Native American Portrait Series - Teah Plumlee
I was really stoked to finally get to meet Teah and get to work with her. I met her family earlier this year at the Murfreesboro Pow Wow, and Teah is actually one of the first dancers that I ever photographed last year at Red Clay while she was dancing, I just didn't know anyone at that time. She dances Women's Fancy Shawl.
Ricky - What Nation are you?
Teah - I'm actually a descendant of 4 nations through both of my parents but I have been raised according to the culture of my mom's people who are originally from the Old Cheraw District, Black Creek in the Carolina's. I am Lumbee, Choctaw, Mvskoke and Cherokee. It's a little confusing. I'm kind of a nation amalgamation but I'm enrolled Cherokee.
Ricky - Wow! That is really cool man! Being part of all four nations I bet could be overwhelming at times. Have you ever thought about this history of the different tribes and just be wow? I came from all of them?
Teah - It's actually pretty fascinating. I try and learn as much as I can about each but I've always been taught that you are who you've been raised to be regardless of who you are ethnically. For example, it's only recently that I learned about my Choctaw blood. I think it's interesting but I wasn't raised in that culture so I respect it and will try and learn but I don't call myself Choctaw. I simply say that Choctaw is a part of my ethnicity the same as with my German blood. I think it's pretty cool to feel connected to so many people.
Ricky - That is such a great point! Our heritage is a part of us, but especially when you have so many different ethnicities it would be impossible to represent each culture. How do you feel about the current treatment of Indigenous people in mainstream America today?
Teah - Yes it would. I've had the honor of being chosen as a representative of one of the former Native organizations in this area. While a part of my responsibility was to educate, I could only educate to the extent of the culture I know. As to the current treatment of Indigenous people, I would like to say that I think that things have changed dramatically over the years but I'm afraid that's not really the case. It wasn't until 1910 that my mom's grandmother was actually listed as Indian on any federal census. Until that time, due to politics and bigotry, the entire family were counted as mullato. Those who owned land were heavily taxed and many lost everything they had due to the greed of others. When I see what's happening with many of our people today, those who are still being pushed around and even physically harmed simply for trying to protect what is rightfully theirs and all for the sake of money and power, it hurts me to think that we're still where we are in the eyes of so many others. I feel that until we can come together as a people no matter our backgrounds or tribal affiliations and stop fighting amongst ourselves we won't be making many steps forward. There's such a long way to go, and God never intended for his creation to be so divided.
Ricky - I completely agree! That's interesting to me that you bring up mullato because I've actually been trying to research my ancestry and back when I was actively doing it, I traced back to where my great great great grandmother listed herself as mullato and there was no more info on her. The history of the 5 civilized tribes is so sickening and I've talked to several people here today that still get bigoted remarks thrown at them on a regular basis. We've not come near as far as we would like to pretend. Today being Columbus Day, what are your views on changing it to Indigenous peoples day, and how would that change make you feel?
Teah - We refer to that as paper genocide. When you study the historical damage done to our people at the hands of such men as Walter Plecker, it's easy to understand how so many of our people have no genealogical paper trail at all. Many of the indigenous people of Virginia are still suffering the affects of this. I think that any opportunity to better educate others with true and accurate history is always a step in the right direction. Columbus was a murderer, rapist and slave trader who Americans celebrate because of the lies they've been taught to believe. The man deserves no respect or honor and the myth of his so-called discovery should have been corrected years ago. People are under the impression that this is a relatively new movement when in all actuality, attempts to make these changes date back to the early 70's and possibly prior to that. I understand that people can be very defensive about what they believe to be the original history of this country because it's all they've ever known but as time goes on, true facts and evidences can come to light and we have an obligation to right those wrongs. I would feel proud to know that there was a day dedicated to the first people of this land. We've made so many contributions that people aren't aware of. I mean most people never consider that when they pop a piece of gum in their mouth or pop a bag of popcorn, they have Native people to thank for that. Many don't realize that our entire system of government is based on the example of the Iroquois. These are contributions that should be recognized.
