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University of Colorado Denver

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Breaking bad… stereotypes

Photo of Clay Cuny

Growing up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota -- the second poorest city in America -- Claymore Cuny encountered his share of stereotypes. But as a light skinned, Oglala Lakota (Sioux) he’s been breaking them from birth and in the process recognizing that “stereotyping is a poor substitute for getting to know individuals at a more intimate, meaningful level.”

Clay, whose Lakota name is Cante Wambli (which means Eagle Heart), has heard all the stereotypes associated with being Native American Indian. “Lazy, stupid, uneducated, drunk … but the one most frequently cited is that we receive special privileges including a paycheck from the government.”

While quietly debunking these myths, Clay and his family have created their own legacy.  In addition to his parents being school principals, Clay’s sister earned a master’s degree in speech therapy, his oldest brother is a Marine, another brother holds his master’s degree in administration and special education, and younger brother Gabriel is a second-year pharmacy student at CU, as well.

Originally set to follow in his parent’s footsteps and become a teacher, Clay pursued a B.S. in chemistry from Walla Walla University after graduating from Campion Academy in Loveland, CO. But during his sophomore year his father died from stomach cancer. This personal tragedy solidified Clay’s interest in pharmacy, oncology and academia, and put him on a path to a doctorate. “I knew I wanted to do something with my education that would help those battling cancer. Pursuing a degree in pharmacy with an emphasis in oncology seems like a perfect way to do so.”

Clay’s experience with pharmacy stems from his encounters with pharmacists in the Indian Health Services clinics.  “When I was a child and went to the clinic I noticed that pharmacists played an integral role in health care – in addition to dispensing meds they’re relied upon to help manage chronic diseases like diabetes, which is an issue for my people. So, I was pretty familiar with what pharmacists can do.”

He entered the pharmacy program with a scholarship from Indian Health Services, which covers tuition for two years of the program and requires that he serve two years at one of the Tribal clinics or hospitals after graduation. “I want to give back to my tribe. They’ve made my education possible. And in the scheme of things, two years is very little time.”

As myth-busters, Clay comes from a long line of well-educated Native Americans, including his grandfather, James Louis Claymore, for whom Clay is named. Born in the 1920s when racism and intolerance – especially directed toward Native American Indians -- were the norm, James was raised to revere an education. While his peers attended the reservation school, James’ mother sent him to a white high school where he was the only Indian. He excelled, became the president of his graduating class and was on every sports team imaginable. After graduation, he left home with $80 in his pocket. He wanted to go to college so badly that he met with the president of Normal Teacher’s College in Ellendale, N.D. and made a deal. He’d play any sport for the college in order to get in and get an education. He was a three sport athlete -- basketball, track, and the star of the football team – all while earning a teaching degree. After graduation, he coached and taught industrial arts at the Pine Ridge Bureau of Indian Affairs school. That love of education was passed down to James’ seven children, who each went onto college -- several earning doctorates and masters’ degrees. “We didn’t have a choice. His expectation was that we would get a degree,” says Deb Cuny, James’ daughter and Clay’s mother.

Nearly 100 years after his grandfather’s birth, Clay and his family are following in his footsteps by continuing to break stereotypes and create new legacies while quietly celebrating their heritage. “Our people don’t like to brag. When we want to recognize a great accomplishment we honor a person by giving an eagle feather or plume, which represent trust, honor, strength, and wisdom,” says Deb. “It is the highest honor you can receive in our culture.”  So, in addition to Clay being hooded at graduation, Cante Wambli will be given an eagle feather during a special ceremony prior to the hooding where the feather will be blessed, prayed over and attached to the top of his mortar board. As Clay becomes Dr. Cuny, he will honor his Indian roots, carry his traditions with him, and break more stereotypes along the way.

Eagle feathers – badge of honor

Normally given to honor people after battles, they are now given to honor people after achievements or when soldiers return from war. Similar to war medals, the eagle feathers are blessed by medicine men and then given to the person who earned it. The feather is given to the honoree by an elder or a medicine man and a few words are said followed by a prayer and the singing of an honoring song in the Lakota language.