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I am Potawatomi Indian.

This year, my friends Cynthia and Joe convinced me to join AISES, the American Indian Science & Engineering Society for STEM students of native descent.  Being that my grandfather died in the 1970s and I’ve never been able to explore my native heritage, my friends urged me to participate in this new group.  They said it would give me connections and open doors.  They said it would be like a new family.  I was skeptical, imagining a society of full-blood, reservation-dwelling natives.  My friends told me this is not the case and, besides, (joking about the history of the fur trade) almost any Midwest Indian is at least part French!  As funny as it sounded, there’s actually a lot of truth to French heritage in Midwest Indians.  My French ancestor was a fur trader.  No joke.

I joined the group in spring 2012.  Shortly after, an announcement was made about the National Conference.  There were prizes for a student research competition.  I was enthralled.  Work at my internship was sometimes slow, and working on a project would give me a long-term goal.  Reading more into the project, I learned that it was in fact being held in Anchorage, Alaska!  I felt like I could only dream.  But as I brought the competition to the attention of my boss at GRL, he only encouraged the idea.  Before I knew it, I was doing a geotechnical study on offshore wind turbine foundations.  I used a proposed site in Lake Erie outside of Cleveland as my model, thanks to LeedCo for meeting with me and giving me data.  My goals were to convince my audience that a software program could be pursued by my company for modeling a foundation and that offshore wind energy would be an excellent resource for tribes with water rights.  Projects already exist on other reservations for solar panels and onshore turbines, so why not explore the Great Lakes too?

I just got out of midterms.  My project extended beyond my internship due to the difficulty of choosing a specific topic and then finding the needed materials.  Finishing a poster during midterm week turned out to be a nightmare, and making my presentation was only more difficult.  What did my audience know?  How much was too much?  How much of it should be relevant to me being a native, or sustainable, or should it all just be science, science, science?  The theme of the conference is “Adapt-ability”.  I chose to emphasize the need to pursue other means of energy, of green energy.

I was fortunate enough to apply to a SOURCE grant at school and win the maximum prize of $600.  A couple weeks ago, I made a presentation to ASCE Cleveland chapter.  I was afraid to ask money and afraid they wouldn’t have it anyway, but they granted me with the remaining $500 to completely cover my trip.  I couldn’t believe it.  Not only did I earn pay at my internship to do research in which I was interested, get accepted to a competition with a shot to earn more money, and have the chance to attend a national native event for my first time, but I had a paid way to Alaska!!!

My things were packed, my poster rolled, and my presentation backed up several times.  I called my friends Claire and Paul.  They took me to the Jolly Scholar on campus to wish me farewell.  I shared with them my anxieties: I’m traveling alone.  I’m basically going to Russia.  I’m going to make a fool out of myself… They just laughed and praised me and made me realize how great friends are.  We watched as Hurricane Sandy ripped apart the shorelines out east and Claire told me her brother was on Long Island right at that moment.  Then we looked outside and groaned.  When we were ready to go back, we had to literally run.  The rain was slanted horizontally into our faces and the umbrellas we brought were inverted.  Our coats were drenched in seconds.  Our only hope was to sprint and not get blown away.  They hugged me and Paul, who had lent me an extra coat, told me to give it back when I returned.  “If I return,” I joked, always imagining I’m going to die in a plane crash.  As soon as I returned, I hung his jacket with a sticky note so that I wouldn’t forget.  Then I opened the door and welcomed in my friend, Keith, who also came to say goodbye.  You would think I was leaving for good.

Lying in bed, some other fears creep into my mind.  I haven’t been around native people much, at least not natives who are on reservations and greatly active in their cultures.  Will I say the wrong thing?  I want to ask questions, but I don’t want to sound ignorant or rude.  Will they even accept me?  Will I not be native to them because I’m not living on a reservation, I’m not full-blood, I’m not in touch with my culture?  Am I too naïve?  Then the worst thought sunk in: Will they not take me seriously because… I have blue-green eyes?

I pulled the covers over my head, imagining what it would be like to wear brown eye contacts until I finally fell sound asleep.