Ricky - Absolutely! I've discovered that basically most history we learn in school is crap. The "victors" wrote the accepted history and we are taught that this is the way it was. When in truth, much like the paper genocide that's made a lot of our records disappear, the true history starts to disappear. The movement against Columbus has been going on for a long time, I remember it from the 80's when I was a kid. But now with social media many are seeing it for the first time. We are being shown truths that many aren't comfortable with because it goes against what we were taught. What do you think the best way to show people these truths are?
Teah - I think that we need to take advantage of every opportunity we get to educate others who aren't aware of the truth, and do it in a peaceable way. As a Christian I've faced opposition many times when trying to show what I believe to be the truth to others, and i've found that most just don't want to hear it because they've become comfortable and satisfied with what they've been taught and are content to believe it rather it's wrong or not. That's also why it's so important that we make sure to have our facts straight as well. With so many lies out there it makes it hard to know what's truth and what isn't. People need to understand that just because we may view things differently or our culture isn't the same as theirs we are still people and we deserve the same respect that everyone else does.
Ricky - I completely agree. I've found that when you come at people in a hostile way, any chance that you have to help educate them or discuss things reasonably, goes flying out the window. You bring up another interesting question. I've known that you are Christian, and your family have been amazing ambassadors of your faith, not in just talking about it, but you can see that you guys are different than a lot of Christians. I know that as Cherokee, we adopted Christianity early on into our introduction to it. How does your Christian faith mix with Native culture? For you, how does it work with ceremony and Christianity?
Teah - Despite how some may feel, I believe following Christ and imbracing your culture meshes together perfectly. God made each of us individuals and, to quote one of my favorite movies, "He loves wondrous variety". No matter what your beliefs when it comes to culture and religion, it all goes back to your point of view. For me, I feel that we should try to give glory to God in everything we do. So when I dance, for example, I do it for Him, as well as for those who can't. I've heard some try to claim that Christianity is a European religion that was forced upon us by white settlers and missionaries, but that simply isn't the case. Yes, what the settlers called "Christianity" was forced upon indigenous peoples with violence and abuse, but what they were teaching was not God's teachings. They were dogmatic views full of hatred and bigotry, not the teachings of love and compassion that our Creator actually gave to us and every nation long ago. God's command is love, everything else is trivial and honestly doesn't matter in the long run. That's what my family and I try to teach whenever we can. God made each us different with different backgrounds and different stories, and as long as we do what we do with love in our hearts, there shouldn't be any conflict.
Ricky - Very well said. Many years ago, I was reading a book of quotes that were documented during meetings with Native Americans. A missionary had been speaking and an elder stood after some time and said "we believe this Jesus must have been Indian, for these teachings are things we've always done." I'll have to go find the full quote. Many of the beliefs that I've learned, I too can see how they mesh as well, but I also respect those that really have a hard time with Christianity because I totally get where they are coming from as well. I really respect how you guys walk your faith. You brought up dancing, how long have you been dancing?
Teah - I do too. Sadly, the spirit of those hate-filled men and women who tried to impose their lies on others with brutality still lives on in many people's hearts today. I feel sad for those who are victims of their victims, but I feel even worse for the ones who teach them. I cannot fathom what would drive and twist someone to become so evil. I've been dancing for as long as I can remember. My mom says, "Since I've been able to walk" but as far as exact dates i'm really not sure. I was brought into the circle before I could walk and my family held a giveaway. When i could I was taught first to dance traditional cloth. When I was about 6, I asked to dance fancy shawl. I was not allowed to dance fancy until I first learned from an established dancer who agreed to teach me and bring me in and then only after I had learned the history of the dance.
Ricky - That is awesome how you were brought into dancing, and dancing fancy shawl. What does dancing mean to you personally? I know you mentioned earlier that you dance for Him and for those who can't dance. What does dancing mean to you, and what goes into dancing that people don't see at the Pow Wow?
