by Crystal Wylie
When Grace Gillette, Foundation ’66, arrived on Berea College’s campus in the fall of 1964, she was an “oddity,” she said.
When students heard a Native American was on campus, they expected her to dress differently – “like you would expect a Native American to look as portrayed in history books,” she said. “A lot of them thought we were gone. To this day, history makes it sound like Native people are gone.”
Gillette recalled a student giving a presentation on her people in American history class. He portrayed all Native Americans as wards of the government who received a monthly check and didn’t pay federal income tax.
“He was the banker’s son and thought he knew it all,” she said, frowning as she remembered his pretentiousness. “I had to explain to him that we did not receive a monthly check. Sometimes we would argue.”
However, since graduating from Berea Foundation School in 1966, Gillette has dedicated her life to curbing misperceptions about her people, improving their lives and promoting the culture of Native peoples. As executive director of the Denver March Powwow, now in its 43rd year, Gillette brings together more than 1,600 participants from nearly 100 tribes from 33 states and five Canadian provinces. The annual three-day event features dancing, singing, storytelling, food and art.
“It’s very satisfying to highlight Native American culture in this way,” said Gillette, who has organized the powwow for the last 24 years. The Denver March Powwow earned national recognition, she added, with a permanent exhibit in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and an exhibit in the Library of Congress.
Gillette attended Berea Foundation School only two years, but it was here she got a strong sense of who she was as an individual, she said. It prepared her for the direction her career would take and the multitude of people she would help along the way.
Attending a school where she became close friends with both blacks and whites “taught me to take people for who they are – for their spirit, their consciousness and not the color of their skin,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so successful in my career. One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was to instill a respect for all religions and people.”
In the midst of the American civil rights movement and a mere 14 years after the amendment of the Day Law – Kentucky legislation that forced the college to segregate in 1904 – Gillette came to a Berea that was facing racial tension, both on campus and in the greater community.
Gillette thought back on an incident when she, two black friends and two white friends were walking to The Carleton café (formerly located on Main Street) and they were circled by vehicles driven by locals who threw beer bottles and called them “n***er lovers.”
While travelling with the undefeated girls’ basketball team, at first the people in the crowd called her “n***er,” but halfway through her junior year, they must have found out her race, she said. They started calling her the derogatory term “squaw” and tell her to “go back to the reservation.”
Gillette averaged 22 points a game – it would’ve been even more if 3-pointers were counted at the time, she noted with a smile.
She said she practiced so much and played so hard to show her value to the team and to irk her detractors.
But it was during the four-day bus ride to Berea from her hometown of Mandaree, North Dakota, Gillette would first get tangled up in the racial divisions of the South.
Taking a restroom break, Gillette walked into the first bus stop after passing over the Kentucky state line and was faced with an unexpected decision – to use the “Whites Only” or “Blacks Only” bathroom.
“I’m not either one of these,” she thought.
“Black people would not make eye contact with me,” she recalled. She finally caught the attention of an older white woman and approached her. “Which bathroom do I use?” Gillette asked.
“Honey, if you’re not black, you’re white,” the white woman replied.
As Gillette stepped out of the bathroom, that same woman waved her over. “Just what are you?” she asked.
Gillette said she discovered all bus stops were like that during her first experience coming this far south.
The youngest of eight kids, Gillette was born and raised on Fort Berthold Reservation, native lands of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. Her father was full-blood Arikara, her mother, ¾ Arikara and ¼ Norwegian.
From the time she was 12 years old she was travelling. Her parents wanted her and her siblings to be able to “survive in mainstream America,” said Gillette. It was just expected that all of the Gillette children would graduate from high school and get into some sort of trade outside of school.
She and her sisters had all attended the same reservation day school and when two of them graduated and one decided to attend another school, Gillette was all by herself. That’s when she told her parents she wanted to go to a boarding school.
The family met with the director of the Denver-based United Scholarship Service for American Indians, which provided scholarships and educational training for Native Americans. At the time, the organization had connections with six different high schools across America, said Gillette, and one of them was the Berea Foundation School.
While she had the pick of these schools, there were a few deciding factors that led her to Berea. She was not the first from her reservation to attend Berea. Four others came before her and all seemed to enjoy their time at Berea.
Her mother’s first cousin was a professor of music at the University of Cincinnati and lived in Alexandria, Kentucky. While not as close to Berea as she had hoped, it was close enough for Gillette to visit during long weekends and holidays.
During the summers, the Gillette children went off to camp. Her sister Barbara, attended a camp at Lake Michigan and got close to a counselor there named Minnie Maude McCauley, Hon ’86, who taught physical education at Berea College. The following summer, Gillette met Minnie Maude at summer camp and formed a bond with her. Later, Minnie Maude would meet her at the bus stop when she first came to Berea, and would meet her there every time she returned.
It had been more than a decade since Gillette visited Berea, but returned October 1 for the biennial Berea Foundation, Academy and Knapp Hall reunion held on campus. That weekend, she reminisced with old friends during the reunion luncheon and attended that evening’s banquet in traditional Native American dress.
“Sometimes I’m still the only Native walking into a room of white and black people – it’s scary being that person,” she said. “But I just come back to my time here at Berea and remember – they’re just people, just like we are.”
Gillette was recently confirmed as keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Business Awards – Celebrating “Content of Character,” scheduled for January 13, 2017 in Denver. Each year since 1986, awards are presented to individuals, corporations and non-profit organizations for their exceptional community and service endeavors in honor and memory of Dr. King.