Boozhoo (Hello) Reader,
What you are about to read are six stories from Native American/Indigenous folks. These stories are part of a small photovoice project I completed on the topic of contemporary Native identity. The goal of the project was to explore how Native/Indigenous people make sense of their identities in this day and age by sharing photos that they feel represent these identities and writing a description of each photo explaining its significance to them. As you read the stories, you will encounter themes such as strong familial and ancestral connections, respect for and connection with land and culture, and the importance of passing on stories and traditions to ensure the continuation of various Native cultures. I hope that reading these stories sheds light on the fact that there is not one way that a Native person looks, acts, or exists.
I would like to thank each of the participants in this project. I appreciate all of the time and effort you put into your photo selection and storytelling. Your stories are a testament to the strength of Native people that that has persisted through generations, and the resistance and resilience that allows us all to say, “We are still here.”
This photo was taken in November 2016 at the Oceti Sakowin Camp on the Cannonball River on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. I went to ND in November 2016 (for about 10 days) with the “Detroit Anishinaabe Standing Rock Delegation;” and then again with two other Anishinaabekwe in March 2017. The delegation was organized by Diana Copeland (professor at University of Michigan SSW, Research Director with Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council, & PhD student at MSU) and Kaela Harris (President of NASO at Wayne State University, MSW graduate from WSU). The group consisted of Indigenous students, activists/organizers, and community members around the Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit area.
A few of these people I was already very close with when we started this trip but I made very strong, life-lasting, indescribable connections with each of these individuals through this trip and the work we did in ND. For me, this photo depicts Indigenous resistance and resilience. My trip to ND is not something I can easily speak about; it was emotional and mentally draining, it triggered some historical trauma within me that I hadn’t quite known how to deal with, and the complete disregard for Native people and sovereignty was disturbing to say the least. But this trip changed my life and the connections I made here with my People and the land and my role as an activist have influenced the rest of the trajectory of my life. Each individual in this photo has their own unique story of Indigenous identity and each person is influencing Indian Country in their own way. We all look different and come from different walks of life but our connection to each other and our ancestors are stronger than anyone who wasn’t there with us can ever understand.
This photo was taken at the “No DAPL, No KXL” protest at University of Michigan in January 2017; organized by the Michigan Indigenous Action Council. The Michigan Indigenous Action Council was created by a group of Anishinaabe students at University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, including myself and the women pictured in the picture.
This photo includes my four best friends. All of these women are strong ass Anishinaabekwe. I love them. They carry parts of me and will forever. We know the deepest parts of one another. I didn’t meet these women until later in my undergraduate career, but our connections feel beyond this life. Three of the women in the picture went to Standing Rock with me. We created this group with other Native students to participate in direct action concerning issues in Indian Country. We did not feel represented on Michigan’s campus and wanted a space that was our own to express ourselves unapologetically. This moment captured a very powerful moment during the protest where we were leading about 300 people through the streets of Ann Arbor in protest against the environmental racism that Indigenous people were currently facing with pipelines in North America. Also, important to note, the two women behind our sign, carrying the larger signs, are mothers of two of the women in front. I have spent a lot of time with these women talking about anything under the sun, but connecting through our Native identities.
This is an old photograph of the Native women in my family. Left to right in this photo: my grandmother’s sister, Rose; my great-grandmother (my grandma’s mom), Grandma Susie; my grandma, Violet, who is holding her oldest daughter (my aunt), Virginia; my great-great grandma (Grandma Susie’s mom), Hattie; my grandmother’s sisters, Lena and Laura.
These are the most influential Native women in my life. In the picture on the left is my cousin, Doreen, and my Grandma again; taken at my mom’s family christmas party she has every year. In the picture on the right is my mother and my her best friend, my Auntie Sarah; taken at my brother’s graduation party.
My Auntie Sarah, my mother, and my Grandma all raised me and made me who I am today.
My cousin Doreen, though not super involved in my life directly, has always been a rock of support and wisdom. Doreen has helped me navigate through my identity and has always supported me in my endeavors. She inspires and encourages me to be a champion for my community. She is respected greatly by our People and is one of the kindest, most inspirational women I know.
