Native American Portrait Series - Holly & Jeff
It's been longer than I would have liked in this series. I met up with Holly & Jeff to do a portrait session and interview to share their stories. I want to thank Lorie Reedy for putting Holly and I in touch for this project. I'm blessed to have gotten to meet them and become friends with them. I hope that you enjoy their story and it gives a further understanding into the stories, hardships, and culture of our indigenous people here in the states. Not much is cut and dry and each person has a story.
Me - Holly, you have an interesting story. Up until a couple years ago, you knew very little about your heritage. Would you care to share a little about what led up to your discovery a couple years ago?
Holly - Sure, yeah! My mom told me all the time when I was little that we were native, but that our nation had almost completely died out and that we were some of the last of the tribe. I grew up surrounded by Native art and certain customs that my mom picked up from her grandma. That was all I had to work with.
A couple of years ago, Jeff took me to the Chattanooga powwow because I'd never been. And I saw the arena director(who turned out to be Lorie's husband, Jimmy!) had on a medallion with the seal of my nation on it! So I caught him and talked to him, told him my story. He probably thought I was nuts, considering that we're the fourth largest tribe in the US. I started researching, learning everything I could about my own family. I come from two chiefs, a judge, and several councilmen. And I had no idea until a couple of years ago. I'm still learning, I'm working on the language, customs, etiquette.. There's a lot to work through.
Me - That's really an amazing story and just a huge blessing that you ran into someone at the powwow that was able to give you that place to jump into and discover more about your tribe and into your families heritage as well. Being raised the way you were, with thinking that most of your tribe had died out and having some customs and art in your house growing up, but in our conversation you told me you were raised more "white" right? Yet you're learning as much as you can now, what has that been like?
Holly - I was definitely very lucky, especially to have met someone so welcoming.
When I was growing up, my father was a tyrant. He is extremely racist, he mocks other races and culture mercilessly. I think growing up seeing his antics made me very conscious of what I'd been deprived of, which was basically my entire identity and knowing about my nation. I was definitely raised white and I resent it deeply.
Learning everything later in life sucks. It's hard. It's so easy to misstep and offend someone just by being ignorant of some obscure rule. You get laughed at, you aren't seen as native, you're basically an outcast to most of the tribe. But I think there's an upside in that you can't take who you are for granted. There's too much time and effort and heart put into discovering who you are and what the community means to you. People raised right don't have this bizarre and meaningful journey they had to take to find their folks. I'm glad I have that.
Me - The journey definitely has it's own merits and really brings about a different admiration and respect of the things you learn. Being raised "white" but learning our cultures later in life, we've seen things the other way and I think we appreciate what we're learning and makes us treasure it more.
You and I talked a little bit about this at our shoot. I shared how I've been super nervous about talking about my heritage because I don't know specific details because of the things in the census and how I've not wanted to be seen as "that white guy", with you really connecting with your people later in life, how did you go about connecting with them in a respectful way. I know meeting Jimmy at the powwow, but I'm sure you were just wanting to learn and digest all that you could as fast as you could. I know that you have to slow down and not get in a hurry as well because you want to show that your truly care and are respectful. How did you balance that?
Holly - One of the big things I've learned and am still learning is that sometimes you have to just wait to be taught. I may have a million questions but there are only certain ones that are appropriate and there are only certain people I'm able to ask. Ricky, I can't tell you just how blessed I am that my mentor is also one of my closest friends. That makes a huge difference. She knows my heart, my motives, and how obnoxiously curious I am about EVERYTHING. Getting to know her before I started asking the sensitive questions was a big reason I'm where I'm at in my learning. You've got to have a teacher that understands how precious you consider the traditions and language and religion to be.
Having said that, I have definitely asked the wrong person the wrong thing at the wrong time and been just absolutely humiliated. It's just one of those things that happens and will continue to happen for probably the rest of my life. Haha.
Me - I definitely think patience is the key. Similar to you, someone I consider to be my mentor has become probably my closest friend. Learning that time and patience is key is something he's being working to teach me. Anything worth something takes time to achieve. What is something that you have learned so far that has surprised you?
Holly - My biggest surprise was how alive our culture and religion still is. We have our superstitions and myths that are still told to children in the Mvskoke language, we have our traditional clothes. Our religion is thriving, I've still got a long way to go there. Having come from knowing nothing to where I am now, the biggest shock to me was the superstition surrounding owls. They're shape shifters, bad omens.. I love owls and it made me sad to learn this.
