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Legacy Part I: A Story of Intergenerational Strength, Perseverance, and the Pursuit of Happiness and Higher Education by Chloe Williams

leg·a·cy

/ˈleɡəsē/

the long-lasting impact of particular events, actions, etc. of a person’s life.

As Native American Heritage Month comes to a close, Justice + Joy National Collaborative turned inward to uplift the stories of Native American folks within our own community. One of our organizational values is centering the narratives of those most impacted, and we are proud to share the story of one of our own IMPACT Steering Committee members and member of the Modoc Tribal Nation, Tayla Easterla. 

Tayla is an advocate, IMPACT steering committee lead, fellow, mother, and business major specializing in quantitative analytics at California Polytechnic State University. Eager to learn about others and share her knowledge, Tayla is a natural advocate and humanitarian. When asked, she will tell you the most important thing to her is the pursuit of knowledge and higher education. Upon meeting Tayla, it is clear she comes from a strong family. The stories among the James-Easterla family  build on one another. Their individual and collective successes are propelled by the strong presence of intergenerational strength, perseverance, and the pursuit of happiness and higher education that holds the family together.

Tayla’s family has built a strong and well-rounded reputation within their local and tribal community. Among her family members are Clyde James, the first Native American professional basketball player, his daughter, Cheewa James; author, historian, advocate, and keynote speaker;  and Cheewa’s son Todd, renowned bird watcher and photographer with an impressive body of work. 

Clyde James was raised as a prisoner of war until the age of nine before he spent the remainder of his youth as a student of a government boarding school in Oklahoma. The boarding school Clyde attended was one of many that aimed to “civilize” Native Americans and assimilate them to white American culture. These government schools were known for abusive practices, forcing children into labor, and administering physically abusive punishments as a way of discouraging students from speaking their indigenous languages. 

From the age of nine, Clyde’s identity was heavily  subjected to the influence of his boarding school. From cutting their hair to changing their birth names, these schools aimed to completely erase the identity of the students’ heritage and cultural background. “Luckily,” Cheewa, Clyde’s daughter recalls while speaking with Tayla in their family living room. “The women at the school, and these were women that worked at the school, so while they weren’t Native, they did see something in Clyde and steered him onto a good path.”

It would appear that luck did have something to do with the direction Clyde James took in life. With the positive influence of the women at his school, Clyde kept busy with sports and developed a true talent. 

“He was an absolute athlete, they’d never seen anything like it!” Cheewa reminisces on her father’s triumphant life story. Clyde James would be one of few Modoc students of the time to go onto higher education when he was granted a sports scholarship for basketball. 

“What’s a good way for a child who doesn’t have much money to get into college? Be an athlete!” Cheewa exclaims with a chuckle as she explains her father’s immense success in basketball. 

After College, Clyde James became the first Native American professional basketball player, and traveled outside of Oklahoma all over the United States, touring cities across California during the 1920’s. 

Clyde’s path also led him to fatherhood when he and Luella Muller had their first child, Cheewa James. Cheewa was raised on Klamath Reservation in Southern Oregon. She recalls her upbringing on the Klamath Reservation to be a “totally different experience” than the rest of her life, citing some of the fundamental differences in her experiences. 

“Well, let me put it this way, I lived on venison. My father would go out and get venison, tie the deer up in a tree, and take care of it. He would do what good hunters do; they eat their prey.” Cheewa proceeded to explain that she didn’t try beef until she was in public school, and recalled her feeling of disgust and declaring to her mother, Luella, “I will never eat beef.” 

“But of course life changes,” Cheewa laughed, “I don’t even eat deer, now!” 

Cheewa fondly recalled the values she raised growing up on the reservation. “The closeness to nature and understanding. People need to be aware of where they are, the climate, the things they grow there, the animals that live there, and respect nature. I think that is the strongest lesson I learned growing up.” 

It seems to be Cheewa’s natural inclination to preserve and uphold the traditions of her Modoc ancestry, as is evident in the paths of her following generations. She  correlates  the core value of respecting nature from upbringing to the union of her and her first husband, whom she met as a park ranger. 

Cheewa’s journey with higher education was not linear. Cheewa reports that in the beginning of their relationship, her first husband was in full support of her pursuit of a degree. Once they were married, however, her husband was less supportive, arguing that his Ph-D was enough for both of them.

When she understood the extent of her husband’s objection to her education, Cheewa took matters into her own hands. Against the polarity of Missouri’s humid summer heat and freezing winters, Cheewa would trek to school every day. To avoid suspicion and continue pursuing her education, she would double the arduous commute each day to make her husband lunch at midday.

“If you want something, reach out! Do not look back, do not see that other people like you didn’t do that. Lead people, don’t follow people, as often as you can. Yeah, once that happened, I realized I can do just about anything. I think that is the value of young women and young people being exposed to all kinds of things and having the courage to attack.” Cheewa wisely shares, “That’s why your organization [Justice +Joy] is important, it makes young people, young women see that things are as close as you want them to be. You can grow, if you choose to do that.”

Cheewa emphasizes the importance of the fellowship and solidarity the higher education beholds. When she looks back on her education, the first thing she thinks of is people, and highlights social learning as one of the most important parts of her education. Aside from networking opportunities, Cheewa expresses the inherent value of community. “You’re exposed to different kinds of people with different kinds of ideas, they give you the chance to see a different exposure to something in life. Whether it is a religion, a way of honoring music, whatever it is, it can teach you about different kinds of people.” 

“Another thing, that is important, that Tayla has mentioned, is never give up–” Cheewa says. “An education opens up a whole new world to you. So whatever it takes, you just need to put yourself out there, get on the horse.”

“Modoc up!” Tayla exclaims with a big laugh. Cheewa laughs and repeats her in agreement. 

“That’s an old expression we use all the time, Modoc up.”

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