When DeLanna Studi was a senior in high school, she had to make a stand against injustice in front of her school board.
She walked to the podium and tried to talk but was so terrified that her knees shook and she couldn’t speak. From the back of the room, her father stood up, and as soon as she saw him, she says she found her voice and was able to make her speech.
On the way home from the meeting, her father explained why he stood up.
“What he said has always stuck with me,” Studi says. “He told me, ‘As a Native person, whenever you make a stand, you are never standing alone. All your ancestors are there with you. Always.’”
Studi’s memory is personal and unique to her, but the essence of her experience and her father’s words seem to ring familiar when asking someone of Native American heritage what it means to be Native today.
Each individual has a different perspective of course, and with 39 sovereign nations in Oklahoma, there are different cultures, traditions and languages that go with them – but it’s the passing down of a particular kind of torch that unites a collective spirit of Natives as a people.
Upholding a strong understanding and appreciation for history and traditional roots while being mindful of generations both past and future keeps ties to family and community grounded very much in the now – and it’s the devotion to these core values and ideas that seem to be at the center of the culture.
Through various forms of expression –whether art or activism, acting, dance or public service – tradition and contemporary culture synergize to create meaning in the present day, and these Native Americans share what that means to them.
To Thorpe Sine of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Native identity is all about the passing down of culture to the young people.
Teaching the ways of life and rites of passage from the past and involving the entire family in bead and feather work to build tribal regalia for one another is something he says not only helps pass tradition on to younger generations, but keeps the culture rich as well.
Like everyone else, Sine and his family wear street clothes and go to work and school during the week – but on the weekends, the family of dancers gets together for powwows and celebrations – and with the beautiful regalia they wear, they have the unique ability to physically perform history that was created for them by the hands in their lineage.
Although people who come to powwows are rightfully amazed and fascinated by the picture-perfect colors, beadwork and feathers that adorn tribal dancers, Sine explains that there’s a lot of meaning passed down from generations in tribal regalia that most people don’t know about.
“For example, on one of my outfits there is beadwork that my grandmother made for me when I was an adolescent. It’s been around a really long time, so it’s a heartfelt time for me when I put an outfit on,” he says.
“It reminds me of all of my relations that I grew up with dancing as a little kid. I take a lot of pride in that – and my kids are the same way when they put their outfits on. They know that they’re putting them on for their family members – past and present. To me, all the memories of family and reminders of the tradition I was taught growing up are part of a transformation that’s an important part of keeping my culture thriving.”
As part of Ho-Chunk Nation tradition, Sine was given his first traditional clothing at one year old and has danced in arenas ever since, just as his father and grandfather did before him.
Having raised his own children to dance since the same age, he says he gets great joy from seeing them make and take care of their outfits, and that his 2-year-old granddaughter, who has also started dancing, will be raised in the same way. The Ho-Chunk Nation is headquartered in Black River Falls, Wis., and Sine and his family make the trip once a year for the annual powwow.
“I’ve always thanked my grandparents for giving me the opportunity to dance in powwows and learn our traditions. I’m blessed that they did that for me. I pass that gratitude on to my kids.”
Having grown up in rural Liberty Okla., DeLanna Studi says she jokes about never having had an identity crisis until moving to Los Angeles 15 years ago to pursue acting – because prior to that, no one ever questioned if she was Indian “enough” or white “enough” in Oklahoma.
With her father being full-blood Cherokee and her mother being of German/Irish descent, she says that she’s a full-blood Oklahoman and feels fortunate to have been a bridge between the two groups of people in her family.
“Growing up in a multicultural family, my Native culture is very prominent. My father instilled in me at a very young age that I am a proud Cherokee citizen – so I’ve learned to introduce myself as, ‘Hello, my name is DeLanna Studi and I’m a proud Cherokee person,’” she explains.
“At home I would go to a Native gathering and no one would be like, ‘Oh, she’s only half.’ I was always accepted and welcomed. It was the same with my white family, so I didn’t realize that you had to be ‘enough’ to be out here (in LA).”
Although Studi, who has acted in films such as Edge of America, Dreamkeeper and Skins, has been to auditions where casting directors have questioned the authenticity of her heritage, she is an optimist that believes people are inherently good.
As chairwoman of the National Native American Committee for the Screen Actors Guild American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, she plays an active role in raising awareness and safeguarding Native rights, roles and interests within the industry.
In an age in which digital media is such a powerful influence over society, she believes that Hollywood has the opportunity to help move beyond the stereotypes that perpetuate outdated, period piece ideas of who Native people are.
“It’s really hard to find TV shows and movies where Native people are not predominately dressed in leather and riding horses. We are almost always portrayed as some exotic creature sealed behind museum glass – particularly Native women, where when we are actually visible, we’re victims being raped or murdered or both,” Studi says.
“I think ultimately for people – and I’d say that this holds true with every minority across the board – you can be proud of your heritage, but as an actor you want to be able to just play a person that has nothing to do with your race or your gender or your culture. You just want to be a human being and be seen for who you are now.”
As a man who has proven he can do just about anything, Enoch Kelly Haney is both a modern-day Renaissance man and a true “Native son.”
But the term “Native son” is referenced somewhat ambiguously here because as a member of the Seminole Nation and a native Oklahoman, it wouldn’t be accurate to limit the definition of the phrase to his cultural upbringing alone.
He has provided his strong leadership and service to make meaningful contributions to the community on both tribal and state levels in the areas of art, business, education, government, military, Native tradition and beyond.
