By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
First Peoples culture bearers continually keep us grounded in our work at First Peoples Fund. Created to recognize these individuals, the Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards (CSA) is one way FPF honors those whose generosity sustains the cultural fabric of their communities. This spring we traveled to Wisconsin and Alaska to honor two of our 2019 Community Spirit Awards (CSA) honorees and welcome them into the FPF family.
Moccasins for All Occasions
Miscobinayshii (St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin) was a year old when her mother died, and her grandmother began raising her and her sister, Margaret. Their grandmother taught them what she did — make moccasins for all occasions. When someone passed, families called on her to make “going home shoes.”
Miscobinayshii didn’t fully dedicated herself to moccasin-making until she was grown. Her sister Margaret was her main motivator, urging her to carry on the tradition.
Before long, the sisters were sharing their work at the state capitol grounds and folk art festivals, and then, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1998. Their work began to become so recognized that workers from the Smithsonian Institution approached them, asking of they would create a pair of moccasins to be displayed.
Miscobinayshii and Margaret got busy. She made one, her sister made the other — in one day.
“That was the quickest we ever did anything!” she laughed.
Melissa Fowler (Lac Courte Oreilles, St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin), Miscobinayshii’s granddaughter-in-law, nominated her for the FPF Community Spirit Awards. Melissa feels as though Miscobinayshii’s life has been dedicated to not only practicing traditional art and speaking the language, but to continually sharing that knowledge by teaching both youth and adults.
“Without her, St. Croix Tribe wouldn’t know many of the stories, history, and language,” Melissa said. “As a first speaker, she is able to teach and pronounce the Ojibwe language with the correct dialect of the St. Croix Tribe. When she gifts her knowledge, she is gifting a person the ability to carry this knowledge throughout their lifetime.”
On a sunshine-filled day, FPF representatives, participants from culture camps, family, and friends gathered to celebrate and honor Miscobinayshii near her home in the Round Lake Community of the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin. Held at the St. Croix Danbury Conference Center, drumming, song, and stories filled the atmosphere.
FPF President Lori Pourier (Oglala Lakota) said the most incredible moment for her was when the question was asked of how many people in the room had learned the language from Miscobinaysii.
“Over two-thirds of the room raised their hand,” she said. “You could see right then the impact she has had in her community and just how much her warmth and generosity have helped people carry on their culture.”
Ojibwe culture keeper Lee Staples was one of the speakers. “Each of us has a purpose and a reason for existing on this earth,” he said. “Miscobinayshii is a prime example. May she make many more moccasins.”
Blessings of the Bering Sea
Dressed in regalia with an aqua crystal headdress and turquoise dress, Margaret Nakak (Yup’ik/Inupiaq) welcomed FPF representatives to her community in Anchorage this April. At the Alaska Native Heritage Center, with her family’s help, Margaret spread a banquet of traditional foods for the guests at her honoring.
A host of relatives and friends joined the event themed, “Blessings of the Bering Sea.” The Stebbins Yup’ik Dance Group, which Margaret is a member of, performed as well as the King Island Inupiaq Dancers.
“I enjoyed both as they are my relatives of our ancestral language, drumming, singing, and dancing,” she said.
High school girls from one of Margaret’s traditional sewing programs took the stage and shared how she taught them to sew kuspuq, an outer layer garment made from a variety of fabrics. It is essential wear in the challenging Alaskan climate.
Depending on the level of design and decoration of a particular kuspuq, Margaret’s garments and require a wide range of fabrics (cotton, polyester, silk, velvet, and corduroy), furs (ground squirrel, fox, wolf, polar bear, beaver, mink, otter, seal), ivory, beads, and seashells. She studies historical photos and replicates the pieces worn. She brings them from the past to present and, through workshops and classes, into the future. She also teaches skin sewing, beading, and doll making.
Alaskan artist Michael Livingston (Unangax/Chugach) nominated Margaret for a FPF Community Spirit Award.
“I first met Marge in 1999 when I began building an iqyax [Unangax skin on frame sea kayak] at the Alaska Native Heritage Center,” Michael said. He works with Margaret at the Heritage Center. “Marge has touched many lives for over half a century. I worked in Alaska for 27 years as a police officer and know how important it is to have community spirit leaders like Marge teach and guide others.”
Margaret began dedicating her life to sustaining cultural traditions in 1965 and continues strong today. But she doesn’t call what she does “work.”
“At 16-years-old, I started working in canneries,” she said. “When my coworker at the Heritage Center, Andrew, first came here, he said, ‘I’ve got to work on this.’ I said, ‘You know what work is? In the cannery where you process fish and stand for 12 hours a day and freeze your hands in ice cold water. That’s work!’” She laughed. “This, we’re just having a grand old time.”
Near the end of her CSA honoring, FPF presented Margaret a blanket with her name stitched into it. To her delight, it was white and turquoise, a perfect match for the regalia she had chosen for that day: “Blessings of the Bering Sea.”
“It was marvelous,” she says.