Native American culture runs deep within the Corps of Cadets

By Brandon O’Connor PV Assistant Editor

November 21st, 2019 | News, News and Features
 Class of 2020 Cadets Sylvan Blankenship and Emma Powell and Class of 2021 Cadets John Boyer and Paul Lawless Jr. are pictured with Monica Buckle, of the American Indian Heritage House, who was the guest speaker at the U.S. Military Academy’s Native American Heritage Month observance Tuesday. The cadets are four of the 48 with Native American or Alaskan heritage currently enrolled at West Point.                               Photo by Bryan Ilyankoff/USMA PAO
 Class of 2020 Cadet Sylvan Blankenship is pictured as a child in the traditional dress of the Tlingit Tribe of Southern Alaska. Courtesy Photo

First the Raven freed the stars, next he freed the moon and then finally he escaped with the sun placing it in the sky where it has remained ever since.
The story of the Raven and the light he brought into the world has passed from generation to generation within the Tlingit Tribe of southern Alaska. For U.S. Military Academy Class of 2020 Cadet Sylvan Blankenship, the story of the Raven and how he freed the stars, the moon and the sun also tells the origin story of his people.
Through his mother, he is a member of the Raven Clan within the Tlingit Tribe. Each summer, Blankenship and his entire extended family would travel from Ketchikan, Alaska where he grew up back to his mother’s home village of Klawock to spend time immersed in the traditional culture of their tribe.
Blankenship, his mom and his siblings would make the annual trip to what is known as Fish Camp, as would his mom’s nine brothers and sisters, their families and his grandma. The summer gatherings served as a time to remember the elders who passed throughout the year and raise totem poles.
It was also a time to reconnect with family and mostly escape from the modern world, but it additionally served a practical purpose of preparing the members of the tribe for the coming winter. During the trip to Klawock, Blankenship and his family fished and harvested berries and other traditional foods for the winter.
Out on the water with his aunts and uncles, who played a major role in teaching him about his culture, Blankenship and his siblings’ job was to first call out fish they spotted to the captain of the boat. Then, once the nets had been cast and the fish trapped, it was their job to haul the nets and their catch aboard.
“Typically, my uncles and my aunts who would take us out, showed us how to fish and then once we did catch the fish, how to process it, how to clean it, how to jar it and store and preserve it,” Blankenship said.
His summers spent fishing and harvesting have given him an appreciation for the importance of the natural world and for preserving the resources that make his tribe’s traditions possible. He has carried that with him to West Point, where he will graduate in May with a degree in environmental engineering.
“She (my mom) really has tried to convey upon my brothers and I the importance of our culture, and how important it is to realize who you are, where you come from and appreciate what’s been given to you,” he said.
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.
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 decent 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 Tuesday 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 comes to a close next week, 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.”