Christopher Payne

November 18, 2020

In November the heritage of the indigenous peoples of America is celebrated in Native American Heritage Month. Many cultures make up the celebration of the people who first lived on the continent, including Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

Christopher Payne, the Division Deputy, Operations in the Building Technology and Urban Systems Division, has spent his career focusing on policy research on energy efficiency and sustainability. He is also a member of the Lab’s IDEA Council of Chairs, and is a member of the Latin American and Native American Employee Resource Group. He identifies as Native American and spoke about what that means in his family.

Can you provide us some background on your Native American heritage?

My father's mother's aunts were part of the Trail of Tears, the forced migration of Native Americans from the southeastern US to Oklahoma. Both of my father's parents grew up in that area; my father was born in Vian, Oklahoma. Just after my father's birth, my grandparents moved to California in the Dust Bowl migration. While I have identified as Native American throughout my life, I am not a formal member of the Cherokee Nation.

What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about Native American culture?

That's a complex question. One answer is that "Native American" culture is something of a misnomer, as there is wide variation in the cultures and traditions of the various indigenous peoples of North America. Another is that Native Americans are somehow more "environmental" or "tied to the land" than other people. There's nothing mystical about Native Americans that makes them automatically "green" - crying Indian commercials notwithstanding.

In what ways do you connect with your culture?

Hmm... another complex topic. My family's Native American experience has been driven by forced assimilation into the American culture. Talking about personal cultural history can be difficult, even threatening. My grandmother was removed from her home as a young child and sent to boarding school to "help" her get away from her Native experience. I sometimes envy people who have family stories they can tell. My family didn't want to talk about those things.