Blythe George plans to leverage her Yurok background and Harvard education to advocate for better public policy relating to Native American reservations.
As anyone who’s seen a John Ford film will tell you, in the popular imagination, Native American reservations are mysterious, crime-ridden places, hostile to outsiders and home to rampant alcohol and drug use.
According to Blythe George, an Ashford Fellow and second-year PhD student in social policy at GSAS and Harvard Kennedy School, that perception is not entirely inaccurate.
For George, it reflects a long history of inequity and social injustice that makes breaking the cycle of poverty, substance abuse, and violence next to impossible for the more than one million people living on reservations in America today—and for the millions more who maintain active ties to these lands.
George, a National Science Foundation grant recipient, intends to develop and implement policies that will help those in such communities escape their circumstances. “I want to use my PhD to learn more about these places with the hope of crafting better policy to meet the needs of the people living there.”
One of the challenges of conducting research on a reservation is gaining access. While George is a member of the Yurok tribe, she didn’t grow up on a reservation; when she traveled to tribal lands in Humboldt County, California, people were wary of her intentions.“With my blue eyes and red hair, it’s always amazing how much I have to establish myself credibility-wise,” she notes. She’s marked as an outsider not only by her appearance, but also by her Ivy League profile, first as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College and now as a graduate student at Harvard.
As George tells it, not growing up on the reservation probably made it easier to escape the fate of so many other Native Americans. “In my family we had domestic violence and poverty, but I went to a school where not everyone experienced that,” she explains. Nevertheless, growing up off the reservation wasn’t all positive and she knew from an early age that she would have to work hard to beat the odds stacked against her. “I wasn’t lucky enough to grow up there and learn the culture, the dances, and the language,” she shares. “For me, being Yurok had more to do with experiencing poverty, domestic violence, and substance abuse at home.”
Once she got to Dartmouth, George endeavored to learn more about her tribe’s culture and the inequities plaguing its members today. This commitment to her roots is what ultimately wins the trust of the Yurok community. “Once I tell them that I’ve been thinking of them the whole time since I’ve been gone, that usually seals the deal.”