This is a photo of my Tribe’s winter powwow in the year 2011, I think. At this powwow my grandma was one of the honored elders; the other is my friend’s grandfather, Blue Misegan. In this photo, I am in my regalia and bending over to kiss my grandma; my mother is behind me.
My grandma… I can’t even begin to explain. She raised me. Not because my parents were unable to but because they were young. We lived with my grandma when I was a kid, she watched me and my brother when we were little, she loved me unconditionally. She was the plug. She had so many damn snacks. This woman let me drink Coke out of a baby bottle until I was like, 6 years old. She let me stay up late and watch TV. She taught me the art of the sponge bath. When my grandpa died I stayed the night at her house almost every night so she wasn’t alone. Like, she was my hero. My rock. My mom and I fought a lot and I was a little defiant when I got out of high school and my grandma was the only person I felt comfortable talking to about a lot of stuff. She had so much wisdom and guidance.
In the purple is my brother, Austin Ayres. In the green is my cousin, Cody Haataja. In the red is my cousin (my mother’s brother’s son), Dylan Friisvall. These are the Native men in my life. My brother was graduating from high school, while Cody and Dylan were graduating from college with their Associate’s Degrees. They took a few photos for my mom and posed for this goofy picture last. Cody stood in the back because he wasn’t wearing socks or shoes and didn’t want to be barefoot in the picture.
I chose this picture because of the importance these men have had in my life. My cousins are the firekeepers at our annual powwow for the sacred fire. And my brother is usually a camp counselor at our youth culture camp at the end of every summer. It has been beautiful to grow up with these men and watch them reconnect with our culture as adults now. We grew up playing in the woods together, building forts and chasing animals. I also think this picture depicts the many facets of Native identity. Lots of people have ideas of how Natives are supposed to look. My cousin Cody is super dark, my cousin Dylan has really distinct Native features, and my brother has mostly Finnish features; but they are all the same “blood quantum” and we all grew up on the same Rez and in the same environment. I love them all with my entire heart. They have been my protectors in love and life. Native men bother the fuck out of me– these men bother the fuck out of me. But their fierce love and passion for eachother, me, and our culture is inspiring.
Both of these images reflect the love that indigenous families have for one another. That love of family extends beyond the immediate family and into the community and the culture of the tribe.
From the time we are young we recognize that it is our responsibility to carry on the teachings of our ancestors, participate in our community and our culture, and create a better world for the next generation, just as the previous one did for us.
Being an auntie is a very central part of my life because these kids constantly remind me of what’s important. They motivate me to make the world a better place so when it is time for them to lead, it will be a little less painful for them to make their way. Their laughter and unconditional love always bring me back to reality.
Being a young Native person today often means being the first in your family to go to college. My parents didn’t know how to prepare me for college- financially, academically, or even socially. Attending a primary white, upper class university was extremely hard and isolating. Most people at UM didn’t understand my obligations to my family or community and my family didn’t understand why I had to be gone for such long periods of time. They couldn’t relate to the things I was going through and I regularly felt as though my education was creating a barrier in our relationships. Despite these obstacles, they’ve supported me the best they knew how and it meant the world to me to have them come down for my graduation last spring. It was especially important for my oldest nephew to see that where we come from does not define where we are going.
Holding both queer and Native identities is a very complicated place to be in this society. Native people are already invisible and queer Natives are basically non existent to the public. It’s always been hard because Anishinaabe people traditionally respected and embraced two spirit individuals, yet there’s so much homophobia and transphobia in Native communities due to harmful assimilation efforts (Native American Boarding Schools, compulsory Christianity, etc.). Knowing that your ancestors would have accepted you but some people in your community deny your right to be who you are has often left me longing for a reality that no longer exists. You’re stuck between hiding your Native identity in queer spaces and hiding your queer identity in Native spaces.
A strong kwe (woman) group is essential to survival, especially in a university setting. There’s a strength found in Native women that I have yet to find anywhere else. This is a picture of my two best friends and I can honestly say I don’t know if I’d be alive without them. They’ve helped me through my deepest depressions and loved me unconditionally through it all. Together we’ve traveled the country, fought for our sovereign rights, experienced love and heartbreak, learned from our elders, and developed into the strong Anishinaabe women we are today.
