While Blankenship’s heritage was an integral part of his life growing up, for fellow Class of 2020 Cadet Emma Powless arriving at West Point jump started an interest in her heritage as a member of the Mohawk Tribe of the Iroquois Nation. On her father’s side, her family has traced their lineage back to Chief Joseph Brant, a prominent figure in the Mohawk Tribe during the American Revolutionary War. Her grandfather was born and raised on the tribe’s reservation in Canada, but other than some artwork in her home and a quote from Brant on the wall, Powless’ only connection to her tribe growing-up was through her grandfather’s stories. It was him who first taught her about the Trail of Tears and other history of the Mohawk Tribe bringing to life events that for most of her classmates were only paragraphs in a history textbook. “You hear my grandpa talk about when the colonists came over and talk about our tribe, which was decimated and to hear about that from the perspective of our family dealt with that or our ancestors dealt with that was pretty crazy,” Powless said.
Class of 2020 Cadet Emma Powless is a member of the Mohawk Tribe of the of the Iroquois Nation. On her father’s side, her family has traced their lineage back to Chief Joseph Brant, a prominent figure in the Mohawk Tribe during the American Revolutionary War. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Bryan Ilyankoff / United States Military Academy at West Point
After arriving at West Point and becoming familiar with the “warrior ethos” that permeates throughout the academy, she felt a desire to dig deeper and learn more about her ancestors who embodied many of the same principles. To help in her quest for information, Powless joined the Native American Club at West Point, of which she is now the cadet in charge. She also reached out to her great-aunt who is deeply connected with the tribe’s reservation in Canada. Her aunt now sends her a monthly newsletter highlighting the tribe and has also sent her artifacts and books to help her learn more about the Mohawk Tribe. “I carry this Powless name and this is a Native American last name. I carry this name on my chest now every single day to do them proud and do my lineage proud because that’s what they did, that’s what they do,” Powless said. “The whole warrior ethos that we talk about here 100% stems from Native Americans and they’re very proud of what’s theirs.” Blankenship and Powless are two of 48 cadets at West Point of Native American or Native Alaskan heritage according to the West Point Office of Institutional Research. They represent tribes from coast to coast including Blankenship’s Tlingit Tribe, Powless’ Mohawk Tribe, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and more.
Currently between active duty Soldiers and those serving in the Reserve or National Guard, there are nearly 7,000 Soldiers of Native American or Alaskan descent serving in the Army, according to the Army’s Strength Analysis and Forecasting Division. Their heritage is celebrated throughout the month of November, which was first designated as National Native American Heritage Month in 1990 and has been celebrated annually since 1994. West Point celebrated Native American Heritage Month with a luncheon on November 19, 2019, featuring guest speaker Monica Buckle, who works with the American Indian Heritage House in New York City. As the month-long celebration of Native American heritage came to a close, Blankenship said he hopes people are respectful of the traditions and culture of tribes like his, even if they don’t understand them. “Just have an open mind because a lot of our arts and our traditions, they’re very flashy and very extravagant,” Blankenship said. “They’re loud and they’re boisterous and they’re colorful. I think that sometimes people can be a kind of intimidated by it.”
Class of 2020 Cadet Sylvan Blankenship is pictured as a child in the traditional dress of the Tlingit Tribe of Southern Alaska. Courtesy photo
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