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Airman discovers her American Indian heritage

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- For 18 years, Airman 1st Class Haida Boyd knew little about her background or her culture until a trip to visit her father in New York.  She is a descendant of seven eastern American Indian tribes.  Airman Boyd is assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing here.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joe Lacdan)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- For 18 years, Airman 1st Class Haida Boyd knew little about her background or her culture until a trip to visit her father in New York. She is a descendant of seven eastern American Indian tribes. Airman Boyd is assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing here. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joe Lacdan)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. (AFPN) -- The questions lingered in her head each day she attended school while growing up in rural South Dakota.

Who am I?

For the first 16 years of her life, Airman 1st Class Haida Boyd, a descendant of Seminole, Cherokee and other eastern American Indian tribes, knew nothing of her culture.

“I felt misplaced,” said 19-year-old Airman Boyd, an emergency actions controller for the 509th Bomb Wing command post here. “I felt I was missing out on something.”

Airman Boyd grew up in South Dakota, among one of the largest concentrations of American Indians in the country. While comfortable attending school with other American Indian students, she said could not have felt more different.

Airman Boyd saw the students wearing headbands, jewelry and participating in powwows during school presentations. Other children told her about their culture.

“They knew a lot,” she said. “Even the younger kids knew. They knew about their history; they knew what they were a part of. It was amazing.”

Her father, who has lived in Long Island, N.Y., all 58 years of his life, sent her old family photos. But she said she did not realize their significance or meaning. Then, one summer day, as she flipped through a book in the family study, her mother told her about her heritage.

Airman Boyd learned she was a full-blooded American Indian, and a descendant of seven eastern tribes. She also discovered she was the daughter of an Indian chief and an Indian princess.

While growing up, Airman Boyd had little memory of her father. Her parents divorced when she was 6 months old, and her mother rarely spoke of him. She and her mother moved her to Philadelphia before eventually settling in Aberdeen, S.D.

A faded picture of her father in his headdress and a black and white stenciled drawing that she kept in a cardboard box in her closet were the only images she had of Samuel Boyd, also known as Chief Little Fox.

When Airman Boyd’s family moved 18 miles east to Groton, S.D., she put her questioning on hold. She attended a predominantly white school. While there, she said other students taunted her, called her names and even used racial slurs.

Her mother, Autumn, often would find her daughter in tears after school. Sometimes she had bruises from scuffles with other students. Finally, her mother had seen enough. She moved the family back to Aberdeen.

Airman Boyd, then 16, said she put the memories of her painful times at Groton behind her. She became friends with students of western American Indian tribes, and participated in rituals and activities of their respective cultures. But curiosity about her own history resurfaced.

Finally, she decided to act. She found her father’s address and phone number in her mother’s address book and wrote him a letter.

During the next two years, Airman Boyd and her father kept in contact through letters. Then, during a family vacation in California, she worked up the courage to call him. Now 18 years old, she had decided to enlist in the Air Force in August 2003 and wanted a final chance to find her long-sought after answers before departing for basic training.

“Dad,” she said. “This is my last Christmas before I go into the military. Can I come visit you?”

“Yes, my baby doll,” Mr. Boyd said. “I will do everything to get you here.”

Mr. Boyd borrowed money for his daughter’s bus ticket to New York. As soon as they left the bus station, he began to tell her about her rich cultural history. Her father told her her how her tribe, the Matinnecocks, originally settled on Sewanhackey, what is now Long Island, N.Y. He told her about the Dutch settlers who came and tried to “Christianize” the tribe, giving them Christian names.

He continued to talk -- when they ate, walked in the city, rode on a subway train and inside taxi cabs. Airman Boyd said she sat, dumbfounded. She even shed a few tears.

“It was kind of shocking,” she said. “It was a weight off my shoulders. I felt uplifted.”

Mr. Boyd is an avid speaker for eastern American Indians, frequently making speeches and public appearances to educate others.

“He respects his culture; he honors it,” she said.

“I want her to keep her culture alive so that her generation will know it,” Mr. Boyd said. “I want her to know who her father is and how I became the ceremonial chief.”

Mr. Boyd said tribe members take a vote to select the most suitable leader within their tribe.

Airman Boyd said she continues to speak with her father. While just beginning to understand her culture, her longstanding doubt has been replaced with pride.

She attends social gatherings of tribal nations called powwows and wears a decorated headband to display her heritage.

“I’m proud of what I am,” Airman Boyd said. “Because there (are) not a lot of us, I like to let people know we’re still here and we still keep our culture and our way of doing things.”

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