Heather Shotton went from a first-generation college student to a leader in Native education. Now she wants to help others do the same.

Heather Shotton has five minutes.

She’s sitting at a conference table in the U.S. Capitol, her back turned to 50 Native students, fellow Oklahomans, Native education lobbyists and spectators. The only thing between her and the congressional appropriations committee is a piece of paper with the words she’s recited in a hotel room for two nights while her colleagues run a stopwatch.

Smooth, straight black hair falls over the shoulders of Heather’s gray suit jacket like cornsilk, framing the silver and turquoise turtle pendant necklace her husband gave her when she got promoted. Even filled with the heat of dozens of bodies, all watching the woman at the microphone, the hearing room feels cold.

It’s a chilly morning in February 2013, and she’s the second of three speakers to testify before the committee about the dismal state of funding for construction and repair of Native schools – a speech that’s been in the works for months.

And now it’s her turn.

“It’s a very daunting thing to think, ‘OK, I have to do this right,'” Heather said weeks after the testimony. “But that’s part of the leadership role. We have to take those opportunities to be the voice and advocate for those communities when they can’t.”

During her 2012-2013 term as president of the National Indian Education Association, the 36-year-old wife and mother of two spoke for thousands on Native education issues. And while speaking for herself has never been a challenge, the former high school debater and University of Oklahoma assistant professor had to quickly learn the challenge of speaking up for others. Developing a voice worthy of representing thousands of Native students and teaching them how to make their own voices heard – that’s a journey worth a thousand term papers.

Heather office

Maybe it started 18 years ago, when she was a University of Oklahoma freshman. A disillusioned political science major who hated all her classes, she sat in a long, narrow room at a table opposite Dr. Jerry Bread, a founding member of OU’s Native American Studies program. Then 18-year-old Heather, one of four contestants in a Native American beauty pageant, wore a long-sleeved maroon dress with white and black beading – traditional Wichita regalia.

Bread can still recall the way that freshman sat straight as a taut clothesline in her chair, the way she talked about her parents as if they were Gods, the way a gentle Southern accent danced across her vocal cords.

“I can tell you have something about you,” he said to the young woman sitting across from him. “It’s called spirit. It’s gonna take you a long way.”

And college was a long way from home for 18-year-old Heather Shotton. Heather Shotton who had a bed time all through high school, whose stepdad coached lanky teenagers in team sports while she sat through history class, who got her first taste of work  mowing her front lawn and cleaning strangers’ houses with her mother before she could spell “blue collar.”

“Home” was Terrell, Texas, although she always considered her birthplace of Davis, Okla., to be her real home. Heather – who is an enrolled Wichita, Kiowa and Cheyenne – was one of a handful of Native American students in a predominantly white town of 15,000.

She remembers herself as a “good kid” – she made straight A’s, competed in pageants, danced on the drill team and got her first job when she was 13, helping out at the dental office where her mother worked. When 14-year-old Heather’s mother, Pam Haskell, re-married and had a baby boy, Heather looked after her half-brother for hours every Saturday.

When Haskell talks about how proud she is of her daughter, the tears come quickly. Thinking of her daughter’s accomplishments makes her “heart swell,” she says, choking up during a recent phone interview from her home in Davis.

“She wanted to make something of herself,” Haskell said. “I just knew she was going to be a leader. It’s something a mother knows.”

Haskell and Heather’s father, newlyweds fresh out of high school, chose raising their daughter over attending college. That’s when Haskell promised herself that all her children would get the college education she couldn’t afford. So far, Heather’s the only one who’s reached the finish line.

Heather’s not sure why she was such a good kid, either.

“I don’t know,” she said, laughing. “It was important to me not to mess up. I wanted to contribute to something bigger than myself. I think it comes from that sense of responsibility to do better. There’s a responsibility to other people.”

To Haskell, that responsibility is familiar. The mother was raised with three siblings, selling flower seeds door to door to contribute to the family income.

“If you wanted something, you worked for it,” she said. “That’s how I was raised, and that’s how I raised my kids. That’s all we knew.”

