The dream came to her in the early 1990s after a sundance at the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana. After four days of fasting, dancing and praying, Allison Davis-White Eyes and her son stopped at a motel in Cut Bank, just outside the reservation.
She had served the role of caring for women during the ceremony as they sought healing from life’s hardships, and in doing so she made them her own. In their stories, she found herself—her sense of humanity-- and that night she dreamed.
“My son was taking care of me because I was so exhausted,” she says. “ The next morning, he said, ‘Mom, last night you scared me. You got up in the middle of the night, and you were sleep walking, and you were taking care of people. You were sitting down and I could hear you talking to them. You were saying, ‘Are you OK? What’s going on? Tell me what you feel right now.’ It went from one person to the next person to the next person.”
What she discovered was a profound sense of what it means to be human, to be the rain that falls evenly on everyone and to stand upon ground supporting not just a few.
It’s an insight that is part of her life as interim director of Intercultural Student Services, a department of OSU’s Division of Student Affairs, a role, she says, that was a calling to serve as bridge between people and dreams of their own, whatever they might be.
Her job allows her to help students of all backgrounds, from all countries as they attend the university.
“This work encompasses leadership development, professional aspirations. It encompasses the development of the student as a scholar, not just a student or a customer but a real scholar. It also is a place that allows students to critically explore who they are and how to locate themselves in the world, and it allows them to build the capacity to engage the potential they have.”
There is no distinction between past, present and future, says Davis-White Eyes, whose last name was reclaimed from her great-grandparents. There is only life and the importance of connecting with all those who have lived and died and will someday inherit what is left to them.
The 2008 death of her father, Milt Davis a Korean War veteran, left a scar that has not healed but has thickened her skin, sharpened her eyes and inspired her to listen more clearly to the beating of hearts. She doesn’t mention the hardships he faced because of racist views he encountered due to his Native American and African American heritage, and how because of these racist views he decided to move away from professional sports to earn a Ph.D. from UCLA and specialize in ornithology and the natural sciences.
Instead, she describes his sense of humanity and a day in the 1970s, when she sat in the back seat of the family’s station wagon. Her father stopped at the cemetery in Wounded Knee, where ribbons representing the four directions still blow in the wind in honor of those killed during the 1890 massacre.
“He made us get out of the car. We were there a long time, and he told us what had happened there. When my son was little, I would make him go with me, and I would tell him, ‘You need to understand this.’ It’s how history is part of our lives every day.”
Her life is molded by experiences from her childhood, when she felt the freedom of leaving city life to spend summers on reservations in Montana and visiting Oklahoma where her father was born.
“One of the things my parents stressed, regardless of their upbringing and background was education, and another thing they stressed was that no matter how poor you are, you can be poor with dignity. You don’t have to degrade yourself, and I think that as a young person, that’s difficult to understand. Those two things are part of the philosophy that I carried with me when I started working in higher education—giving back to the community but also raising the community.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in American Indian Studies at UCLA before beginning her career at OSU in 1999. She currently is working on a doctorate in international education and has made a point of teaching at least one academic course a year to stay connected with students.
“You see students in a different way if you teach,” she says, “and it allows you a window into how the students are structuring the world at any given time.”
To teach well, she says, one must first be a student with the vulnerability to be deeply affected by what is taught. In fifth grade, a unit about World War II changed her life.
“One of the turning points for me was learning about what happened to people not just in this country but all over the world. I went into a depression when I found out that nuclear bombs were dropped on people in Japan and that people of Japanese heritage in the United States were put in camps here in my own country.”
Her university experiences would build on this early learning through a critical review of forced African American apartheid Native American sovereignty issues, and the various social movements from Stonewall to the Arab Spring that have made a difference.
“Learning about injustice in a country that holds up democratic ideals and notions of humanity made me realize the importance in having my own sense of agency to change things, to work toward a collective vision of what we can be, who we dream to be, who we dare ourselves to be. ”
The lesson put her on a course of social justice.
“At the time, I didn’t know the word to use, but I began to find out what is right and what is good for humanity and to strive for that; and, in striving for that, you realize that it’s really about doing a lot of self-reflection and thinking about self-worth, and it’s also about helping others find that piece of themselves.”
Her life has taken her in many directions, but she says that at the core of her life is her son, Chance White Eyes, who is working towards a Ph.D in Critical and Sociocultural Studies in Education at the University of Oregon.
“My mom tries her best to be equally encouraging to all students, regardless of their background,” her son says. “This spirit is something I have tried extremely hard to replicate in my own classes.”
Her dreams have become his, part of a timeless cycle, a circle with no beginning and no end.
Story and photo by Duane Noriyuki