An Awful, Awful, Unnatural Experience

Brian Maracle | Mohawk | 1965-1969

Twenty years ago, Brian Maracle and his wife Audrey founded a Mohawk language immersion school on the Six Nations Reserve in southern Ontario – Brian’s home. There, he teaches and produces fluent speakers of the Mohawk language – an undertaking that requires a much different approach than the Western method of teaching, which usually approaches language word-by-word. The Mohawk language, Brian explained, is polysynthetic – meaning that any given word in the Mohawk language is often the equivalent of an entire sentence in English.

“You have to get inside the language and figure out how it functions,” Brian said. “Computers have an operating system. If you don’t know how to use the operating system you are a slave to whatever program you are using. But once you know the operating system you can modify any of the programs you are using, you can do anything you want with it. What we’ve done is we’ve finally figured out the operating system for the Mohawk language. I used to have teachers that would say, this is a pen, and I would memorize the word for pen. I came across a good teacher, and they said that word doesn’t necessarily mean pen. This word means ‘something that someone uses to write with.’ So, you have to take apart all of the different parts of a word and learn how to assemble them.”

Brian Maracle was the first member of his extended family to finish high school. When he was eighteen, he worked as a carpenter and had no plans to attend college. An education costs money and he wanted to stay home and make money. But as a young man living in America during the buildup to the Vietnam War, he knew once he was eligible to be drafted, he would be drafted.

“If you didn’t want to go to Vietnam you went to college,” Brian said. “It was my high school english teacher who told me to apply to Dartmouth because ‘they founded that thing for Indians.’ There was one essay I had to write [on the Dartmouth application]. I remember it was, who is the person you most respect apart from your family? And I remember in 1965 that it was Martin Luther King.”

Brian sent in his application late – in Spring of his senior year of high school. He had good grades, a very good SAT score, and a strong recommendation from his counselor. Dartmouth accepted him into the class of ‘69, and Brian started school in the fall of 1965.

Once on campus, Brian got a hold of a copy of the Alumni magazine, where he read about American Indians at Dartmouth. He learned that since Dartmouth’s founding in 1769, only 51 Native students had been admitted to the school, and of those only seventeen had graduated. Before his class of 1969, the last Indian to have come to Dartmouth’s campus was Bill Cook in the early 1950’s. In this article, Brian also read that there were three Native students on campus that fall.

“That’s how I knew there were others,” Brian said. “There was nothing to accommodate onkwehonwe students [at Dartmouth]. Zero. You were just one of the mass of students. I walked around for months looking for Bill Yellowtail and Greg Turgeon. In my classes, on the quad, in the dining hall… I don’t remember how I came across them, but it was probably six months before I finally found one of them. Then Greg and Bill were gone.”

The culture on campus was totally different than anything Brian had known. He remembers how, shortly after arriving, another freshman boy asked him where he planned to attend grad school. Brian had only barely thought of undergrad. But that was a common topic of conversation – people mapping out their whole lives.

“I was not college material, and I certainly wasn’t Dartmouth material. In those days it was very much a place for the well-to-do, well-connected white male, and that wasn’t me,” Brian said.

Brian went to a football game by himself that first fall, just to see what it was about. He walked into the stadium and took a seat, turned his attention to the field. Before the game started, a student ran out into the field, all painted up, with an outfit decked out in feathers. Brian heard a kid behind him say, “Oh, look mom, there’s an Indian!” Then the kid stood up, put his hand up to his mouth, and gave the war cry: “Whoo Whoo Whoo Whoo Whoo!” Brian left the stadium before the game started. He never attended another game.

Brian remembers signing up for the only Native studies class Dartmouth offered at the time. Anthropology 35: Anthropology of the American Indian. This class, according to Brian, had nothing to do with living Indian people, and everything to do with dead Indians.

In this class, the professor had a bar with ceramic tiles glued to it, with colors ranging from light to dark. Each of the students in the class held the bar up to their arm and recorded which tile matched the color of their skin. Of course, everyone paid close attention when it was Brian’s turn. He had been singled out the whole term as a living example of the people his professor studied.

When he went to take the final exam for Anth 35, Brian wrote his name on the booklet, opened it up, looked at the questions, closed it, and walked out – handing in his booklet on his way. He didn’t fill in a single answer. The final took him thirty seconds.

“I was so insulted by the whole thing that I just couldn’t begin to answer those questions,” Brian said. “I still remember, we had to know which tribes in the U.S. were bilateral furcate merging. It is one of the classifications of nations of people as to whether they are matrilineal or patrilineal. I was so pissed off by the irrelevance of the whole thing.”

