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Brittain Award winner explores Native American heritage through advocacy and anthropology

By Stacey Jones | Emory Report | May 7, 2019

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Recipient of Emory’s highest student honor, Klamath Henry has shaped Emory’s campus as an advocate for Native American students and racial and social justice. Her future plans include graduate studies in anthropology.

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You could say Klamath Henry’s Native American ancestry spans coast to coast. She is a proud member of both the Shasta Tribe of California and the Tuscarora Nation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy in western New York, owing to the tribal affiliations of her mother and father, respectively. Her beautiful and unusual first name comes from her mother’s tribal language and means “people of the river.”

As expansive a pedigree as that seems, upon arriving at Emory, Henry found herself among the fewer than 1 percent of students at the university of Native American ancestry. Undaunted, she used her time here not only to highlight the culture and contributions of the indigenous peoples of North America but the unique challenges students of Native American ancestry face in higher education settings as well. 

Because of her work in this sphere and so much more, Henry is the recipient of this year’s Marion Luther Brittain Award, given annually to a graduating student who has performed “significant, meritorious, and devoted service to Emory University, with no expectations of recognition or reward.”

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs Pamela Scully, also a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, says Henry is deserving of the university’s highest student honor “because of her dedication to highlighting Native Americans, and indigenous students more broadly, as a group that Emory needs to think actively about.”

Debra Vidali, the associate professor of anthropology who served as Henry’s adviser and mentor, agrees. “Klamath’s academic research, public scholarship, community work and personal mission in life is centrally concerned with issues of diversity, inclusion and representation,” she notes. This includes recognition of the Native Muscogee Creek and Cherokee peoples who once lived and thrived in this region before their forced removal by the US government in the 1830s.

Dedicated to inclusion

Henry worked with Dean of Admission John Latting and others on the Native American Initiative Working Committee, which seeks to actively recruit Native American students to Emory and to develop academic initiatives and other programming to support them after they arrive. An outgrowth of the committee’s work was the fall 2018 Native American and Indigenous Student Symposium held at Emory, which featured scholars and activists from across the U.S., and which Henry took a lead role in organizing. 

Starting as a sophomore, Henry served as an intern for the university’s Commission on Racial and Social Justice (CRSJ), an impactful experience, she says. The group gave her a larger platform from which to address Native representation on campus, and she found a sense of belonging there.

“The students from other racial and ethnic communities in the program taught me how to be an empathetic and ethical human being and gave me space to voice my concerns about my own Native community,” she explains. “I was supported, loved and cherished as a concerned member of the Emory community.” 

Finding her path 

Henry, who also served on the Residence Hall Association and as a sophomore adviser during her time here, hails from Fernley, Nevada, and was recruited to Emory as a softball pitcher for its NCAA Division III team. Midway through college, a spinal injury sidelined her softball career, but she has stayed in the game coaching college, high school and middle school players around the metro area. 

She took her first course in her major, anthropology, in her first semester (she has a minor in environmental sciences as well). It was the only open class that would work with her schedule that fall.

“Initially, I was hesitant to take the class,” she says, citing anthropology’s contentious relationship with indigenous peoples. Still, the discipline intrigued her.

Eventually, under Vidali’s advisement, Henry undertook ethnographic research on the Three Sisters food system, which refers to the crops traditionally grown, consumed and traded by the Native American tribes of North America — squash, corn and beans.

Henry’s relatives still grow the corn the Tuscarora tribe grew long before migrating from the Carolinas in the early 18th century to join the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in upstate New York. For her research, she visited them and eventually created the website “Three Sisters Resiliency,” which uses poetry, photography and video to show what she found there.

Not only is the website “a beautiful, sophisticated piece of work,” says Vidali, it’s an important contribution to the study of indigenous feminism, ethnography and public anthropology.

For Henry, the research allowed her to fall in love with anthropology all over again. “But more importantly, it helped to document a way of living that my people perform daily,” she says. 

A juried panel recently selected the project for inclusion in the annual Screening Scholarship Media Festival at the University of Pennsylvania. 

In the fall, Henry will pursue a master’s degree in cultural anthropology at California State–Fullerton on full scholarship, Vidali notes. In the Emory Wheel, where Henry penned a goodbye to campus, she wrote, “Nyá:wę, Emory,” using the word for “thank you” in her indigenous language. “The past four years were amazing.”

Nyá:wę, Klamath Henry. Thanks to you, the Emory community has learned to think more deeply about the Native people who were once here and those who are yet to come.