"It was really profound to me that people would say I was the first Native person to attend Bennett [College]. I thought, 'Well, I must be the first Native person who felt safe enough to self-identify. I couldn't be the first."
Whether she was the first or not, Dr. Robin R. R. Gray, may not be the last Native woman who graduates from Bennett. Gray, who earned a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies in 2008, is from the Ts'msyen (Tsimshian) and Mikisew Cree First Nations. She wears the ancestral Ts'msyen name T'uu'tk, which, she says, in its long form, roughly translates to "always prominent voice of raven." Wearing an ancestral name is an honor and responsibility, placed on her like a cloak at her family's most recent house feast, or potlatch. The name has belonged to the Ts'msyen from time immemorial, and while she wears it, Gray is responsible for remembering and carrying forward its oral history.
In her professional life, Gray plays a similar role toward her nation's larger history. She is making a profound impact on reclaiming and repatriating the cultural heritage of the Ts'msyen such as the repatriation of songs from archives, and recovering Ts'msyen dances through an urban dance group. Her work will not only benefit the Ts'msyen; her research and methodology also are laying groundwork that other indigenous peoples can use as they strive to repatriate their heritage – songs, dances, oral history, artifacts, symbols and rituals.
After graduating from Bennett in Greensboro, North Carolina, Gray received a Master of Arts and a Ph.D. in anthropology, and a graduate certificate in indigenous studies from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. She currently holds a prestigious, highly competitive President's Postdoctoral Fellowship in the department of history at the University of California – Santa Cruz.
A safe environment
There is some irony in this First Nations woman, who is making it her life's work to reclaim Native heritage, attending a United Methodist historically black college or university. The church has a troubled, oppressive, colonial history with indigenous peoples. Churches, integrally involved in running Indian residential or boarding schools, saw their mission as one of "killing the Indian in the child." This meant robbing Native children of their identity and separating them from their family, community and heritage.
United Methodist-related Black Colleges, supported by the Black College Fund, help repair that egregious history by offering a higher education experience to Native American and First Nations people like Gray. Rather than erasing their identity, Black Colleges provide a safe environment for Native people proudly to self-identify.
Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, then Bennett's president, recruited Gray, who was seeking a rich cross-cultural educational experience. Attending a UM-related Black College rather than a predominantly white institution was appealing. Gray fully embraced life and learning at Bennett. She played for the Bennett Belles basketball team, won the senior essay contest, marched with her Bennett sisters to the voting polls, studied abroad in New Zealand and graduated third in her class. Most memorably for her, Gray had her Bennett sisters' support to organize the first Native American History Month event on campus, perhaps an initial step in what would become her vocation of celebrating, reclaiming and repatriating First Nations/Native American heritage.
Asked if she would recommend Bennett to other First Nations women, Gray replied, "Absolutely!" She cited the sisterhood within the student body and said, "I believe that First Nations women … will likely feel more comfortable in an HBCU educational setting rather than at a predominantly white institution and that they will appreciate learning from and with women of the African diaspora. I love Bennett. If they called me today to go and do something, I would say 'yes' in a heartbeat!"
Your continued support of The United Methodist Church's Black College Fund will help ensure that high-quality college experiences remain available to women and men like Gray who build on their education to become leaders bringing us into a more just future.
The Rev. Beverly A. Bartlett, associate pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York
One of seven apportioned giving opportunities of The United Methodist Church, the Black College Fund provides financial support to maintain solid, challenging academic programs; strong faculties; and well-equipped facilities at 11 United Methodist-related historically black colleges and universities. Please encourage your leaders and congregations to support the Black College Fund apportionment at 100