Teah - Dancing means so many things to me. In a way it's like an escape. Sometimes it feels like you're in an entirely different world, but one you've known for your entire life. It's hard to describe what it feels like because you're in such a state of focus but you're also letting yourself go at the same time. Dancing, especially in Fancy Shawl, is such a wonderful outlet for expressing yourself. It just gives you a wonderful feeling. Fancy Shawl in particular was originally created as a way for women to be able to express themselves and dance with more freedom. Up until that point only men could dance in such a way, in fact women were not even permitted to dance in the circle with the men for a very long time; They had to dance outside. The women who broke away from these traditions, deciding to throw their shawls over their shoulders and dance in a way similar to the male Fancy Dancers, and eventually make the move to dance in the circle alongside the men, they took some very bold risks, much like the women during the Women's Rights Movement. When I dance, I want to honor what they did.
The main thing with dancing is to remember why you dance and not to let yourself get wrapped up in the competition, which many tend to do. It's so much more than winning money or showing off.
As far as what goes into dancing behind the scenes, there's an awful lot of sewing and practice. This dance is extremely athletic and takes a lot of work. It's very important to keep fit and healthy, so often before a pow wow i spend a lot of time running and lifting weights and eating a little more protein. The regalia is no easy task either. There's been a rise in dancers doing what is referred to as old style fancy, which is much more simple style of regalia and closer to how the original fancy shawl dancers dressed, but because I dance contemporary style, it requires a lot more sewing and other work because it needs to look flashy and stand out. There's a lot of intricate applique, and the dresses are usually sewn differently, often with a flounce which takes a lot of skill to sew correctly. Usually my own regalia is a team effort between myself, my mom, and my grandmother. I come from a long line of wonderful seamstresses and quiltmakers so each of us have some experience with sewing. Each of us have our own strengths and weaknesses as well, so where one of us lacks skill, the other typically picks it up (my grandmother usually helps with the flounce and sleeves; she's amazing when it comes to intricate needlework and eyeing things) Because we all work on it together, I feel that whenever I dance, I'm carrying them all with me.
Ricky - That is so amazing! Myself, I never knew so much went into dancing behind the scenes until I went to the the Murfreesboro Pow Wow early this year with Holly & Jeff and she was telling me some about it, but then I heard her talking to so many of the mom's who were helping sew for their kids. That part of it I had just never thought of. That's awesome that you put so much work and effort into your dancing. I want to thank you so much for your time! What is one thing that you wish people knew about what it means to be Native today?
Teah - I guess what I would want people to know is that even though we're all different, we're also very much alike. We all came from one place, and no matter how we look or speak or believe, we're all the same deep down. We have feelings, we have dreams, we want to love and be loved just like everyone else does. It's hard to be a Native American in today's society because there are still so many stereotypes and myths that surrounds us. If I could tell the whole world one thing, being a Native American woman, it would be to ask that, instead of profiling us by what you've heard taught or read in books or have seen in movies, look at us for who we are; we're people. Living, thinking, spiritual human beings, and we just want peace for the world like everyone else.
Ricky - One more question I wanted to ask and you just reminded me with your answer. In regards to Native American women. In our country, and in Canada, there is an epidemic of murdered and missing Native American women. It doesn't get any attention mainstream media wise that I've ever seen. What is happening and what can we do to help spread the word to get this to stop?
Teah - I couldn't say for sure what is or why it's happening. There's such a long history of crimes against Native women, and children too, and many of those stories get "lost in the shuffle" too. I think it all goes back to that stereotype of Native peoples being worth less than others, that we're uneducated and primal in our decisions and culture, so many people don't see these atrocities as needing to be publicized because, in a sense, we're just not worth the time; we don't matter as much other people do. With women especially, it takes a lot more to prove ourselves as individuals. We're often so maligned by the media, made out to be some sort of object for men to gain or a weakling that needs to be rescued or protected. The images created by the media have taken such a toll on women as well as Native people in general that we're not viewed in the same way as others.
Thanks to social media outlets we now have so many ways to spread the word about these horrible crimes, but we have to take advantage of them. It's up to us to make sure people are made aware that these things are happening and that they need to stop. One of my mom's favorite quotes is, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." (I'm not positive about who said it originally, but it's usually attributed to Edmund Burke). If we remain silent when we know that there's evil being done, then we're really no better than the one's who do the act themselves. It's so terrible and it needs to be stopped. No one deserves to be treated this way.