By Amy Foxworthy
“It is a tragic irony that the American Indian has for so long been denied a full share of freedom – full citizenship in the greatest free country in the world…nearly half our states and many hundreds of our cities and towns bear Indian names…and still the paradox exists.” – Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, addressing the National Congress of American Indians, 1963
When you ask Aleeah Yates Livengood, a Hoosier wife, mother, business entrepreneur and college mentor, to name the inspirational people that have changed her life, high on her list is the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. “People that come into our lives are not by mistake,” says Livengood, 53. “What Bobby Kennedy did for my family changed four generations of people’s lives.”
She explains her personal story is also intertwined with a national narrative of civil rights and citizenship. In the spring of 1968, Aleeah, then just 7-years-old, was overwhelmed with excitement. Word had spread that Sen. Robert “Bobby” F. Kennedy was scheduled to fly into rural Tippecanoe County, Indiana to Halsmer’s Airport, directly beside the Yates family home. These were tough times for the young Indiana girl and her family. Two years after a devastating car accident, her father remained in a wheelchair, his body encased in casts. Her family, which included her two sisters, and brother, often had little else to eat other than federal “commodities” of powered eggs and canned ham. After Aleeah’s mother spotted the presidential candidate’s spouse, Ethel Kennedy, she humbly asked if Kennedy would wave to her husband. Instead, Robert Kennedy borrowed a reporter’s car and drove to Aleeah’s home.
As Aleeah and her two younger sisters sat spellbound on the fence, their father pulled himself from his chair to greet the candidate. Today, Aleeah Yates Livengood, now a parent herself, vividly recalls what happened next. Senator Kennedy asked Aleeah’s father, “Son, what happened? How are you surviving, since you can’t work? How are you taking care of these children?” Livengood recalls. “He looked at all of us, and he looked at me and he winked and I just melted,” she says, still moved by the memory. Kennedy talked with each family member, ending with her, the oldest child. “He put my face in his hands and he said, ‘Someday your life will be different, I promise you,’” recalls Livengood, her eyes filling with tears. Then, it was time for Kennedy to go. The young girl wept.
“I remember marching in civil rights marches with my parents. When we went south, we had to drink out of the fountains labeled ‘colored.’ I knew what was happening, I knew I wanted to be part of it, and I knew I was too small. So I cried as the bus drove away and I promised myself someday, I will make things happen.” She recalls what happened next. On June 5, 1968, during a family trip to their farm in Kentucky, as she sat in the family car listening to music on the radio, the announcer broke into the broadcast with the shocking announcement. Kennedy had been assassinated on a campaign stop. Overwhelmed with sorrow for the man who had shown them compassion and inspiration, the family decided to travel to Washington, D.C. to pay their respects. The transmission went out in their old ’45 Chevy somewhere around West Virginia. After a few days to fix the car, the exhausted family continued on. Upon arriving in Washington, D.C., her father parked the car near the Jefferson Memorial and the family fell asleep. Livengood recalls, “A police officer awakened the family to ask what my dad was doing, and my father said, ‘Sir, we are here to pay our respects, but we do not have money to pay for a hotel.’”
The officer responded, “Go ahead. I’ll watch your family. Sleep.” The next day, the family said goodbye to Kennedy, at his grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Family quest for education Livengood explains the next chapter of her life was her family’s search for education. Her parents enrolled in college in what was then called Ricks College, now Brigham Young University of Idaho. Livengood relates that her family, who were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormon Church, then went on a mission to a Navajo Reservation in Arizona, then on to Utah where her parents attended BYU, then to Arkansas where they lived atop a mountain in a two-room, unheated log cabin. Livengood says she loved the setting, but not the racism she encountered. We lived close to a little town called Prairie Grove, where I went to junior high. They didn’t care for mixed race people.
That bothered my father, and we ended up coming back home.” Textbook racism Back in Utah, Livengood was shocked to open a history textbook and find a passage describing Native Americans as drunken, heathen savages. Livengood, descends from the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, as well the Eastern Band of Cherokee, felt the pain of the racist words as a stinging assault upon her family. “My great grandfather, the kind man that I knew, was a very spiritual man, and it hurt me to the core. I went to the teacher and I said ‘I’m not reading this.
These are lies! He’s not a drunk, he’s not a heathen and he’s not a savage!’” Despite ridicule from her classmates, 12-year-old Livengood successfully petitioned to get the academic curriculum changed. “The principal said he couldn’t change the history books, but what he could do for me, and for other Native students in the school, was to give us our own history class, where we could learn the history of our people. Most of the people in our class were Navajo and Crow. The kids loved it. We got to learn about things that were important to us.” Marriage and family She recalls her first date with Michael Livengood: “We made a date to meet on the ice at Lafayette Columbian Park… as we walked underneath Memorial Island Bridge, we began to hold hands.” Livengood eventually learned the courting spot was generations old: “Years later I found out that my great grandparents also met under that same bridge, when my great-grandfather jumped into my great-grandmother’s passing canoe, asking her for a date,” she says. When Michael Livengood proposed, Aleeah responded, ‘You better get a good job, because I want 12 kids.”