At 17, Heather won the title of “Terrell Young Woman of the Year.” Along with it came a full-ride scholarship to a local junior college. But she wanted more than that.

“She said, ‘Mom, I don’t wanna go to junior college — I wanna go to OU,'” Haskell said. “She went to OU and never came home.”

A couple years after graduation, after a 48-hour rush to pull together the required paperwork, personal essays and letters of recommendation, Heather is back in school.

She sits in an adviser’s office at her alma mater, sweating in her chair next to a handful of other Ph.D. candidates.

“Why are you in the doctoral program?” the adviser asks.

Heather can’t remember how she answered – but she’ll never forget the answer of the student next to her.

“Well, everyone in my family’s a doctor, so it’s kind of the natural thing to do in my family,” the other student said. “You either become a professor or a doctor.”

Heather, whose father, mother and stepfather held a single college degree among them, wanted to laugh.

“It was so bizarre to me,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow. Everyone in your family is a doctor of some sort, and you’re doing this because that’s just what’s expected. ”

In 2013, Heather sits on an olive green couch in the one-story Norman home her family has lived in for seven years. The house is Native American meets suburban America – hardwood floors, a lingering smell of cinnamon, walls peppered with Lakota art in earthy oranges and greens. She wears a wide-necked gray sweater and jeans, alternately cuddling the new family pet – Lucy, a bulldog terrier puppy – and a multi-hued throw pillow.

Somehow, she simultaneously manages to talk, soothe the dog and keep her 4-year-old daughter from interrupting. It probably has something to do with the full-time educator and mother’s inbred aversion to procrastination. She’s now in her third year as an assistant professor of Native American studies at OU, and she balances two classes a week, grading papers, conducting and writing up research, leading the NIEA and attending everything from softball games to  parent-teacher conferences about the cultural insensitivity of Thanksgiving paper headdresses and pilgrim hats.

That moment in the adviser’s office seems so long ago now.

“I understood what being first generation was, but I think it was the first time I ever experienced that, wow, there are these people around me who come from generations of professional degrees, and this is nothing to them,” she said. “That was the first time it hit me in the face. ”

That’s where her “academic parents” – Bread and Barbara Hobson, assistant director of NAS – came in. They were there to answer her questions. And she had a lot of them.

“If something was wrong, I knew I could go to one of their offices and say, ‘My financial aid hasn’t come in, I’m broke, I’m starving, I’m having problems in this class, whatever. How do I fix this? Someone could pick up a phone and help me.”

Almost a decade later, shaking that first-generation feeling hasn’t gotten easier.

“Even today, when you’re first sitting in those classes, you really do feel like, when are they going to figure out that I don’t belong here?” Heather said. “When are they going to figure out that somehow I slipped in and no one noticed?”

Bread and Hobson told her it was OK to feel that way – because everyone does at some point.

More importantly, they challenged her, Bread especially.  He asked her tough questions without correct answers. “What do you know about being an Indian person?” he’d ask his students. You aren’t telling me anything I haven’t heard before, he’d tell them. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You think you do, but you don’t.

“It’s a native way of teaching,” Bread said. “Make you demonstrate comprehension, then turn you to the public. I would never make them look stupid in public. She took it well because of her respect. She’s still learning at 36.”

Bread and Hobson helped Heather through some rough weeks – weeks when she didn’t know how she’d scrape up enough money to eat dinner, weeks when her financial aid wasn’t coming in, weeks when an avalanche of deadlines approached at a breakneck pace.

But those weeks were easy compared to the winter of her first year in grad school.

It was Friday the 13th on a freezing February night. Heather thought her biological father was getting better.

He’d been the sole occupant of a two-person room at a hospital in Lawton for nearly a month, sick with liver complications.

For three weeks, the man who spent his days playing guitar and rooting for his beloved Sooners, the man who inspired Heather’s college choice, the man who told his daughter she could do no wrong – he slept in a coma-like state in a hospital bed. His daughter, pregnant with her first child, sat beside him, typing away at the keys of her laptop as she worked on an unrelenting series of group presentations and reports and research papers.

