Haŋ mitakuyapi. Suŋgina Duzaham Wiŋyan emakiapi. Mnisda Wakiyaŋ Iŋga tiwahe etaŋhaŋ ouhepi. Damakoda nakun Nakoda, de Tatanka Oyate. Cante waste yuha, ciyuzihapi. (Greetings our relatives. My name is Jessa Rae Growing Thunder. The Growing Thunder family comes from Bald Water Place. I am Dakota and Nakoda, from the Buffalo Nation. I shake all of your hands with a good heart.)
I come from a family who has raised me to uphold our Oceti Sakowin values; to have compassion for others, to know and honor family, and to be humble yet brave. Who I am is justified by the deep roots of my family; I am a product of my grandmothers. My unci (Dakota for “maternal grandmother”), Joyce, was born and raised on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. Her grandmother, Josephine, taught her the importance of being a woman through ceremonies, cooking, beadwork, and quillwork; and in turn, my unci taught these knowledges to my ina (Dakota for “mother”), and eventually myself. The foundation of who I am as a young Dakota/Nakoda woman, is my identity as a third-generation traditional beadworker and quillworker. My life’s work strives to guarantee the perseverance and survival of these traditional knowledges and the wealth of opportunity they provide.
Over the years I have focused my time and energy on fulfilling positions that have the potential to provide positive experiences for our communities. In 2012-2013 I had the honor of serving as Miss Indian World, in which I traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada focusing my efforts on the promotion of cultural preservation programs. In the summer of 2014, I held the privilege of being a liaison for the U.S. State Department. I traveled across the country of Ecuador, with three associates, creating dialogues with Quechua peoples regarding ancestral technologies and preservation. In June 2017, I was honored to be a guest instructor at the Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute at the University of South Dakota where I taught Native youth the importance of traditional Native art forms, like beadwork and quillwork. In 2018 I had the esteemed privilege of working as a Native American traditional artist for the U.S. State Department’s Arts Envoy Program in Saudi Arabia. Our trip consisted of traveling the kingdom promoting North American Indigenous arts and culture.
Along with these amazing opportunities, I have been blessed with an abundance of possibilities as a traditional Northern Plains artist. My work, alongside my ina and unci, speaks to the intergenerational knowledge of our traditional arts. Most recently our work has been shown in, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, shown at Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Frist Museum, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Philbrook Museum of Art. My family’s work has also been featured in the exhibition, Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses, curated by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. My soft-sculpture work gave me the honor of being one of five artists featured in the exhibition, Grand Procession: A Collection of Contemporary Native American Soft Sculpture, at the Denver Art Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and the Heard Museum.
I am currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Native American Studies at University of California, Davis. My research is rooted in the practice of history as an Indigenous tradition of Dakota/Nakoda peoples. With this project, I am conducting a Dakota/Nakoda tribal history study with my unci who is a renowned beadwork artist. This work applies both recognized (archival and oral history) and traditional creative forms of knowledge transmission through analyzing her beadwork as living testimony to Fort Peck history. It is important to note these two threads of my project are not separate nor disjointed, but rather tightly woven together. By conducting a tribal history project using creative forms of knowledge transmission speaks to the decolonization of Indigenous history and the reinforcement of cultural/tribal sovereignty. Furthermore, this project empowers the women of Fort Peck and in turn contributes to the empowerment of our culture and community.
To assist in my analysis of how oral history work can contribute to the contemporary Fort Peck voice, I assert that Fort Peck Dakota/Nakoda women have always been historians. Through traditional beadwork, Fort Peck women have encrypted our/their histories into every stitch. These beaded histories, though seemingly voiceless, have “spoken”—and can be read as texts—with precise articulation via traditional forms of knowledge transmission throughout colonialism. Dakota/Nakoda women’s use of traditional creative forms of knowledge transmission, specifically oral testimony and beadwork, are key to understanding and advancing Fort Peck sovereignty. My in-depth study of such creative historical forms contributes to an overdue recognition of Dakota/Nakoda women artists, such as my unci, as agents of decolonization through the generative beaded histories they create and disseminate to kin and tribal members. I argue that positioning and engaging with these traditional creative forms as authoritative sources asserts our sovereign right to history. Colonial perceptions of our sovereignty have diminished these rights through non-Dakota/Nakoda lenses and definitions. By centering and privileging Dakota/Nakoda ways of history, this research offers a template for future studies that will ultimately contribute to and strengthen our sovereignty.
As a young Indigenous woman, I carry the responsibilities of living a good life that promises a future for our traditional knowledges. At the foundation of my community work are the knowledges and gifts that my unci and ina have given me as a beadworker and quillworker. No matter what every day brings, whether it is writing my dissertation, teaching University students, instructing museum workshops, I end the day doing exactly what my grandmothers have done before me; at the end of every day, after my daughter goes to sleep, I pick up my needle and thread.