The couple was married on March 10, 1979, and she set about fulfilling her dreams of life as a wife and mother. But in 1982, when she was 21, she received a blessing from a church leader who told her she needed to go to school. By the time she enrolled at Purdue University in West Lafayette, she had four children. In 1986, she was nearly complete with an undergraduate degree in speech pathology when she became pregnant with her fifth child. Livengood decided to take a short leave of absence, when she conceived her sixth child. “I did go back to Purdue with a year and a half left and ended up graduating in 2001, so, look how long it took me!”
She returned to Purdue in 2003 to earn a master’s degree and learned about a new Native American recruitment program called the Tecumseh Project. Livengood successfully lobbied for university approval and foundation funding for a cultural center to provide a home away from home for Native American students. “I’m glad they kept it up and it is still there today.” Next, Livengood received a research assistantship with the Louise Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) under Dr. Pamella P. Shaw. Shaw, who is African-American, and is the associate dean for the office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Purdue, reflects on that relationship. “We had a combination administrative/mentor/friendship over the course of several years,” said Shaw. “Her rich background and mature nature led to the development of several projects that assisted us in developing activities and outreach to Native American students and the community.” Later, another Purdue professor, Dr. Suzanne Zurn-Birkhimer, approached Shaw about a project in Red Lake, Minnesota to conduct Department of Natural Resource research on tribal lands.
Shaw couldn’t go, but suggested sending Livengood in her place. “This opportunity was so important to me,” says Livengood. To the Native Americans she encountered, she stressed that education was the only thing that would change their lives. To the non-Native academics, she explained the importance of respect for Indian culture. “I told them that they could not go in there and take something away without giving something back.” A decade later, Livengood says she is still in touch with many of the Native American students she mentored on the Red Lake project. “I shared with these people on the reservation my stories, my life; that I had experienced being homeless as a child, not having enough food to eat, being hungry,” says Livengood. “Some of the non-Native people may have felt uncomfortable, but I told them to be real. Not to act like they ‘knew it all’ or any facades.”
Governor calls Next, the Indiana Governor’s office called. In 2007, Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed her executive director for the Indiana Native Affairs Commission. When her term ended, Livengood returned to Purdue as a retention coordinator for the Cultural Center, but when the grant funding ran out, she was out of a job. She currently serves on the Serve Indiana Commission (formerly known as the Indiana Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives.) In 2008, when the state building industry slumped and her husband’s masonry business declined, she increased her time in the family business. “I realized that all of the knowledge I’d learned over these years, I could take and give back to my husband’s business, I could help my husband,” says Livengood. “My husband was a typical construction worker. They don’t always have experience with being professional, dealing with marketing, and branding. I felt we needed to be seen as professionals, and I decided I was going to help him by doing the management part of the business.” He was better in the field, so I told him that he should manage the field and I could manage the office.”
Livengood developed a marketing plan and created a corporate logo to promote the family brand. “It’s a triangle…it’s actually the Trinity. It has given him a new confidence, because although a lot of people can hang drywall and nail boards, not just anybody can lay brick, block, or lay stone,” said Livengood. Her family is famed for builders, and she is proud of that. “I told my boys, to have a respect for what you do. Not everyone can do it. Don’t let anybody try to push you down, try to make you lower your prices, you have to stand firm, because what you are giving them is a quality job.” The Livengood firm is respected throughout the greater Lafayette area and beyond, says Steve Rider, owner and president of S. Rider Construction. “Knowing a subcontractor like Livengood Masonry, integrity and honesty is what it’s all about. Guys like that are few and far between now.” “Aleeah is part of the business you don’t see, which is often the backbone of the business. And her husband Mike is the best masoner in this town,” says Rider. “He’s done jobs from a $6 million dollar house, a dollhouse. He’ll be there, and he’ll never let you down. Now the kids pretty much run the actual physical work, and they’re all good workers.”
Next, Mike Livengood decided to expand the business with masonry heaters. “We were diversifying, when you are in business, you have to diversify,” said Livengood. “The economy changes, needs change.” Despite the hard work, business planning and next product, the business was still buffeted by the economy, she says. “People were scared; banks were scared. I created relationships with companies who were doing commercial work, just to get our name out there. We did presentations on masonry heaters, and it kept us going until the work came back.” Life’s hard choices Then a friend and financial advisor recommended they sell their home.
“My dream home!” says Livengood. Their five-acre property boasted a fireplace that her sons had constructed, with rocks lovingly gathered from family vacations. The decision was made. “That’s one of those things, when you’re in business, you have to know when to cut your losses,” Livengood explains. “You have to decide if it’s worth keeping and you find out the material things aren’t. What is (important) is family. In the end, reflecting on her personal odyssey from Indiana, Idaho, Arizona, Arkansas, on her life which has embraced motherhood and academic achievement, Livengood says her message is this: “The human race is my family.” And considering her life’s purpose, including the mentors, from family, to the late Sen. Kennedy, she also claims this mission: “When it comes to Native people, helping them understand their potential, is really important to me.”