Me - Wow, That must be tough for one of your favorite animals to end up being a bad omen. I've learned a few things in regards to my culture that have been a surprise as well. That is wonderful that you're learning and being open to a different belief system, religion wise. A lot of people are raised that THIS is the only way to believe, that when you get shown a different way, it's hard to be open to a new way of believing, a new way of looking at things. Were you raised with a different set of beliefs? If so, how have you worked with learning the Mvskoke religion with what you were raised?
Holly - My father was a tyrant, he forced us to go to a Pentecostal church of god when I was little. I can remember being terrified of the pastor because he was always shouting, people passed out and spoke in tongues.. I had a constant fear of going to hell. It was miserable. The Mvskoke religion is still very new to me, I love going to stomp dances and I feel powerful and humbled all at one time when I'm with my people.
I just shed Christianity last year. It wasn't a gradual thing, either, it was like I woke up one morning and just did not believe in Christianity.
Me - Man, I can really relate to what you're saying. I was raised in a Christian church, and a very strict family. It wasn't like a tyrant type thing for me. Church wasn't something I was terrified of, for me personally I just saw a lot of hypocritical things. I spent a lot of my time in the woods and I was just always at peace with God until I quit spending so much time in the woods. When church became my only connection to God, i struggled tremendously. I would either be extremely religious or a screw it all mentality. I never could connect until this past fall after I met Wes and he recommended Russell Mean's book and it reminded me of a lot of the beliefs I had on my own as a kid
Me - Jeff, in talking I was really impacted by your story. You are part of the Iroquois Nation. What tribe do you belong to again?
Jeff- I am Onondaga, we are the "Keepers of the Fire" for the Iroquois confederacy. The Onondaga nation is located in central New York State.
A little background on the Iroquois and the Onondaga. The Iroquois (we traditionally call ourselves Haudenosaunee) is a confederacy because it is composed of 6 (originally 5) separate tribes: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations, later the Tuscarora. The Onondaga are called the Keepers of the Flame because we are the center, both geographically and traditionally the seat of government.
Me - You were raised on the reservation when you were young, how old were you when you left? Why did your family leave the reservation?
Jeff - I was 5 when my family moved off the reservation. The reason was a personal choice that my mom and dad made for the family. We moved to the town that butted up against the reservation, Akron, NY, and lived there till we moved here to TN when I was 13. What do you remember most about growing up on the reservation? We visited my grandmother and other relatives regularly and it was always fun to visit. From my early years living there, my most vivid memory is living in a trailer with no running water, so we got water from a communal well and had to use the outhouse in all kinds of weather. When the weather was too extreme, we had a 5 gallon bucket that we could use haha.
Me - How did leaving the nation, in part to spirituality, impact you growing up? I know you mentioned that you and your siblings took longer to convert to Christianity, why do you think that was?
Jeff - When I was born, my mom was practicing our native religion centered around the Longhouse. My dad is white and from a very large family. One of my dad’s brother-in-laws, uncle Randy, was a trucker and preacher and spent my early years trying to convert the family to Christianity. When I was 7, I believe, my parents converted and we started attending a small Baptist church in Akron and a few years later I “became saved”. I was raised in a Christian home and never really revisited the Onondaga religion. I have very few memories of the Longhouse and the ceremonies that I went to as a very young child. Your story has been pretty unique from the people I've talked to so far.
Me - How do you process having lived two different cultures, and what are your goals going forward? What do you envision your calling to be among the people?
Jeff - As I mentioned earlier, I was born into the native culture and raised a Christian. I always knew I was native but didn’t try to reconnect with the culture because Christianity isn’t really compatible with my culture. So many Onondaga traditions have religious connections and I struggled to keep Christianity prominent. Recently my grandmother and great aunt died during a personal spiritual re-evaluation and I felt the native disconnect strongly with their passing. They were the matriarchs of my native family and their passing left a void in me. So now I rely on my mom to help where she can. I have also been going to Powwows and connecting with that culture. I really would like to start learning our language. My grandmother spoke it and now that she is passed, I want to carry some of her legacy on thru the language. The language is taught in schools on the reservations but being here in the south and having no speakers to talk with and learn from, it will be a challenge.
Me - How difficult has it been to reconnect with your people and culture?
Jeff - My mom is living in Chicago and most of my native family is still in NY and none are here in TN so I am a bit on my own down here. Ceremonies are performed on the reservation in NY where the longhouse is located. It has been difficult to say the least. Whenever mom visits, I try to pick her brain. She is on her own journey to reconnect and has been a major influence in my journey.