In a society that values dollar signs over the environment, it’s all indigenous peoples’ responsibility to be the voice of the land, the water, and the animals. The NoDAPL protests was one of the biggest indigenous movements of my lifetime. Going out to Standing Rock, ND as part of a Detroit Anishinaabe Student Delegation was one of the most powerful experiences of my life in both beautiful and traumatic ways. After a week out at the Oceti camp, coming back to campus was awful. All of my peers and professors wanted me to talk about what it was like out there without understanding how much energy I was using to just make it to class after such a spiritual experience. Trump signing the executive memo to push through the final easement of the keystone xl and Dakota access pipeline and saying that he had not heard any objections to either of them was one of the most heartbreaking moments I’ve ever had. It was in that moment that I realized that our beautiful nations were only as sovereign as the US government allowed us to be. Honestly, being a contemporary Native means feeling powerless a lot of the time. It’s in those times that you have to realize that our ancestors have endured far worse than those like Trump and their power will always be with us.
The first participant I worked with was Samara, and I was lucky enough to get to talk with her and hear her story in person. The following is a recollection of Samara’s story written collaboratively by the both of us based on our conversation.
Samara is Mashpee, Wampanoag, and Cape Verdean, African. Through her, these complex ethnicities form a union. But more than what runs through her blood ignites her purpose. She has spent her life testing what it means to be Wampanoag. What it means to be an Indian, an Ambassador of her peoples. Her collegiate experience has provided a chance for her to understand what her life means. The Mashpee Wampanoag Nation is primarily located in Mashpee, Cape Cod, and Samara spoke fondly of her People’s land and its immense beauty. She is particularly fond of the whale and creatures that surround the island. While Mashpee Wampanoag people are Native American, Samara describes her personal marker as Mashpee Wampanoag to be, “An expansive term that is still developing as I learn of our whanau (family) in Aotearoa as well as our many African Ancestors running through our blood.” Aotearoa is the Māori name for New Zealand, and the Māori people are indigenous Polynesians of New Zealand. “My ancestors are travellers. We were not stagnant. I owe my adaptability to my ancestors who have come before me and made living today a little easier.” Through all of this she sees understanding the mix of land and blood of one tribe allows her to appreciate her people even more. It ultimately makes her feel whole.
To add another dynamic to Samara’s story, she was raised in Native Hawaiian Culture. She is thankful for the Kanaka Maoli and works to preserve the culture for her younger brother “Tunka” and older sister Lakira. “It has taken me 18 years to understand how grateful I am for my grandfathers, all of them, and be in a place to say I could not have made it without them. I want to make sure that my family near and far are able to know there is someone here to support them. If no one is there to ease the pain of confliction in physicality, I am.” Samara has come to interact with and explore her Mashpee Wampanoag identity through her Kanaka Maoli identity. When she was little she dealt with the tumult of finding her place in life. Growing up in a split home, she felt obligated to mediate and often had little time to not think of her actions.
“My escape from this all was my Tutu and my Mothers.” Her blood mother gave her up to live with her grandparents for a few years. This took a toll on her spirit. But she does not blame her mother. She just loves her mom a little more than most people can understand or make sense of. Being so far away from home made her research the things she could once go home to receive. “I did it to heal, but I really did it to prove how much I loved them. Even when I couldn’t find the words to say it. I chose to dedicate my life to finding a way to make my second mother and father full time parents. Regardless of distance.” For Samara, Kanaka Maoli is how she was raised and what she learned the ways of growing up, it has become a part of her culture, her tribes culture. Samara also acknowledged that not everyone lives in the way that she lives with regard to claiming different cultural identities. She chooses to respect the ancestors she is bonded with through her mothers, fathers and grandparents. She pays her respects to God for guiding her and then her ancestors for making her question and seek answers.
