Family love and brilliance in native designs

In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, we are hosting a series of profiles and stories to expand and honor people, businesses, organizations, stories and projects connected to the Seattle Indigenous community.

Family love and brilliance in native designs

by Megan McDermott

I am a mixed Native American woman enrolled in the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe of Montana. I consider myself raised by my maternal grandmother who was enrolled in the Blackfeet tribe of Browning, Montana and my mother who is enrolled in Little Shell Chippewa. We are also Cree from Rocky Boy, Montana, and I have many cousins ​​enrolled in the Confederate Salish Kootenai Tribe of Montana, some of whom are also mixed with Lakota. And there are cousins ​​who intermarried with other tribes or in other ways.

Because my family and I are from three different tribes, because I’m white and Mexican and have the required blood counts, and because of the crooked things that happened when my great-grandmother became “illegitimate” and had half of her blood drained from her Quantum gone, for much of my life, my mother and siblings were not enrolled. It took me NINE years of thorough “fact checking” on paper trails to match the family history I grew up with. And in 2019, the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe of Montana received federal recognition thanks to legislative efforts in Helena, MT, and most importantly, the Little Shell Chippewa’s 150+ year struggle for that recognition. Because of all of these pieces of the puzzle and encouragement from various elders in the Seattle area, I myself continued to fight to get my family enrolled. We finally got accepted this year. But we’ve always known who we are and we can prove it.

I am far from home now, having lived most of my life in different areas of western Montana. I miss the vibrant colors of Montana as the sunlight hits the land in different ways in western Washington, but I love the rainy weather here.

Many people in my family on my mother’s side died far too young. My grandmother, the last of her siblings, died in 2010 at the age of 62 and my aunt Denise, the youngest daughter of her siblings, died in 2018 at the age of 46. Like many, many local families, we all have a lot of historical and generational trauma and it poisons many aspects of our lives. Addiction, mental illness, social anxiety, financial instability, food insecurity and many different things have hardened my childhood throughout my life as it is now and I am currently 27.

I can absolutely trace the onset of our pain to the various waves of colonialism, like my great-grandmother Viola Kills Across the Way, who was forced into boarding school to force her to assimilate to kill “the Indian” in her. My mother told me that she would not speak or teach her much Blackfoot because she was afraid of what would happen, that her children and grandchildren would face the same harsh treatment. Still, as a little girl, I was able to learn and pick up different words or phrases. In both Blackfeet and Cree, bits and pieces were left as traces of various things my aunts, uncles, mom and grandma would say. And when I was five, my grandma often referred to my Blackfeet name, which means Cree Woman, rather than my English name. Strangely, she used my English name and my middle name when I got into trouble. It was never my Blackfeet name. To bring back the name and language cycle, a Blackfeet friend, Jessica Kipp, helped teach me how to introduce myself in Blackfeet and we were both so excited and chilled about the moment that we could hardly explain how special the moment was was.

But something that has been most pervasive in my life since I was a little girl was my grandmother’s love of beads and native artwork. I sat at her feet and we often watched her crime series together. She taught me my first lessons, but those lessons consisted of little stories about color and its spirit, like in powwow regalia or sunsets. And invariably she gave me little art kits and told me to share my art gift or I’d waste it.

I was 14 when she died. I couldn’t say goodbye. I was angry and hurt because I lived in Washington and couldn’t say goodbye. Sometimes it still hurts, but I really got into beadwork over seven years ago. I’ve always been a painter. I took advanced art classes in high school, then honors at my community college. But pearls help me to heal and connect to my family and my culture.

Growing up in Montana, I was sometimes chased around and aggressively abused with war howls and yells by white boys. Or when they found out I was part Mexican, I’d hear them call me “wetback.” At my high school in Mukilteo, Washington, I once heard two girls express their ignorance about Native Americans and college scholarships in a math class. They assumed “free college” and I heard them scoff, “they should just stick with their casinos.” When I tried to tell friends in another class, they didn’t believe me. With a gasp it was always, “They would never say that!” I was more shy and scared then. I never knew what to say or how to fight these horrible things. So I just didn’t tell people I was native because I was afraid of what might happen, what might happen again.

I recently started teaching my younger sister how to beadwork, hoping to teach more friends when I can. That’s how I started to see something amazing: the intelligence of Native designs. It’s too common for Native Americans to be stereotyped as “savages,” “primitives,” “stupid,” “stupid drunken Indians,” and so on. But I can prove to you that ancient traditional designs, not only from my own tribes, show a remarkable and calm understanding of mathematical formulas practiced at school. Even if these designers and artists haven’t been in STEM careers or aren’t practicing, or even if they didn’t complete Western education to have a piece of paper, the intelligence is there.

For example, quillwork existed before beadwork for various Plains tribes. This involves flattening and embroidering porcupine quills, which are dyed and sewn into patterns in clothing. These patterns can tell of many things, like the abstraction of teepees, animals or geometric landscapes. These patterns were translated into bead patterns. When it comes to fringe earrings, the most common pattern found in many native-designed earrings is a chevron pattern. Depending on the rows of beads used, the pattern can be more or less steep. And you can use the slope intercept formula y=mx+b to analyze the linear equation that every designer practically uses without using the formula directly. This happens every time within chevron patterns of earrings designed by locals. The popularity is also increasing among non-native fringe designers.

But I insist on mathematical intelligence within Native designs, even outside of beadwork/quillwork. It exists in Pueblo pottery. You can also use the slope intercept formula when measuring steppe patterns in arbitrary steps to find the linear relationship. The same applies to various woven basket designs, such as B. within Colville lightning bolt pattern basket designs, pomo baskets, and the list goes on and on and on. The brilliance of design and antique design can be found throughout Indian Country, even in urban Native American communities like Seattle.

These patterns can be found and counted in moccasins, book art, paintings, baskets, pottery and more. I haven’t even touched on understanding plant relationships, botanical research, animal tracking, population control, pathfinding, and so on. Indigenous people are deeply intelligent, even if they “fail” the standards of Western education and science.

Before colonization and forced assimilation, indigenous people have thriving civilizations and complex socio-political-economic relationships. Just because it differs from racist Anglo-European standards of “civilization” doesn’t make the natives any less human or any less brilliant.

I look to my many beloved Native friends from many different tribes, and regardless of their career path, the resilience and brilliance of their families and ancestors are there. Take a look at their tribal or family designs and you will find authentic intelligence and beauty that cannot be duplicated or substituted.

black ceramic pottery with intricate design
Maria Martinez, Black-on-Black Ceramic Vessel, c. 1939, black pottery, 11 1/8 x 13 in., Tewa, Puebloan, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico (National Museum of Women in the Arts)
Basket of berries, 1984
Elaine Timenwa Emerson
(American | Confederate Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Methow Band, born 1941)
Close up of porcupine quill moccasins
Porcupine Quill Moccasins, Santee Sioux, c. 1930
Image of a colorful fringe earring
Thermal Energy, Beaded Fringe Earrings, Megan McDermott, Little Shell Chippewa, Blackfeet and Cree 2020.

Indigenous woman with glasses stands in front of colorful painting
Artist Megan McDermott was born in 1994. She is enrolled in the Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa Indians of Montana. She is also Blackfeet (Browning, MT) and Cree (Rocky Boy, MT) as well as of French and Chicana heritage. Her multiracial background influences the way she interacts with the world. She has an eclectic range of talents including painting, drawing, sewing and beadwork. She works in both contemporary and traditional media.

This piece was commissioned by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The opinions and information expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policies, plans, beliefs, conclusions or ideas of the City of Seattlee