Commemorating Native American Heritage Month: HKS Employees Share Stories of Their Ancestors’ Resilience and Resolve

The history of the United States is interconnected with the history of those who lived in the country before it was colonized by Europeans. Celebrated in November, Native American Heritage Month is a month of recognition and reckoning – it commemorates the contributions of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives to U.S. history and reminds us of the discrimination that these communities have experienced and continue to experience.

We all have a role to play in overcoming the setbacks in our history. Four HKS employees with Native American roots share compelling anecdotes about their family’s history and the lessons we can learn from their ancestors’ resilience and resolve.

What is your heritage?

Billy Hinton – Chief Talent Officer, HKS Dallas

I’m part Cherokee.

Caroline Sorge – Architectural Design Fellow, DesignGreen/ ESG in Design Fellow, HKS Houston

Native American and European (Welsh/Scottish/Irish/English/German/French/Scandinavian)

Brian Wolfe – Construction Administrator, HKS Dallas


Tony Vannoy – Architectural Design Professional, HKS Detroit

I’m part Choctaw Native American and German which comes from my father’s side. On my mother’s side, I am Irish, Slovenian, and Polish.

From left to right, Billy Hinton, Caroline Sorge, Brian Wolfe, Tony Vannoy

What is your family’s history in this country? What would you like our readers to know about your family’s roots, struggles, and/or contributions?

Hinton: My Dad’s family were Cherokee. They came to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears and are on the rolls. My Dad worked at Northeastern State University for 60 years. It was founded as the Cherokee National Female Seminary. After Statehood it became Northeastern State. It is the oldest institution of higher learning in Oklahoma.

Sorge: My great, great, great grandmother, Elizabeth Lowe (1826-1887), was a full-blooded Native American. Elizabeth was a member of the Sioux tribe and lived in Pennsylvania with her family. She was a child when the Removal Act, passed in 1835 by President Andrew Jackson, was implemented to pave the way for the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of American Indians from their land into the West in an event widely known as the Trail of Tears. When she was a bit older, she married a white man named Ezra Morgan. After they married, a series of wars between the United States Army and the Sioux people, referred to as the Sioux Wars, began in 1854. Although battles between White settlers and Native Americans occurred outside their doors, Elizabeth and Ezra lived with peace, love, protection, and acceptance in their home, while enduring societal discrimination from others.

Wolfe: My Cherokee heritage started in Alabama as part of the Eastern Cherokees. I am a descendant of the Wolf Clan of the Cherokee Nation (fitting for the name) via Nancy Ward, ‘Beloved Woman’ of the Clan. Our ancestors relocated to Oklahoma, which was Indian Territory at the time. They joined the Western Cherokees prior to the Trail of Tears. The tribes impacted are known as The Five Civilized Tribes. As time progressed, Native Americans were forced to live on Indian Reservations. The town I grew up in, The neighboring town, Tahlequah, is the capital of the Cherokee Nation. There is a university there that I spent two years attending before transferring to Oklahoma State University. I feel that growing up in that area helped to shape who I am as someone that respects others and our land for what it has to offer us.  

Vannoy: In the early 1700s my father’s ancestors came over from England and landed in what is now Georgia. They decided to travel west and move to what is now southern Alabama, where they had a son named John and started to build their home. The parents got Yellow Fever when John was between 2 and 4 years old and passed away, leaving the toddler alone in a cabin. Members of the Choctaw Nation stumbled upon the cabin and took the toddler in as their own. John was raised as a member of the Choctaw Nation. He married into the culture and his family remained there for over 200 years. During this 200-year period, the last name “Vannoy” was taken to avoid discrimination and have access to jobs and education that would otherwise not be afforded to them.

President Biden recently signed a proclamation for Native American Heritage Month that reads: “The United States of America was founded on an idea:  that all of us are created equal and deserve equal treatment, equal dignity, and equal opportunity throughout our lives.  … We have always strived to live up to that idea and have never walked away from it — the fact remains that we have fallen short many times.” What does this mean to you?

Hinton: Obviously, the Trail of Tears was a time where the U.S. fell short. Ultimately what it really means to me is that all of us have to continue to strive to provide everyone with equal treatment, equal dignity, and equal opportunity. Hopefully we can continue to learn from the mistakes we’ve made in the past and provide a better and brighter future for those who come after us.  At some point I hope others can look at what we are trying to do today and learn positive lessons from our efforts. 

Sorge: I agree that we, as a nation, have fallen short many times to serve and respect underrepresented communities. I believe it is our civic duty to treat others with respect and dignity, while providing equal opportunities, rights, and freedoms to all people. I fully support the principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, and hope that we as a nation continue to seek out opportunities to improve and make right the shortcomings of our past.

Wolfe: I was unaware of this proclamation.  It’s nice to find out about it, but it’s hard to imagine what can be done since the government was behind the original dismantling of this land’s indigenous people.  The Cherokee Nation was first with an alphabet, was prosperous and thriving until others felt they were more important and destroyed the thriving nation.  It’s an ugly scene that I feel has had a blind eye turned to it since its occurrence.

Vannoy: President Biden recognizes that the founding principle that we are all created equally, although fiercely fought for in this land, has not fully come into fruition. This founding principle has not always been allowed to flourish for all people. Despite the shortcomings that President Biden notes, now is the time to follow through on our founding principles by recognizing where we have fallen short and rectifying these areas. We need not dwell on our past injustices but move forward to ensure that all Americans are free to pursue happiness and have the same opportunities to do so no matter our unique heritage.

How can our industry better serve underrepresented communities and ensure they also benefit from the buildings that we design?

Hinton: I’m excited that HKS has worked and is working with Native American Tribes. We have done several Health Projects for the Cherokees in my hometown of Tahlequah. I’m proud of the fact that HKS has been able to allow incredibly talented architects and designers (like Norman Morgan, Brent Sparks, and Jamie Castillo) to provide world-class facilities to the Cherokees. In the past, many tribes never had access to high-quality firms like ours. We are working to change that. On a personal note, my dad still lives in Tahlequah and was forced to use our clinic last February when he fell on the ice and broke his wrist. I’m very thankful he had access to first class health care and facilities. He called and said, “Your building is awesome. By the way, I’m here because I broke my wrist!”

Sorge: I believe that we can better serve underrepresented communities by giving them a voice and listening to their inherently valuable opinions. We must put prejudice aside and truly listen to one other with full respect, care, and attention. Every person is created with inherent value that is worthy of expression.

Wolfe:  I am extremely proud to say HKS and myself included has had a part in doing some great work for the Cherokee Nation. We recently completed the Cherokee Nation Outpatient Health Clinic that is located in Tahlequah. The facility is the largest health center of any tribe at over 400,000 square feet. It includes clinics for imaging, cardiac, lung and kidney specialists, surgery center, hearing and vision. As someone that used the previous facility, this facility is one that I wish was around when I was growing up. I have friends and family that utilize the new facility and absolutely love it. I am proud to say it also achieved LEED Silver, which makes it one of the very few for the tribe and for that location. It was very exciting, and I think provides an avenue to teach about health and healthy living.  

Vannoy: Within this industry, we as architects and designers can ensure that we are listening to the people within the communities that we are considering for our projects and give them an active role in what we do. Additionally, we can ensure that people have space to come together and have the opportunity to interact.