When it was time for Joseph John to attend college, his first choice was to go out west to Stanford University in California.
When that didn’t pan out, he chose the Ivy League instead and graduated from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in June 2018.
One of the reasons he chose Dartmouth was its Native American studies program and the impressive number of Native Americans at the school.
In 2018 there were 220 enrolled in the school, which has more than 6,500 students. Founded in 1769, Dartmouth’s mission includes educating Native American youth.
“They have a large Native American student population so I knew I wouldn’t feel alone,” said John, 24. “Dartmouth opened so many opportunities for me. It was great being surrounded by Native American intellectuals and see how motivated they are.”
John said it was a bit of a culture shock when he first arrived in New Hampshire.
Knowing other Ivy League graduates including Tribal member and Columbia University graduate Braudie Blais-Billie, and Harvard University graduate Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, who leads the Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School immersion program, gave him confidence that he too could survive at a school of this caliber.
His initial goal was to major in business and economics, but his heart wasn’t there so he changed his major to Native American studies.
“We looked at history from a Native point of view, including events leading up to battles,” John said. “I was always skeptical about U.S. history, because it is also Native history.”
John plans to attend graduate school for Native American studies or go to law school. All federal Indian law is based on how the Declaration of Independence characterizes Native Americans.
One passage listing complaints about King George III reads “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is undistinguished destructions of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
“It all comes from Supreme Court decisions based on the interpretation of how Natives are viewed,” John said. “It goes from sovereign to independent nations to wards of the state.
There are legal terms that get to the point of how we can fight for our sovereignty; there are precedents on both sides, for and against tribes.”
Many of the Dartmouth Native student population sought an education so they could better their communities and the youth. The school’s library and Native American House hosted to numerous events and speakers, including the Dartmouth pow-wow during Mother’s Day weekend.
John’s friends understood Native communities, family dynamics and even how tough it can be when a relative passes. Like them, he plans to come back and help the Tribe.
“When I go home, I want to do more than the status quo,” John said. “Things that inspire you to get educated are what could keep you from returning home when you realize there are so many more opportunities outside of the community. But I want to come back and help tribal youth.”
Earning his degree in Native American studies was a challenge and an accomplishment for John; he took about six months off to deal with homesickness, depression and anxiety and focus on his mental health.
“I want to help with mental health issues since there is so much of it in the community,” he said. “Mental wellness is so important to Native people because we’ve been so traumatized. In the timeline of human history, our trauma is so recent.”
John wants to be a role model as someone who dealt with mental issues and came out stronger.
“I learned how to cope,” he said. “I’m not afraid to let people know what is going on; holding things in doesn’t work for me. If family and friends are going through things, I encourage them to go to CBH (Center for Behavioral Health) and get those things out. Sometimes saying things out loud makes you feel better.”
Although John was the only Seminole at Dartmouth, there were a lot of Native students with a similar upbringing. He grew up in Brighton until at age 5 his family moved to Hollywood.
He went back to Brighton nearly every weekend, so he is familiar with both the city and the country. Like him, some of his college friends also navigated between the cultures of the reservation and prestigious prep schools.
During the graduation ceremony, John and many other Native American graduates donned traditional clothing as they received their diplomas.
“We wanted to honor the school’s mission statement to educate Native Americans,” John said. “I walked in patchwork to signify what I have done for my people. A lot of people fear school will change them in a bad way. I’m not a typical Ivy League student; I’m not a New England preppie. I wore a grill to acknowledge South Florida.”
His advice to Seminole students is not to forget who they are, take pride in Seminole culture and know they are an important part of the Tribe’s continued success as a people and a sovereign nation.
“You’re part of a proud Tribe who never surrendered,” John said. “Keep that in mind when you feel like you want to give up. People before you didn’t give up. It’s going to be hard, but so many people are rooting for you. So many people who came before you helped get you where you are today. Every step you take in your education is a big step for the Tribe.”
John wants to go out west and live there for a while. He is looking into master’s degree programs in Arizona, California and New Mexico.