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For Felina Silver, a personal quest for identity leads to civic leadership on Indigenous issues

Felina Silver Robinson
June 6, 2024
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In 2019, Felina Silver learned her mother had cancer. As relatives who were unfamiliar to her began reaching out to offer their sympathy, Silver realized she knew too little about her own family background. A DNA test, she decided, would be the solution.

She had no idea back then just how much those test results would open her eyes to the complexity of heritage – and motivate her to get other Brookline residents to do the same.

“The time of claiming myself and coming to terms with who I am was really more about not wanting my mom’s legacy to die,” Silver says. “The idea that she may no longer be with me sparked me to want to know where I come from.”

The DNA results did more than expand Silver’s understanding of her diverse roots. They also allowed her to connect with new members of her family.

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Silver was raised in Brookline by her Cherokee mother and Polish stepfather. Her biological father had mixed ancestry, with Blackfoot, Ghanaian, Nigerian and European roots. Despite coming from such a diverse background, Silver heard little about her family’s history growing up. At one point, she remembers her mother stopped discussing their heritage altogether.

“I didn’t know why as a child, and it felt like I lost all my family,” Silver recalls. “She just stopped talking about everything.” Silver did the same. Before long, she no longer gave much thought to her heritage. “And then, my mom got sick.”

However, the combination of her mother’s illness and her own revealing DNA results compelled Silver to reckon with what it means to be an Indigenous resident of Brookline. Part of that reckoning led her, a few years ago, to identify herself as Indigenous on the town census. “I shouldn’t have been, but I was embarrassed and ashamed [of my heritage] because that’s how I was brought up,” she says. “When my mom got sick, it was important for me to let people know that there was more than just her.”

Civic Engagement

Silver, who is currently not employed, is quite active in town government. However, her engagement started small with her participation on the Recycling Committee beginning in 2004. From there, Silver began working as a town election poll worker, eventually becoming warden of precinct 5. She remained in this paid position for five years. During this time, she also joined other committees including the Complete Count Census Committee and the Moderators Commission Committee on recreational marijuana.

For Silver , who is 61 years old and has six children, the drive for civic participation is simple: if you want something done, you need to do it yourself. She has focused on spotting areas that “needed to be fixed that nobody was fixing,” she said. “You can’t say that you did everything you could if you’re not physically a part of the solution.”

Silver joined the Indigenous Peoples Celebration Committee in May 2019. One of her first actions on the committee was helping them pass a historical land acknowledgement through the Town Committee in November of 2021.

The land acknowledgement recognizes that Brookline’s land was previously under the ownership of the Massachusett Tribe of Ponkapoag, before colonists forcibly stripped it away from them in 1641. It also admits to the role that previous Brookline residents played in the slave trade, harming both Indigenous and African peoples.

In 2021, Silver became the chair of the Indigenous Peoples Celebration Committee. Under her leadership, the committee has expanded their outreach and moved to bring more awareness of Indigenous culture into the community. The committee was originally created in 2017 with the sole purpose of creating and implementing Brookline’s celebration of Indigenous People’s Day.

“I want Indigenous history to be all over Brookline, not in just one place,” Silver says. “I want it to be seen. I want it to be noticed.”

As part of this initiative, the committee has started an Indigenous Authors Book Club and works closely with local schools to encourage the addition of more Indigenous studies in their curriculum. This past November, the Brookline Indigenous Peoples Celebration Committee and the local high school hosted Thomas (Spirit Tree) Green, an Indigenous artist of the Neponset band of Massachusett.

In addition to her role as the chair of Brookline’s Indigenous Peoples Celebration Committee, Silver is also a Town Meeting Member and sits on the board and part of the steering committee of Brookline’s League of Women Voters.

Silver’s mother passed away on Jan. 7, 2023, but that life has left an enduring impact on the way that Silver views herself and her goals for the future. Recently, Silver attended a powwow along with four members of the Indigenous Peoples Celebration Committee. For Silver, this visit was particularly meaningful because it marked her first visit and attending had been an aspiration for many years.

“I see myself,” she says, “as being Native American more than anything else that I am.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Reinventing Journalism course at Brandeis University, taught by Professor Neil Swidey, with mentoring for student journalists by Brookline.News steering committee co-chair Ellen Clegg and editor Sam Mintz. Read more about the collaboration here. 

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