Student’s path to reconnect with her American Indian heritage

Liam Jackson
April 17, 2015

In high school, Courtney Jackson loved science and entered as many science fairs as she could find. When her mother suggested that she sign up for a fair that was only open to American Indian students, Jackson was surprised.

“I had no idea then that we were part American Indian, but I was excited to learn that there was another aspect of my heritage that I had known very little about,” Jackson said.

Through conversations with her mother, Jackson learned that her great-grandmother grew up at a time when many American Indian children were sent to segregated boarding schools, so her family concealed their ancestry. As the attitude toward Native Americans improved, Jackson’s grandmother rekindled her ties with the Fond du Lac Ojibwe tribe in northern Minnesota, located a few miles from Jackson’s hometown of Cloquet, Minnesota.

“Ever since learning about my heritage, I’ve been making up for lost time and trying to immerse myself in as much of the culture that was available to me,” Jackson said.

Jackson soon joined her local chapter of American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), became friends with Ojibwe tribal elders, who served as mentors, and took an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) language class.

After graduating from high school, Jackson followed her love of science to Penn State as a Bunton-Waller scholar. She’s graduating in May 2015 with a degree in geography and plans to attend graduate school at the University of North Dakota to study flooding in the Great Plains.

She spent much of her four years on campus learning more about her American Indian heritage, including taking an American Indian history class and participating in summer research experiences specifically for American Indian students.

“It’s important to know where you came from because it has a profound effect on who you are and how you identify yourself as a person,” she said. “Heritage is about recognizing the history of you, from your family history to the cultural history of your ancestors and preserving those important details.”

As a freshman and sophomore, Jackson participated in AISES at a national level, then during her junior year helped establish the first AISES chapter at Penn State. She served as president, helping to build ties among the American Indian students enrolled in STEM majors on campus.

“We tried to reach out to all American Indian students on campus to build a network of support and help students feel connected with one another,” she said.

Being in Pennsylvania -- where there are no federally recognized American Indian tribes -- was initially hard for Jackson, who had grown close to many members of the Fond du Lac Ojibwe tribe in Minnesota. But she found mentors and support figures, like the staff from the EMS Educational Equity office, where she stopped in every week.

“It’s so helpful just to have people to talk with about how life is going, and I really built strong relationships with all the staff in the Educational Equity office,” she says.

Jackson also built connections with the Office of Engineering Diversity staff, which included her AISES adviser. Another important mentor was John Sanchez, associate professor of communications, who coordinated the New Faces of an Ancient People Traditional American Indian Powwow for 11 years before it ended in 2014. Jackson volunteered with the powwow and says that Sanchez’s influence was invaluable.

“I often get looks when I tell people I identify as American Indian due to my skin, eye, and hair color. Sanchez’s words of encouragement made me not feel ashamed anymore to tell others my heritage -- because, regardless of what they thought, at least I knew who I was,” she said.

Jackson valued her participation in the Powwow because it allowed her a chance to share her heritage and dispel myths around American Indian stereotypes.

“Being American Indian isn’t about teepees or peace pipes, and that’s what many people think initially. We’re a people rich in culture and tradition, and I think that’s something that anyone can understand, no matter what your background is,” she said.

As she continues on to graduate school, educating others about her ancestors’ traditions and culture will be at the forefront of her mind.

“What I want people to know is that although we may be rooted to our traditions and ways of life, we are eager as a people to share our culture with the world in hopes to help keep our spirit, traditions and way of life alive for centuries to come,” she said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 20, 2015