Ottawa

American veteran connects with his indigenous heritage in Ottawa

Hank Dopler, 88, spent nearly three decades in the U.S. navy where he served as a deckhand in the Second World War, followed by several tours during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. But from his upbringing in Illinois through his extensive military career and even into retirement, all he knew of his grandmother’s Cherokee ancestry were stories of racism.

Hank Dopler visits the Wabano Centre's seniors' circle twice a week for traditional teachings and crafts

Hank Dopler, 88, is connecting with his Cherokee roots after becoming part of Ottawa's indigenous community. (Waubgeshig Rice, CBC News)

An American veteran who served in three wars is finally connecting with his Cherokee heritage after becoming a part of Ottawa's indigenous community.

Hank Dopler, 88, spent nearly three decades in the U.S. navy where he served as a deckhand in the Second World War, followed by several tours during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

But from his upbringing in Illinois through his extensive military career and even into retirement, all he knew of his grandmother's Cherokee ancestry were stories of racism.

It was a terrible thing to happen, but I know I am enjoying every day of finding out what I missed out on when I was a young fellow.- Hank Dopler

"I'd seen what my grandfather and my grandmother on my father's side went through," said Dopler. "They got married, and they started calling him a 'squawman.' Neither the Indians would want to have anything to do with him, nor the white man would accept him."

So his grandmother hid her identity. "She had to deny her Indian heritage and claim to be a Gypsy," he added.

That heritage eluded him for decades. He met his wife Mary in Newfoundland after being stationed there, and that's where they settled and raised five daughters.

But when his eldest daughter Sharp moved to Ottawa as an adult, things began to change.

"She got into finding out what her heritage was, and she's done pretty good at tracing everything down as much as she could," said Dopler, who's been in the city since 2001.

In recent years, he's become more involved with the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health's seniors' circle.

Visits the Wabano Centre at least twice a week

"I go down there at least twice a week, Monday mornings and Wednesdays," he beamed. "We meet, we do crafts, we go on outings, we study more about the aboriginal way of living, and it's just a great bit of pastime."

Hank Dopler lays a wreath at the Rideau and Perley Veterans' Health Centre's Remembrance Day ceremony. (Waubgeshig Rice, CBC News)
Dopler also enjoys learning traditional teachings from other indigenous elders who gather at Wabano.

Since March he's been living at the Rideau and Perley Veterans' Health Centre, where he laid a wreath on behalf of indigenous veterans at this year's Remembrance Day ceremony.

While Dopler's not bitter about growing up without his culture, he said he understands what his grandparents had to endure, and he's grateful for this new opportunity to learn about indigenous ways of life here in Ottawa.

"It was a terrible thing to happen, but I know I am enjoying every day of finding out what I missed out on when I was a young fellow."