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Familial Love and Brilliance in Native Designs

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

Familial Love and Brilliance in Native Designs

by Megan McDermott

I’m a mixed-Native woman enrolled with 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 who are enrolled with the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribe of Montana, some of who are also mixed with Lakota. And there are cousins who intermarried with other tribes or otherwise.

Because my family and I are of three different tribes, as well as my being white and Mexican, and with the blood quantums required, and due to the crooked things that happened with making my great grandmother “illegitimate” and having taken half of her blood quantum away, for much of my life my mother and my 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 was federally recognized thanks to legislative efforts within Helena, MT, and more importantly because of over 150 years of Little Shell Chippewa people fighting for that recognition. Because of all these puzzle pieces and encouragement from different elders in the greater Seattle area, I kept up my own fight to get my family enrolled. We were finally enrolled just this year. But we have always known who we are and can prove it.

I’m 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 do love the rainy weather here.

Many people in my maternal family passed away far too young. My grandmother, who was the last of her siblings, died in 2010 at the age of 62 and my auntie Denise, who was the youngest daughter of her siblings, died at 46 in 2018. Like many, many Native 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 all the way through my life as it is now, and I’m currently 27.

I can absolutely trace the beginning of our pains to the various ripples of colonialism, like my great-grandmother Viola Kills Across the Way being forced into boarding school as an attempt to force her to assimilate, to “kill the Indian” within her. My mother told me that she would not speak or teach much Blackfeet to her because she was afraid of what would happen, that her children and grandchildren would face the same harsh treatment. Yet, I was able to learn and pick up various words or phrases as a little girl. Bits and pieces were left as traces in both Blackfeet and Cree from different things my aunties, uncles, mom, and grandma would say. And when I was five years old, my grandma would often refer to my Blackfeet name, which means Cree Woman, rather than my English name. Funnily enough, she would use my English name and middle name when I would get in trouble. Never once was it my Blackfeet name. To bring the name and language cycle back, a Blackfeet friend of mine, Jessica Kipp, helped teach me how to introduce myself in Blackfeet and we both were so excited and chilled about that moment that we could barely explain how special that moment was.

But something that has been most prevalent in my life since I was a little girl was my grandmother’s love of beading and of Native artwork. I would sit at her feet and we would often watch her crime shows together. She taught me my earliest lessons, but those lessons were through small stories about color and its spirit, like in powwow regalia or sunsets. And without fail, she would give me little art kits and tell me that I should share my gift of art or I would waste it.

When she passed away, I was 14. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I was angry and hurt because I was living in Washington and unable to go say goodbye. It still hurts sometimes, but over seven years ago I really started to take up beading. I have always been a painter. I took advanced art classes in high school, then honors at my community college. But beading helps me heal and provides a connection to my family and my culture.

Growing up in Montana, I would sometimes be chased around and offensively war-whooped and hollered at by white boys. Or when they would find out I was part Mexican, I would hear them call me “wetback.” At my high school in Mukilteo, Washington, I once overheard two girls in math class express their ignorance about Native people and college scholarships. They assumed “free college” and I heard them scoff “they should just stick to their casinos.” When I tried to tell friends in a different class, they didn’t believe me. With a gasp, it was always, “They would never say that!” I was shyer and more afraid back then. I never knew what to say or how to combat these horrible things. So, I simply wouldn’t tell people I was Native because I was afraid of what could happen, of what could be repeated.

Recently, I started teaching beading to my younger sibling, with hopes to teach more friends when I can. Through this, I started to realize something amazing: the intelligence of Native designs. It’s too often that Native people are stereotyped as being “savages,” “primitive,” “dumb,” “stupid drunk Indians,” and so on. But I can prove to you that old traditional designs, not just from my own tribes, show a remarkable and quiet understanding of mathematical formulas practiced in school. Even if these designers and artists were not within STEM careers, or are not practicing, or even if they didn’t complete Western education to have a piece of paper, the intelligence is there.

For example, prior to beadwork for different Plains tribes, there was quillwork. This involves the flattening and embroidery of porcupine quills dyed and sewn into patterns in clothing. These patterns may tell of many things, like the abstraction of tipis, animals, or geometric landscapes. These patterns were translated into beadwork patterns. In fringe earrings, the most common pattern 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 each different designer is practically using without using the formula directly. This happens every single time within chevron patterns of Native-designed earrings. The popularity is also rising with non-Native fringe designers.

But I insist on mathematical intelligence within Native designs even outside of beadwork/quillwork. It exists within Pueblo pottery. You can also use the slope-intercept formula if you measure steppe patterns in whatever increments to find the linear relationship. The same can be said for various woven basket designs, such as within Colville lightning pattern basket designs, Pomo baskets, and the list goes on and on and on. The brilliance of design and of ancient design is all over Indian Country, even within urban Native communities like Seattle.

These patterns can be found and counted within moccasins, ledger art, paintings, baskets, pottery, and so much more. I haven’t even touched on the understanding of plant relationships, botanical research, animal tracking, population control, wayfinding, and so on. Native people are deeply intelligent, even if they may “fail” the standards of Western education and academia.

Native people have flourishing civilizations and complex socio-political-economic relationships prior to colonization and forced assimilation. Just because it is different from racist Anglo-European standards of “civilization” does not make Native people any less human or any less brilliant.

I look at my many beloved Native friends from many different tribes, and no matter their career paths, 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 replicated nor replaced.

black ceramic pottery with intrictate design
Maria Martinez, Black-on-black ceramic vessel, c. 1939, blackware ceramic, 11 1/8 x 13 inches, Tewa, Puebloan, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico (National Museum of Women in the Arts)
Berry Basket, 1984
Elaine Timentwa Emerson
(American | Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Methow Band, born 1941)
close-up image of porcupine quill moccasins
Porcupine quill moccasins, Santee Sioux, c. 1930
image of colorful beaded fringe earring
Thermal Energy, beaded fringe earrings, Megan McDermott, Little Shell Chippewa, Blackfeet, and Cree 2020.

Indigenous woman wearing glasses standing in front of colorful painting
Artist Megan McDermott was born in 1994. She is enrolled with the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana. She is also Blackfeet (Browning, MT) and Cree (Rocky Boy, MT) as well as with French, and Chicana heritage. Her mixed-race background informs the ways in which she interacts with the world. She has an eclectic array of talents including painting, drawing, sewing, and beading. She works in both contemporary and traditional mediums.

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