His professor gave him a C- and said it was because Brian wrote his name on the exam. After that term, Brian went back home. His mom asked him, ‘How did you do?’ And he said, ‘I got an A in art, and a B in another art class, and a C- in American Indian.’

Brian struggled with his grades the whole time he was at Dartmouth. At one point, he was on academic probation, meaning he had to get a minimum of a C- in all of his classes at the end of the term or face expulsion. While he was on probation, he took a required French course, and it almost did him in. But his professor, who was an anti-war activist on campus, gave Brian the minimum grade he needed to stay in school.

“I know I didn’t earn it, but he knew that if he gave me the mark I earned, I would be in Vietnam. He didn’t say it, but I knew it,” Brian said.

Brian also took Math one – and while he was just learning the material for the first time, most of his classmates had already taken calculus in high school. It wasn’t until he was a couple weeks into math two that he finally began to understand the material from math one. Shying away from high level math, he switched his major to engineering, which unfortunately involved even more math. So he switched to architecture; he thought that might relate a little to his background as a carpenter. He took art classes for an architecture major, and he did alright.

“Going back and forth across the border growing up I was not as well prepared as

other students,” Brian said. “I was way way behind. It wasn’t until I took an actual drafting course in my final year that I realized I wouldn't want to [be an architect]. The only option I had was to finish with a fine arts major. They were not academically challenging, those courses. I took the academically easiest way out I could find.”

The summer after his freshman year at Dartmouth, Brian went back to his carpentry job. That's how he made money for school. In the sixties, it cost him $1800 per year. For reference, Brian explained, that was like trying to buy a brand new Volkswagen Beetle every year for four years.

In 1966, Duane Bird Bear of the Hidatsa tribe, class of 1971, started his freshman year at Dartmouth, along with Harry Buckanaga of the Souix tribe, class of 1970. Duane and Brian met in an art class and became good friends during Brian’s sophomore year. The two of them later became activists on campus. They started small – they tried to get rid of the cheerleader at football games who dressed up as an Indian. Duane and Brian had a meeting with the head of the athletic department and the student who dressed up in the Indian costume. The student claimed that he was allowed to dress up as an Indian because he was one-fifth Native American.

“We were just trying to get rid of that cheerleader, we were not trying to get rid of the symbol,” Brian said. “But word got out that we were trying to get rid of the mascot. Alumnus would come up to me on the street – somehow they knew who I was – and they would jab their fingers into my chest and curse me out, asking me who I thought I was.”

Duane and Brian also wanted the college to respond to other problems Native students were facing on campus. Brian wrote a letter to Dean Seymour suggesting ways the college could improve the academic lives of  Indigenous students: they could help connect Natives with each other on campus; they could offer a mentor for Native students; and they could put effort into recruiting Native students. “That got nowhere,” Brian said. Even worse, there were no new Native students who started school at Dartmouth in the fall of 1967.

During the interim between the winter and spring terms Brian’s senior year, the college agreed to pay for Brian’s gas so he could drive to the Iroquois reservations in New York and Ontario and encourage those high school students to apply. This was Dartmouth’s first round of Native recruitment.

That last spring, Brian’s friend, Rick Buckanaga of the Sioux tribe, took a leave from Dartmouth. He had been struggling with his grades for some time. Brian was so angry that he wrote a letter to The Dartmouth.

“I said that I was so upset with the college's actions regarding onkwehonwe students that I would never recommend it as a place for onkwehonwe students to go,” Brian said. “And they printed [the letter], and they have it on record and I still haven't taken it back.”

In the spring of 1969, Brian graduated with a major in fine arts. He was the only Native student from the class of 1969 to graduate in four years. Despite the lack of support for Native students on campus, the fear of Vietnam was motivation enough.

“I just wanted to keep my head down and get through it,” Brian said. “Indians on campus, we were nothing. I don’t think young people today have an understanding or an appreciation of how things have changed. I don’t think people understand they can subtract all of the Native things that are at Dartmouth now, then subtract all of those Native people, and you change the entire landscape. There were no women when I went there, even. It was just an awful, awful, unnatural thing to have that experience. It wasn’t life. It was just something to get through – to survive. The things that I do now – the way I lead my life now – have no relation to the school. In spite of all of its best intentions, I get the sense that Dartmouth still doesn’t have anything to do with what I value in life.”