Thinking about the future, Samara said, “My children will be Mashpee.” That is her culture and her ancestry, and that is how she would like to raise her children. Her Kanaka Maoli ties have influenced her studies comparing Hula to the Drum Dance of the Inuit people. Hawaiian culture has left impressions on her that have ignited a flame, that eventually turned into a wildfire. She is on a mission to find the cultural practices of her peoples that have been lost through history. Practices that have been adopted and tweaked through migration, traditional medicines, and forms of dance. Samara is someone who is not used to being comfortable. When she attends PowWow she often feels out of place. She was not given the blessing of knowing jingle dance. But she can speak with hula. She can recall with hula. Give thanks and remember the people who have come before her. Her inability to stay stagnant pushes her to follow her heart. A key component of being able to claim a cultural identity, Samara explained, is how you interact with the land. Her first interaction with the land was through the food of her late Mimi. And her first appreciation of land and spirit was through hula, which she was given the blessing to practice by her Tutu.
One experience Samara described was learning how to hula with her sister. She and her sister were not as close back then. But Samara admired her nonetheless. “I idolized her. My sister is so perfect and still is. No matter how badly she would treat me I would do anything to protect her.” She spoke fondly of her sister and their developed relationship, stating that she and her sister are a duo. “When you practice hula with somebody, they become your hula sister – she is with me forever. There is no blood needed to express the impression she has left on my life,” Samara said.
Samara has faced many trials in her life, and feels that the wrongs people have done to her have made her who she is today. “I find it a waste of my time to regard the pain I have felt from people’s actions as a direct reflection of their character. I realize how much my step parents and blood parents love me and their language of love says more than any struggle, If it was not for the things I was able to realize at such a young age, I would not be willing to test my strength as much as I do now.” It is time they knew that. Today, she is in a place where she can move past negativity. The first person who Samara recalls guiding her spiritually was her Mimi, who she now regards as her Spirit Guide. She finds the role of a grandmother, mother, and aunt to be highly admired. Samara referred to Mimi as her “other half” – they had the same skin tone, and Mimi was the first one to introduce her to lobster, an important Mashpee Wampanoag food. Samara said she still sees Mimi today when she recalls certain scents and memories.
Samara has sometimes had doubts about the fusion of her Mashpee Wampanoag and Kanaka Maoli identities, but described a moment where she felt a connectedness between the two and everything fell into place. Wayfinding has recently had a revival in Hawai‘i, and some Kanaka Maoli from Hawai‘i went on a journey in a wayfinding canoe. One of the stops they chose to make on their journey was Mashpee land in Cape Cod. The Kanaka Maoli wayfinders greeted the Wampanoags and raised their flag with them. Samara described this moment as a spiritual affirmation for her, witnessing her people connect with the prophecy that her father had already fulfilled with her stepmother.
Samara stated that she feels she has a duty to her people to live in the best presence/way. She informed me that the Mayflower came to her peoples’ lands initially, and that before it arrived, her people had a sense that people were coming to their land. Because of this, her ancestors sent their practices and medicine “spiritually” and physically out into the world to prepare for this arrival. Samara feels that today she is receiving the medicines that her people put out.
Louise, an undergraduate student, also met with me and shared her experiences. Both of Louise’s parents are Native, but she did not grow up on her tribe’s reservation and is not sure which tribe(s) her ancestors were a part of. Reflecting on her interactions with other Native people, Louise expressed a longing for more information about her heritage, much of which has been lost due to disappearances of relatives and family conflict. Louise feels she is having a sort of identity crisis and spoke of questioning whether she is “Native enough.” She wondered where the line of being “Native enough” is, if it exists at all, and questioned what the credentials of being Native enough are. Louise likened her doubts about her own Native identity to imposter syndrome.
When discussing appearance, Louise noted that people see you and decide a lot of things about you before getting to know you. She described her own appearance as “racially ambiguous,” and explained that she has not experienced as much pushback on her Native identity as others who have a lighter complexion. Thinking about the general public’s perception of Native people, Louise said, “What is a Native American supposed to look like? How are Native people supposed to act? Should they be wise, stoic, know a lot about nature?” Louise and I discussed that what many people think about Native Americans is based in stereotypes portrayed in films and popular culture. We discussed how many people do not see Native Americans as “modern” people.