sarah elisabeth sawyer
TRIBE: Choctaw of Oklahoma
LOCATION: Canton, Texas
When it came down to deciding whether or not to pursue a writing career, Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) put the decision in someone else's hands.
"I'm a Christian and I knew I needed to surrender all to God," she said, explaining how she evaluated the priorities in her life. "I got to writing and I realized I would only put it back in my life if he put it back. It was the most peace I've ever had in my life."
That was six years ago, and Sawyer, now standing on the cusp of her thirties, is confident writing was a divine appointment. A tribal member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Sawyer lives in Canton, Texas, and is the author of several books that follow the historical roots of her tribe, their families and history.
For her work and her ambitions moving forward, First Peoples Fund granted Sawyer a 2015 Artist in Business Leadership Fellowship. She travels to Oklahoma at least once a month and continues to write historical fiction that educates people about the culture and historical events of her tribe. "The Executions" was her first novel, focusing on the life of a mixed-blood 18-year-old woman in the late 1800s caught in middle of two political parties warring over the old and new ways of their people.
Though the stories spring from her imagination, the characters are often based on people she has read or learned about and the foundation of the books come directly from the past. "I take events from history and put them in an entertaining form," Sawyer said. "A lot of my ideas come from research."
The opportunity for Native and non-Native audiences to experience history through her fiction is one of the reasons she writes. "A lot of historical fiction out there is inaccurate," she said.
Her work has been endorsed by leadership in the Choctaw tribe, which is uncommon and speaks to the accuracy and thoroughness of the research, she said.
Sawyer receives support and inspiration from her family. Her mother, a photographer and filmmaker, travels and works alongside her. Sawyer's father, inspired by his daughter's desire to capture their tribe's history, had begun writing about his own life when he died suddenly in 2012. It was the same year she was accepted into the artist leadership program at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. for her literary work in preserving Trail of Tears stories.
"It was absolutely the best and worst of times," she said.
Sawyer said she is grateful for a partnership with First Peoples Fund, and was encouraged by her experience at a recent First Peoples Fund gathering of artists in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "I got to meet the other people and they were very welcoming," she said, not only to her but also to her mother who she considers a business partner.
"The grant is very simple and seamless, so I can focus on the project," she said.
The ABL grant enabled her to purchase a new computer and IPad and continue to work toward her goal of a full-time writing career. It also helped her publish "The Executions."
Sawyer also has her sights set on helping others. She will teach for her third year at the Chickasaw Arts Academy this year and envisions a future where she can support others in finding a voice through writing. "I'd like to do more workshops," she said. "I want to help Native writers preserve their family stories."
Feedback from readers is confirmation that she's on the right track—several have started writing their own stories to preserve history. "My mom told me stories of my family," Sawyer said, including her childhood growing up in Texas that included trips to the Trail of Tears Memorial Walk in Oklahoma.
Shaping those stories and putting them down on paper pushed her to do more.
"This has made me delve deeper," she said. "As opposed to it being something I wanted to know more about, it became part of me. People have now taken up writing and started writing their own family stories. People are beginning to take action and the ripple effect is awesome."
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