one as the other students hugged and said “Aya” to one another.
I became frazzled and sat down quietly in the corner at a desk; I kept asking myself what “Aya” meant. I didn’t know if I belonged there.
Secluded with my head down, I didn’t think I belonged there. I didn’t know the language, the culture, or the people. I just knew what I was: Native American.
My grandmother stopped talking to my family when I was around 8-years-old. I don’t know the specifics, and I don’t like to ask, but the wound was not easy to clean. It left an invisible scar with detached memories.
I didn’t know my grandmother, but I can make out the minor details about her. The silver strands of her hair aligned in a long bob, creases at the edges of her lips, and her brown eyes. I’m sure she’s changed in 10 years, but that’s what comes to my mind when I picture her.
I must resemble her in some way, because I’ve been told I look like my dad. However, her voice, her home, and her name have dissipated from my mind, but she still held onto something that belonged to me after all these years.
Up until junior in high school, I identified myself as Jewish because of my mom’s side of the family. That changed when my dad pulled me aside and started talking unfamiliar terms and relaying the words Native American to me. I was no longer just a Jewish girl. I was a Native American, Jewish girl. I knew what it meant be Jewish, but as for being Native American, my only knowledge had been from history books.
My dad had never mentioned we were Native American growing up, and at first I didn’t know why it mattered after all of this time. I wasn’t a part of anything.
I didn’t know the history behind my heritage, what tribe I was from, how far back I was connected; I didn’t know anything about that part of my life. These answers were with my grandmother. I had been kept in the dark about who I was.
“I knew when I was young. Everyone knew. It was a big thing in my mom’s family,” said my dad.
When my grandmother stopped engaging with my dad, he lost touch with his Native American roots.
“Had we been more involved with my mom, you probably would’ve known more. I had no exposure because we were with your mom’s side of the family,” he continued to me.
My dad still kept in touch with some members of his family, but I rarely saw them growing up. His Aunt Sue and cousin George were enormously involved in the tribe and reached out to him when I started looking into schools my junior year. My dad explained to me that George was a teacher for the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma working at Miami University, and there was a program designed for Myaamia tribe members.
The Heritage Award program enables a scholarship for Myaamia students as they take classes learning about their heritage for the four years they are in Miami. I didn’t decide on Miami right away. I actually deferred from it a little. I didn’t want my parents to choose where I ended up.
But as much as I tried to
I stepped into the first day of class knowing no one. As I was hovering alone in the back, Ian Young approached me. He greeted me with a wide smile and a charismatic “Aya.”
“The thing about Myaamia freshman students- they are all types different walks of life. You have some that have been practicing Myaamia their entire lives, while some who have just discovered,” said Young.
I was latter.
I spent that year learning about my ancestors. The first year we studied the ecology and history of the Myaamia tribe. I learned about the emergence story, “Seekaahkweeta.” and how the Myaamia came out of the water. I learned how to play lacrosse- I’ll add not well. I learned when the first frost hits the grass the winter stories are revisited until the first thunderstorm of spring. I learned that “Aya” means hello.
I acquired the Strack tree genealogy, which was my family. It was a 12 pages document of where I had come from and who my family members were. I didn’t even know what all of it meant, but it was I. This was my identity: my past, present, and future.
When I walked into the classroom my sophomore year of college, I was no longer overwhelmed or nervous. I hugged friends, and we caught up on our summer tales. I always knew I was Native American, but I never knew what it meant to be Native American
It’s revitalizing a culture that has been within you all along. Now I can say with confidence, “Aya weenswiaani Tori, and I’m part of the Myaamia tribe.”