Me - That's powerful man! I find it encouraging that you're working towards re-connecting as you can and seeing that your mom is as well. I recently talked to another mother who faced a lot of racism and worked to hide her heritage and she's working to re-connect in large part because of her son. It's inspiring. There has been a firestorm of news on the Native front, with the DAPL and Standing Rock. We've seen horrific acts of brutality and racism, that I personally didn't realize we were still capable of. When we talked, you mentioned that you had experiences in NY off the reservation. What were some of your experiences?
Jeff - The south has a very different view of natives than where I grew up. Off the rez, natives could be treated like any other minority, with distrust and sometimes outright malice. Being half white and half native, I never really fit into either world. My relatives accepted me as I am, but the rest of the world only saw me as part of the half they were not. I had a hard time making friends kept my circle small. Even around here, many people love to claim native heritage but don’t have any idea what it means to live native, the good and the difficult parts.
Me - With the DAPL, what are your thoughts on the fight both their in North Dakota at Standing Rock, as well as the new fights sprouting up around the country at various other pipelines where companies are violating reservation lands, and just the Earth in general?
Jeff - It’s amazing to see such a huge gathering of nations coming together in a show of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux. It has now spread to other areas like the Sabal Trail pipeline in Florida and other places. I think that it has opened a dialog of tribal rights, sovereignty, and empowerment across all tribes and native people. It may very well prove to be a turning point for those of us that the United States has tried so hard to forget about. The horrific treatment of the people that were already here when the Europeans arrived, the genocidal policies that the government put into place and the continued malicious indifference of the United States government are things that have been swept under the rug for far too long. My hope is that the nations are able to find the voice that lets the world know that we will not be forgotten nor ignored when it comes to treaties and ancestral/ceremonial lands long broken and forgotten by the U.S. I’d like to think that protecting the only earth that we have to live on is a duty of all humanity but we know that the almighty dollar continues to set policies and that must be changed. It’s 2017 and we still have policy makers who deny the science of global warming.
Me - I've been really inspired seeing you and Holly's posts and taking part in events in our area in an effort to raise awareness and make a difference in our area to protect the earth. For people just now seeing things for the first time, having their eyes opened to our government's policies towards the indigenous people of this country, what can they do to make a difference?
Jeff - I think one of the best ways to make a difference, is to learn all you can about your culture. Be ready to counter the misinformation, ignorance and outright lies that people will bring up when they find out you're native. Get involved with the native community where you can. Connect with others and you'll probably find someone who has gone thru or is going thru the struggles you face.
Holly - The people just now coming in on this battle should probably do some extensive research on what has happened so far and what is going on today. They are drilling illegally and continue to push against the environmental studies being done at Standing Rock. For everyone that can't up and head for the frontlines, donate to one of the several gofundme accounts set up by and on behalf of the camps and the people battling legal issues. I imagine that the priority right now would be the legal fund, but I may be wrong. And I've read and heard that they beg people not to send any more clothes, that they are inundated with clothes at Standing Rock.
If you want to make a difference in your local community, attend native-run events and find ways to interact respectfully. Don't try to act or dress "native", just be yourself and go talk to folks. There is always something to be learned from good conversation.
Me - We found out last night that President Obama will not grant Leonard Peltier a Presidential pardon. What are your thoughts on that? President Obama has had a lot of policies and promises made to our native people, including those at Standing Rock. What kind of job do you think he ultimately did towards the indigenous people?
Holly - I have really mixed feelings towards Obama. I think he did wonderful things, I love the ACA and the possibilities beyond it. But he made promises to support native folks in their battles against corporate greed that he just completely disregarded until veterans showed up at Standing Rock. That really got my goat, we needed his help and he failed TERRIFICALLY.
As far as Mr. Peltier.. I'm going to be candid and say that I see his case as a lost cause. That would mean a huge admission of wrongdoing by the United States that they aren't going to give. They offer no explanation and no apology for what they've done to him. It's a violation of his rights, both as a citizen of the US and as a human being.
Jeff - I agree with Holly, I too have mixed feelings about Obama. He could have been such a huge advocate for natives, especially after the promises made at Standing Rock. But in the end it was just lip service. He made great strides to bring equality and worked at leveling the playing field, but really dropped the ball in the 4th quarter for natives.
Mr. Peltier will need a miracle to reverse the gross injustice done to him. He has everyone from Popes, Nelson Mandela, and international human rights organizations on his side and it has not swayed the US. I think that Obama was his best chance and that too has been denied.
Me - I appreciate you guys so much for doing this. It's been such a pleasure getting to know you guys and hopefully people will read your words and maybe see some things differently.