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My Indigenous Heritage

Being a woman of mixed ancestry (Native/European) I’m blessed with a rich cultural background from my mother and father. Because both my paternal grandparents are Native, I have two lineages, two stories of survival, hope and love. In 2002, my grandmother Mary wrote a book about her life called A Gift from the Heart. I am grateful to experience my history through her eyes and that is where this story begins.

In 1893, Mary’s grandparents traveled from Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada, to North Dakota seeking a better life. During their journey, her mother Ernestine, was born in a wagon in what is known as White Earth, North Dakota. Although they were from the Metis Nation (Chippewa/Cree) in Canada, they were quickly enrolled as citizens of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota. Instead of residing on the reservation which was unable to meet the land needs of their community because of its small land base, the Bureau of Indian Affairs allotted them 160 acres of land near the Montana border where the Missouri River meets the Yellowstone. This land was known as the Trenton Indian Service Area. 

During this time the US Congress passed the Homestead Act; which provided land to settlers willing to improve and live off the land for 5 years. This opened up the Dakota Territory where a German man named Jack Winter and his family arrived from Minnesota to build their homesteads. The land they were given was the same allotted land Ernestine and her family lived on, yet no one at the time cared if Native land was given to non-Natives. Ernestine worked at the Fort Buford trading post that served Natives and new settlers. This is where Ernestine met Jack, they fell in love and married in 1912. They built a tar paper shack on their shared allotted land and in 1920, my grandmother Mary was born. Mary’s grandfather taught her how to live off the land. They were called Mooshum and Kookum, Ojibwe words for grandfather and grandmother. Their land was a stopping point for tribes sanctioned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. At that time Native Americans had to have written permission to be off the reservation. Mooshum would mend their harnesses and wagons while they took rest before their journey continued.

Mary’s mixed heritage created challenges for her. She was often not allowed to play with other Native American children who were called the “full bloods” because they said she wasn’t good enough. She was also discouraged from playing with non-Native children who called her a “half breed.” It forced the other mixed or “Metis” Native families to support and commune with each other, which strengthened their unique community and culture.

In 1936, at the age of 16, Mary was sent to a Native American boarding school called Chemawa in Salem, Oregon. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was putting pressure on Mary’s family to send her away. They were told it was for her education, however it was the government’s way of separating families in an effort to break the Native spirit. During the train ride from North Dakota to Oregon, she met another young Native girl named Rosalie Sayers, who was also Ojibwe. She became her close friend and roommate. 

Shortly after returning home from Chemawa in 1937, Mary received news that Rosalie Sayers had passed away due to complications of tuberculosis. She decided to visit the family in Medicine Lake, Montana which was also allotted land through the Trenton Indian Service Area. Communication was difficult because Mrs. Sayers spoke a French/Chippewa/Cree dialect often referred to as the Mischif language. During this time, Rosalie’s handsome older brother Joseph came to visit and was pleased to meet Mary. Soon after, they began courting and in 1938 at the age of 18, Mary married my grandfather Joseph in Poplar, Montana, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Together they eventually had 6 children, including my father. They took residence on the reservation because Joseph worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps within their Native American department and as a foreman in mechanics for the National Guard. As WWII intensified, the National Guard began looking for men in defense work. In 1941, Joseph moved to Bremerton, Washington because the Puget Sound Navy Yard was in much need of men.

Life during the war was hard. They lived in a small 14x14 cabin with no running water. Eventually Joseph bought a 5-acre farm in Port Orchard, Washington, about twenty-five minutes from the Naval Shipyard. When the war ended, jobs were hard to come by. Once a welder for the shipyard, Joseph found himself working as a sweeper. When his former welding supervisor saw him pushing the broom, he asked what he was doing. Joseph replied, “I am feeding my family.” The next day Joseph was told to report immediately to the welding supervisor. He got his old job back and held onto it for 33 years until he retired.

In 1970, at the age of 50, Mary obtained her GED and went to work as a certified Native American Cultural Specialist, appointed by Indian Affairs in the Puget Sound area of Washington. Mary took classes from Northwest coastal tribal members and expanded her knowledge in the areas of basketry, botany, traditional food and medicine. She enjoyed working for the school district teaching urban Native youth about indigenous history, culture, and identity. My father, Michael Sayers, went to art school and also studied under artist and Skokomish tribal leader Gerald Bruce Miller. He then went on to teach art and Native American history in Washington State. It was during this time he met my beautiful mother Dannie, built a farm house, raised llamas and in 1982, I was born.

In the late 1980s, funding for Indian Education changed drastically. Instead of rich culturally programming, students were quickly pulled during class for Indian Education. As a student of these services, it felt more like the government’s effort to fill in checkboxes. Most of the time I found myself coloring Native American coloring books with the three other Native students at my school. This would be the first time I met my future husband Jeremy; the two of us coloring next to one another; unbeknownst then, how our paths would cross again in the future. He too was an urban Native like me, his grandfather coming to the Naval Shipyard after serving in WWII on submarines. His family was Potowatami and Assiniboine from the Prairie Band Potawatomi in Kansas.

After graduating high school I moved to Bellingham and attended Western Washington University, obtaining my BA in Sociology and Minor in American Cultural Studies, predominately focusing on Native American History. My final year I was Co-director of the Native American Mentoring Program and spent time on the Lummi reservation tutoring and mentoring students. 

My then Native American professor, Dan First Scout Row, sent me an application and encouraged me to apply for the American Indian Teacher Training Program at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I was one of twelve Native students selected for the 2-year program. Seven days after graduating in 2005, I started my Masters Degree in Educational Psychology. In 2007, a new tribal school was opening in Portland, Oregon and they were looking to hire. To my delight I was offered the job as a high school counselor at the Native American Youth and Family Center Early College Academy.

After three years as a counselor, I decided to serve the Native community on a national platform. In 2010, I transitioned to the Nike World Headquarters to Nike N7, a brand within Nike that inspires and enables Native and Aboriginal youth to be physically active. I was fortunate enough to travel the United States and Canada to various tribal communities.

In early 2016, Jeremy and I crossed paths again. We connected instantly because of our love for family, culture, and history. Soon after, I decided it was time to move closer to Jeremy and my family. I accepted a position with the Wenaha Group as their Director of Business Development and Marketing; continuing my work serving Native communities. On September 23rd, 2017, Jeremy and I got married!

My indigenous heritage plays an important role not only in my professional life but in my creative process, mission, and moral fiber. I have so much yet to learn and excited to share it with you!

Miigwech (thank you)
Tessa


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