Campus & Community

Being true to himself

5 min read

Damon Clark ’17 nurtured his Native American identity from Harvard’s environment and resources

This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.

When Damon Clark ’17, a member of the Navajo (Diné) Nation, arrived on campus from New Mexico, he wore short hair, a cowboy hat, and hiking boots. He was here to absorb the best of Western education, to be transformed by the Harvard experience.

At graduation, the “transformed” Clark plans to wear a traditional turquoise necklace and his moccasins, with his long black hair tied into the traditional bun called “tsiiyéél” in Navajo. In his culture, Clark noted, hair is considered an extension of a person’s thoughts and should not be cut.

Clark will leave Harvard in May with both a greater knowledge of Navajo history and culture and a renewed pride in his indigenous identity.

“I grew up learning that the U.S. government’s policy on Native Americans was, at some point, ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man,’” said Clark, a Cabot House resident, his hair this day hanging in a single long braid. “They’d send Native Americans to boarding schools to ‘civilize’ them.

“I have gone in the opposite direction,” he said. “At Harvard, I became more connected with my culture and identity. I learned about my history and how to remain true to myself.”

Clark is in a small minority at Harvard, with 2.6 percent of students admitted last year were Native Americans. There are no full-time Native American faculty members on campus, said Shelly Lowe, executive director of the Harvard University Native American Program.

In 1665, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck of the Wampanoag tribe became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. The Harvard Charter of 1650 stipulated the College’s commitment to “the education of the English & Indian youth of this country,” and Native American graduates number over 1,000 in 365 years.

Clark, a social studies concentrator, took advantage of every opportunity on campus to raise awareness about his culture and the nuances of being a contemporary indigenous person, an endeavor that could be challenging.

“I was the only Native American in many classes [and] the first Native American person many of my classmates had ever met,” Clark said. “That was daunting, at times, because I had to become an expert in Native American history and culture. I had to learn how to be a leader and represent both the Navajo people and Native Americans.”

As part of that quest, Clark wore his moccasins (Kélchí in Navajo) everywhere he went, as a symbol of his identity. He wore them around campus, in winter, and after being awarded a Presidential Public Service Fellowship, he wore them to the White House in summer 2015 when he worked for the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs & Public Engagement as a Native American liaison intern.

On his Instagram account, Clark posts close-up pictures of his moccasins in all the places he has visited. “I call them my Crimson moccasins,” he said, smiling. “I want to leave the footprints of my culture everywhere I go.”

Clark is a great-great-grandson of Hastiin Ch’ilhaajinii, also known as Chief Manuelito, a Navajo leader who fought against the U.S. military and signed a treaty in 1868 to establish a reservation for his people. His grandmother is renowned Navajo master weaver Irene Clark, and his parents are both educators. Clark descends from the Near the Water clan on his mother’s side, and from the Near the Water’s Edge clan on his father’s.

Clark grew up in Asaayii, Bowl Canyon, a rural community in the home of Diné Nation. With a size similar to West Virginia, touching on New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona, it is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, and with more than 300,000 enrolled members, Navajos are the largest Indian tribe in the nation.

Like many Navajos, Clark’s family lives off the grid without plumbing or electricity. Clark has gone home every summer to visit his parents, to “be a farmer” and be connected to his roots.

“When my father became a doctor of philosophy, my grandfather told him not to get too smart for his own good,” said Clark. “He said, ‘A Navajo man can be smart, but he has to know how to farm, chop wood, and build a fire.’”

Last winter, Clark led a 10-day trip for eight undergrads to experience the Navajo way of life and perform public service in his community. Students chopped wood for elders and needy families, met with high school students and tribal leaders, and attended classes in Navajo. The trip was a success, said Clark, and the students that went became his “brothers and sisters.”

Clark also led a powwow on Harvard’s campus and requested that the College offer a Navajo language course so that he could work on his thesis on Navajo entrepreneurship. The added course was the first of its kind offered on campus, and Clark cherishes it as one of the highlights of his time at Harvard.

Another highlight, a testament to Clark’s will and intelligence, is having learned how to swim in a week in order to make the crew team. “There aren’t pools where I’m from,” he said. “But I wanted to learn, and I googled it.”

After graduation, Clark will travel to New Zealand, where he will spend a year studying the Maori indigenous people. “I’m looking forward to leaving my footprints in New Zealand,” he said.

Like many Native Americans in the United States, Clark straddles two worlds, that of his ancient culture and that of his country of birth. He hopes to serve as a bridge between them, meanwhile following the advice of his great-great-grandfather, Chief Manuelito.

“He said to the Navajo people, ‘Go, my children, climb the ladder of education,’” said Clark. “But he also talked about remaining true to our culture and our identity. That is one of my aspirations, to bring together Western education and Navajo culture for the benefit and empowerment of my community.”