Jonathan Hook '77 works with Indigenous communities across the world.
My vocational path could be described as quite bizarre. As an undergraduate at Wheaton, I planned to become a pastor or missionary. I had already worked with church youth and music programs, and planned to continue on that trajectory. Soon after graduating, however, I experienced some significant personal difficulties that left me shaken and uncertain about my next steps. I loved football, so I played for several years on minor-league professional teams. Simultaneously, I taught history and choir and coached football at a local private high school. Music was also important to me, and I sang with the San Antonio Symphony Mastersingers.
But I didn’t know which way to turn professionally. I attended a seminary for a semester, took the LSAT and Air Force pilot examinations, and still didn’t know what to do. I decided to return to Wheaton for graduate work in Communications. While there, one of my instructors was asked to write the biography of a woman who had just been released from a Soviet prison. She said that in order to accomplish this, she would need to visit the ex-prisoner in person. She was afraid to go to the Soviet Union by herself, so she asked me to accompany her. It was quite an experience – being chased by the KGB, smuggling photos and notes out, etc., and it started me on an international trajectory that has, in many ways, defined the rest of my life.
I completed my M.A. program in Germany, where I remained for a year to teach and coach at the U.S. Embassy High School. I also played and coached for a professional American football team in Cologne. I returned to Texas and taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. I then had a motorcycle accident in which I was struck by four cars. I took the insurance settlement funds and spent a month in South Africa, trying to better understand life under apartheid. I visited Bishop Tutu’s home and African National Congress members in Soweto, spent time with the first Black Methodist pastor on a White circuit, and picked up as many hitchhikers as I could to hear their stories.
Soon after returning home, I began a Ph.D. program in History and Communications at the University of Houston. I focused on the resistance press in South Africa and completed about half of my dissertation when my advisor suddenly returned to South Africa. Several other problems and financial concerns emerged related to my program. I became very discouraged and stopped working on my dissertation. My dad was Cherokee, and I was raised on stories about my family and Tribe. I became increasingly involved in the Houston American Indian community, and spent much time and energy addressing its issues. My new Ph.D. advisor suggested a shift in focus to an American Indian topic. I was spending considerable time at the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation, and one of the elders asked me to write a history of the Tribe. During this time, I was also briefly pastor of a Methodist Indian mission in Houston. I met my wife while serving in that capacity (she is Huastec and Zapotec). I also served on the board of Project Nicaragua. It made several trips a year to provide surgical, dental and other medical services to Indigenous and urban communities.
I became friends with the first astronaut who is an American Indian Tribal member. We co-founded a non-profit organization to serve Native educational interests in the Houston area. Following my graduation, I focused my efforts on developing this initiative. Because the need was so great, I worked not only on education issues but also on the Indian mascot issue, providing Native ceremonies for federal and state inmates, the representation of Indians in the media, racial profiling, rape, and domestic violence. We moved to San Antonio and continued activities there, adding the hosting of an annual powwow and education event to our other activities. During this time I also served as a delegate to the Cherokee Nation Constitution Convention, where we drafted the document under which my Tribe currently functions (or at least the Euro-centric elements of it).
In 2003, I was offered the position of inaugural Director of the Office of Environmental Justice and Tribal Affairs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6 headquarters in Dallas. I served there for five years, working to improve relationships with 66 Tribes and develop more beneficial policies. During this tenure, I met with Native communities in Malaysia and Russia and began conducting Indigenous student videoconferences for youth in western Siberia, Sarawak (Borneo), and Oklahoma. Our theme was the connection between environment and culture, especially related to Climate Change. I was recruited away from the EPA by the president of the University of North Texas to set up an Indigenous program. While at UNT, I facilitated the International Summit on Indigenous Environmental Philosophy. Hosted by a Kiowa Indian community in Oklahoma with participants from many Indigenous communities around the world, it led to the creation of the Redstone Statement. This manifesto on Indigenous rights has provided guidance for environmental and cultural preservation projects in diverse communities around the world. Subsequently, I was able to visit some of the participants’ communities in Australia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Siberia.
Unfortunately, the economy led to the defunding of our program, and my wife and I moved to the Texas-Mexico border to work on a Kickapoo language and cultural preservation effort. Last year, we were invited to Paraguay by the U.S. State Department to meet with young Indigenous Guarani leaders to discuss organization formation. Currently, I’m working with a migrant education program at the local high school, and I’m very involved in efforts to close a recently opened surface coal mine that threatens the health of the entire community. I continue working with international Indigenous communities on Climate Change issues, and we are planning a follow-up Summit in New Zealand. My wife and I live in a remote area near the border. We have no access to water, and have to drive 25 miles to Eagle Pass to get our weekly supply. The only trees on our property are mesquite, most plants are various cacti, and not long ago, my wife found a rattlesnake under the house. Life stays interesting.
I don’t know what direction I’ll be going tomorrow, but I believe that we are here to make a difference in the lives of those around us. I no longer consider myself an evangelical because of the associated political and historical baggage, especially related to Indigenous peoples. My theology can be summed up very simply: love God with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength and demonstrate this through loving my neighbors and meeting their needs wherever possible.
Can you share some ways that your history major has enriched your life?
I absolutely believe that we cannot understand the present without studying the past. Many churches have asked me to make presentations in preparation for upcoming mission trips. I reply that I’ll be glad to speak with them, but they probably won’t like what they hear. When I tell them about the role of the Church in physical and cultural genocide, they often say they have never heard that part of the story before. Too, often, people filter history through their own cultural bias, not wanting to hear the reality. I find this especially true related to American Indians. Through studying history, we gain a more balanced, accurate understanding of the world and our place in it. It vividly, and sometimes violently, conveys the many traits and needs that all humans share. It also illustrates and attempts to understand the immensely diverse ways we meet those needs and adapt to the world around us.
In light of your own experiences, what advice would you give to undergraduates? Do you have any advice specifically on making the most of a degree in history?
Studying history means immersing yourself in humanity’s story, with all of its pain and ugliness, all of its joy and beauty. It means stepping into that narrative and listening carefully to all the voices that surround you – the whispering, the shouting, the silence. A history degree opens doors to many professions- academia, law, government service, non-profit organizations, etc. My only advice is to try to minimize your cultural, ethnocentric filters. Recognize your biases and try to set them aside. As your studies lead to professions, avoid cultural, educational, and religious paternalism at all costs – it is incredibly destructive.
If you have gone on to graduate work, can you suggest some tangible connections between your history major and your graduate studies?
I’d suggest that the greatest skill sets acquired through the study of history include a love of research, effective targeted writing skills, and the ability to identify and explore multiple perspectives. These will serve students well regardless of the academic discipline.