She’d drive an hour and a half from Norman, every day, to sit silently by her father for as long as she could. Then, she drove an hour and a half back to attend night classes for her doctoral degree. She must have spent hundreds on gas that winter.

“I didn’t want him to be alone.”

That February night, though, things were looking up. Dad was more responsive, talking to Heather and her husband. She felt hopeful – even if he remained bed-ridden. Even if he was talking about football as if it were in season two weeks after the Super Bowl.

That weekend, she planned to move him from the hospital into a nursing home. Then she got the call.

His heart rate was dropping. They doubted he’d make it through the night.

Hours later, a crowd of aunts, uncles, cousins and children drifted in and out of the hospital room.  They waited as the pauses between his heartbeats grew longer and longer.

“We knew that he was… that he was gonna go, that he was gonna pass. I could even tell he was really trying to hang on.”

More hours passed.  Heather and her sister, hand in hand, began to sing his favorite Chickasaw hymn. Even today, she doesn’t like to think about those words.

In low voices, they told him it was OK to die.

“I knew that for him, he needed to feel like we were OK. We had our husbands and we had each other, and he could go on because he needed to. I didn’t want him to feel like he couldn’t move on.”

They waited as his heart rate slowed. And then it stopped.

Heather never missed a day of class.

“I was really so afraid to grieve,” she said. “Because I thought if I grieved I’d lose all my focus.”

So the grief didn’t hit her all at once, the way she’d feared. Instead it came slowly, washing over her in waves that crested and crashed at the times she missed him most – when she finally finished her Ph.D. in 2008. When her second daughter was born.  And whenever she talks about him.

Sitting on the olive green sofa, Heather uses her fingers to wipe away the tears sneaking down her cheeks. She looks up at the high ceiling.

“Sometimes we don’t know why we’re presented with the challenges that we are. But,” she pauses, twirling her wedding ring around her finger, “for me, I’ve come to understand that it’s so you can help someone else. It helps me relate to my students on a different level.”

John, Heather’s husband of 14 years and chairman of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, said he admires her tenacity.

“If she has a goal, she does it, no matter what,” he said. “It really inspired me the way she went on to pursue her Ph.D. I think she found her calling.”

Heather stands at a podium in front of a white board in a small classroom, sipping a Dr Pepper as she speaks to a handful of students in an entry-level graduate class. She wears a black-and-white-striped shirt and pants, and her hair is pulled back to show off big silver earrings.

“Why on a large scale do we care about high school dropouts?” she asks.

Heather phone They throw out a few suggestions – unemployment, fewer opportunities for economic advancement – but she wants more.

“What else?” she asks. “What about the connection between incarceration and juvenile dropout rates?”

She pauses.

“We’re not just saying it’s not good when our students don’t graduate. Why is it not good? Because it impacts our community. It impacts our tribes. It impacts our tribes’ abilities to act as sovereign nations.”

Heather likes to provide her students with more questions than answers. She says she wants them to fight, as she has for years, so that Native children can see themselves in educational curriculum.

“There’s a real danger there when you don’t see yourself represented,” she said. “When you don’t see yourself reflected in your learning, how are you supposed to value yourself? What agency do you have to understand that you’re being marginalized?”

Heather doesn’t like to call herself a leader, but most would say she is. She doesn’t like to call herself a mentor, but her brown eyes light up like windows in a dark house when she talks about her students.

Her office is open to all of them.

Corey Still, who received his degree in Native Studies at OU in 2013, credits Heather as one of the major reasons he graduated.

Still, a first-generation college student from Cookson, Okla., came to college on heavy financial aid. In the middle of his sophomore year, that aid temporarily expired, leaving him with barely enough money to cover the insurance on his truck.

He was eating maybe half a meal a day, waiting and hoping for his financial aid to renew – until Heather called him up to her office one afternoon.

She handed him four large cooler bags full of lunchmeat, bread, frozen hamburger – all paid for out of pocket. She said it was the least she could do.

“She said, ‘I’ve been there,'” Still said, “‘and I don’t want to hear you’re not eating.’ That moment, it hit me: This woman is more than a teacher.”



Read Another Story

Wilma Mankiller