It started while I was still an aspiring academic, nearing the end of a Ph.D. program in computer science. My mother was making a living as a stockbroker. She cold-called the chairman of the computer science department in the Denver area. It was a place I’d mentioned as one place I’d like to teach when I graduated. Over the course of several calls, she talked me up to him, and got the usual reply — there were generally about 400 resumes in for every tenure track opening, send a resume, they’d call me, don’t bother to call them.
In the course of the conversation, it came up that she — and therefore I — had Indian blood, both Choctaw and Cherokee according to family tradition, with some reason to believe it since both her parents had been born in the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations before they became Oklahoma. Mom had even received checks from the Cherokee oil money for a while.
In fact, it had even been a source of some trouble in the family, as my other grandfather, born in the Deep South, wasn’t thrilled to have a not-quite-white daughter-in-law. But then, it hadn’t always been something people talked about in Oklahoma, either. As my great aunt had put it to her, one didn’t offer that information lightly, because “to some people it was like being part ni**er”.
Now, in 1960 I just thought it was cool. When my playmates played Cowboys and Indians, I insisted on being an Indian, and cried when the other kids told me the Indians had to always lose. I watched the Westerns everyone watched, I gave show and tell talks about Indians and the Trail of Tears, and when I learned the both tribes had used blowguns, I spent a summer making a nuisance of myself by making toy blowguns and shooting darts with them.
So it wasn’t exactly a surprise that she mentioned being an Indian. She was proud of it, and unlike me, she looked the part: straight, nearly black hair; tan; and high cheekbones.
What was a surprise was the way the department chairman reacted. He was suddenly very interested, not so much in the stocks but in her Ph.D. candidate son. I went from being just another applicant to being a Prize Catch. They wanted to talk to me; they were excited to have me apply to their small but well-known school.
And pretty quickly, I caught on: they had me pegged now, not as a Ph.D. student, but as a Native American Ph.D. student.
Do you have any idea how many Native American Ph.D. candidates there were in computer science that year?