StoryCorps Interview with NMAI's KJ Jacks (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma)
This week the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian will share the stories of five Native staffers as part of American Indian Heritage Day and the StoryCorps’ 2010 National Day of Listening, a holiday started by the nonprofit organization StoryCorps in 2008. Both holidays fall on the same day this year—Friday, Nov. 26.
A new audio interview will be posted daily here on the museum's blog. Today's interview features KJ Jacks (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), who started working for the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004—the year the D.C. branch opened on the Mall. In fact, her first day coincided with the Sept. 21 opening ceremony.
"I grew up in Colorado with my mother, who is of Irish decent," Jacks said during her conversation with colleague Leonda Levchuk (Navajo), of NMAI's public affairs office. "She was a single mom. My father is full-blood Cherokee. I didn't meet him until I was 16-years-old. So my mom tried to get me interested in Indian culture when I was young, and I wasn't having any of it—I was rebelling. But when I got the job at the museum, I became very active in finding out about the Cherokee culture. I asked a lot of my coworkers, did research in our resource center, and did some stuff on my own online, so I have learned a lot in the last 6 years."
Jacks is currently a member of NMAI's Special Events Department, which plans private receptions at the museum, including an upcoming gathering for leaders of the 565 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. who will meet with President Barack Obama on Dec. 16.
On her childhood and what it meant to be Native American:
EXCERPT: "We lived in Fort Collins, Colorado, which is really close to Denver and so my mom would always take me to Denver March Powwow ... I always had fun doing it; it's just that I didn’t identify myself as being Native American. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know if it was supposed to mean anything. And she did the best she could, but she didn't really know either."
On challenging myths and changing minds:
EXCERPT: "There was a group of elders that came from the eastern band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina ... and there was a group of school kids that were here too, and the elders sang for them, they spoke in Cherokee for them and these kids were so excited they just got out their notebooks and got their autographs and got their pictures taken with them. It was one of the very best days working here; it was so fun to see that."
On experiencing racism within the Native community:
EXCERPT: "One Columbus Day I was sitting outside waiting for a group to come in and we had a drum group; and one of the drummers came out and sat with me—I believe he was Kiowa—and he was like, "Are you Native?" and I said, "Yes, I'm Cherokee." And he said "Oklahoma or North Carolina?" I said, "Oklahoma," and he said, "Well, those aren't real Cherokees." ... And then he was like, "Well, what's your name?" and I said, "KJ Jacks." He said, "Jacks isn't a Cherokee name," and I said, "No, it's not. It's my mom's last name. She's Irish." And he said, "Well, then you're really not Cherokee because if you're mom's not Cherokee, then you're not."
Recalling one of her favorite moments at the museum:
EXCERPT: "It was a very weird day. Felipe Rose, who was one of the original members of the Village People—he is actually Lakota and Puerto Rican—donated one of his gold records to the museum. And when we came in, he had a costume on. It was a bright blue turquoise Native costume, and then we had our fabulous curator Emil Her Many Horses, who wore his regalia. And just the juxtaposition of those two people standing next to each other (Laughs). And then we all did the YMCA with Rick West, who was the director at the time..."
The National Day of Listening is an effort to encourage all Americans to honor a friend, loved one, or member of their community by interviewing them about their lives. StoryCorps has created a free do-it-yourself interview guide with equipment recommendations and interview instructions available online at www.nationaldayoflistening.org.