The first and only full-blooded Native American in the Oklahoma State Legislature, Haney’s focus on funding for alternative education program for at-risk students has ultimately seen thousands of young people – from all walks of life – who would have otherwise dropped out of school go on to graduate.
“For me, I felt like I was qualified to be in the Legislature more than the other guy, so my position was that I was running not because I’m Indian, but because I was the best person for the job,” he says.
An internationally acclaimed, award-winning Master Artist of the Five Civilized Tribes, Haney now works exclusively as a sculptor. His work can be seen throughout the state, from inside the State Capitol to his newest piece, a Chickasaw horse and rider, to be revealed on Labor Day at Remington Park.
One piece that strikes a particular chord is the 22-foot bronze warrior sculpture that stands atop of the Capitol dome, for which Haney waived his commission as a gift to Oklahoma from his family.
The Guardian has swayed many of those who didn’t initially like the idea of a dome on the capitol, and, serving as a positive icon overlooking the state legislature, it upholds the challenging task of representing all Native culture.
“On pieces like this, people ask for some general things they want, so in this case I was asked that it be done a ‘generic Indian.’ Well, I don’t know what a ‘generic Indian’ is. There are 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma – and almost without exception there are differences in the clothing and so forth. After extensive research, what I decided to do was a Native person who existed prior to the coming of the Europeans. What would that person look like? They were all basically similar in dress – with simple breechcloths, leggings of some sort, and as a general rule, they held a lance and shield. That was pretty much standard for early day warriors,” Haney explains.
“There’s a circle on the shield that’s symbolic of the general theology of most Native tribes – and that circle is important to me because I believe it says that all people are within that circle – so there is no person that is better or worse than anybody else. I keep that in mind in my own daily living – that all people are the same.”
In recent years, there has been a noticeable shift towards Native-inspired design in the mainstream. From trends in art, décor, hairstyle, fashion and jewelry, what is fresh and different in pattern, color and style feels very much rooted in the culture.
Award-winning contemporary Native American artist Brent Greenwood’s work is very much a breath in this wave of artistic fresh air.
“I think people generally want more than run-of-the-mill type stuff, and our people have always been very design-oriented. I think that by others gravitating towards these Native trends, it’s honoring and recognizing the culture in a good, positive way,” he says.
By blending early tribal history and design elements with modern context, his paintings express depth and emotion through multiple layers of drips, paint, washes and splatters, conveying the rich traditions passed down to him in a way that is both approachable and relatable to a wide range of people.
Greenwood, who is a member of the Chickasaw and Ponca nations, aspires for people to take something away from his work that makes them think.
“When I was first finding my voice as an artist, I would take catch phrases like, ‘There goes the neighborhood,’ and my play on that was Indians in the foreground watching the Land Run,” he explains.
“History can be an eyesore for a lot of people. It’s tragic, and although I’ve never wanted to make political art, I do want to portray a message. I’ve tried to do it in a way that people can digest and take something away from it, and that’s been my whole thing. By doing this they may realize something new that they didn’t know before.”
Greenwood says his parents immersed him in tribal culture and activities and encouraged his artistic drive, and by doing so, he says he found a calling that is a vital part of who he is today.
Carrying on those same family traditions, his 17-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter participate in tribal activities through dancing, singing and beadwork, with his daughter making her own handcrafted dolls.
“They’re caught up in all the same things the other kids are doing, but at the same time, we encourage our culture. I’ve never pushed them to be artists, but I’ve hoped they would take interest. I think sometimes the best teaching is to teach by experience. I’ve always made art available to them. Being an artist is going to come out in their own ways and I’m glad to see that materialize for them.”
Activist Casey Camp-Horinek of the Ponca Nation has been a long-time champion at the forefront of grassroots community efforts to educate and empower both Native and non-Native community members on environmental and civil rights issues.
A seasoned actress who has served as a mentor and advisor for aspiring Native American filmmakers, actors and actresses in venues like the Sundance Film Institute, she says that for her, the forum serves as another opportunity for activism that can make a significant impact on breaking negative stereotypes and maintaining cultural identity.
“I am the sum of the experiences that not only have I walked in this life, but that my mother and father walked in theirs, and my grandparents and great grandparents walked as well. My ancestors’ experiences are recognized in the stories that they told and the holocaust that they survived, and those are the things that I pass on to my children and grandchildren,” she says.
Working tirelessly to fight environmental injustices that affect her community, Camp-Horinek wears many hats, but at the end of the day, being a family member is her favorite and most important.
With 21 grandchildren, a husband of 44 years and children and siblings that she sees or talks to on a regular basis, she lives a very healthy, strong and rich family life.
“That is the Ponca way. That’s part of who we are as a people,” she says.
“We all live locally and follow our traditions and make contributions to one another. We have constant huge gatherings, and that’s what makes it difficult when you see the pollution and devastation that is going on with us environmentally here. It’s not just random people being affected – it’s family in an intimately connected community.”
In 2007, Camp-Horinek worked with the Indigenous Environmental Network by presenting to the United Nations to help contribute to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which was recently passed.
The declaration helps allow the ability of Native people to say what is correct on their land as far as pollution goes and enables them to better live within the natural laws that are their sacred way of life.
“We have been raised to understand our traditional values of living within the natural laws the best way that we know how – those being the laws that are set up by the Creator and by the forces that the Creator put into place in the beginnings of time where there is harmony that the biosystem lives within. For us, it is a very deep relationship that we feel for the nurturing of the Earth herself. It is an ability to share life itself.”