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My Indigenous Heritage

Being a woman of mixed ancestry, I’m blessed with a rich cultural background from my mother and father.  I am Indigenous from North America (U.S./Canada), Celtic, Norse, and of Germanic origin. My Indigenous heritage encompasses three tribes, Chippewa, Cree, and Metis, all of whom are represented within the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa community in North Dakota. I'm a certified artist with my tribe, Turtle Mountain, and I strive to give back to the community. 

Because both my paternal grandparents are Turtle Mountain, I have two ancestral Indigenous lineages. In 2002, my grandmother Mary Sayers wrote a book about her life. I am grateful to have experienced my history through her eyes, and that is where this story begins.

In 1893, Mary’s grandparents traveled by wagon from the Red River Métis community in Manitoba, Canada, to North Dakota, seeking a better life. Because they were (Chippewa/Cree), they were 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 needs of their community because of its small land base, the Bureau of Indian Affairs allotted them 160 acres of land in North Dakota near the Montana border, where the Missouri River meets the Yellowstone River. During the journey, Mary’s mother, Ernestine was born in a wagon.

Ernestine was also allotted land, but it was located in Montana. The government didn’t care to keep families close together. Ernestine and her two brothers went to public school. They were forbidden to have long hair or speak their Native language. If caught, they were beaten. The US Congress passed the Homestead Act, which provided acreage to settlers willing to improve and live off the land for 5 years. This opened up the Dakota Territory which at that time included land within the area of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. 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, and they fell in love and married in 1912 when she was 19. They built a tar paper shack on their shared allotted land and in 1920, my grandmother Mary was born. The Montana winters were harsh and lonely for the family. After Mary’s brother died from pneumonia, the family wanted to be closer to their Native family so they moved back to North Dakata.

Mary’s grandfather taught her how to live off the land. They were called Mooshum and Kookum, Anishinaabe words for grandfather and grandmother. Mooshum could not read or write and spoke little English yet he was a beautiful violin player. 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 rested before continuing their journey.

Mary’s mixed heritage created challenges for her. She was often not allowed to play with other Native 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 Indigenous families to support and commune with each other, which strengthened their unique community and culture. For fun, they would jig (dance) to instruments such as the fiddle or violin which was commonplace in Metis 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 but it was the government’s way of separating Native families. During the train ride from North Dakota to Oregon, she met another young Native girl named Rosalie Sayers who was also Turtle Mountain Chippewa. She became her close friend and roommate. With regular bouts of asthma, Mary returned home after a year at boarding school. She recalled only learning two things well at boarding school: ironing a man’s shirt and making a bed. There were strict rules at school and unfair demerit systems that forced students, when punished, to do activities such as paste waxing and polishing floors, cleaning teachers’ homes, and watching their children.

Shortly after returning home from Chemawa, Mary received news that Rosalie Sayers had passed away due to complications of tuberculosis, a common illness picked up in boarding schools. She decided to visit the family in Medicine Lake, Montana, which was also allotted land through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Communication was difficult because Mrs. Sayers spoke a French/Chippewa/Cree dialect, often referred to as the Michif language. During this time, Rosalie’s handsome older brother Joseph visited 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 as it was close to Medicine Lake.

Together, they had six 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. Mary worked at the tribe’s drive-in restaurant. As WWII intensified, the National Guard began looking for men in defense work. In 1941, Joseph and Mary moved to Bremerton, Washington because the Puget Sound Navy Yard was in need of men.

Life during the war was hard. My grandparents lived in a small 14’x14’ cabin with no running water. Eventually, Joseph bought a five-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 on to serve in the United States Air Force for four years, then obtained his B.A. in Art Science at Western Washington University. He taught for 32 years at South Kitsap High School with a primary focus in fine arts, Washington State history, Native American history, and Native American literature. He oversaw the creation of the first Native American student club. Since growing up in Western Washington, he cultivated a strong connection to Coast Salish culture which was an integral component in teaching high school local Indigenous history. He was fortunate to study Coast Salish art from Skokomish tribal leader and artist Bruce Miller. As an artist, his work also represents the plains lifestyle of Chippewa culture as they migrated west into the Dakotas and Montana.

It was during this time he met my beautiful mother, Dannie, who built a farmhouse and raised llamas, and in 1982, I was born. In the late 1980s, funding for Indian education changed drastically. Instead of rich cultural 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, and the two of us were coloring next to one another, unbeknownst to me 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 grandfather was Prairie Band Potawatomi from Kansas, and his grandmother, Yankton and Sisseton Sioux and Assiniboine from Fort Peck.

In early 2016, Jeremy and I crossed paths again. Soon after, I decided it was time to move closer to Jeremy and my family. On September 23, 2017, Jeremy and I got married. We were unable to have children of our own, which greatly saddened me. I decided to channel energy and efforts into serving, supporting, and giving back to the Indigenous community.

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