When my daughter was around 3 we walked into a Disney Store we were passing because of her insistence that she needed to see its contents, making sure she knew that we were not planning on making any purchases. She tore around the store looking at all the delights on display while my husband and I followed in her wake. We ended up near the baby dolls, which were all toddler versions of the Disney princesses. We asked our girl which one she liked, and without a second thought she pointed right to the Pocahontas doll. We asked why she liked that one best, and she said matter-of-factly, “Because her me!”
We were surprised at how perceptive she was, because my daughter is, in fact, Native American. We hadn’t watched the Pocahontas movie, so she had no way of knowing that the character was Native American, and there were a handful of other princess baby dolls that approached my daughter’s appearance in skin tone and hair and eye color, but something about that Native American doll resonated with my own toddler. She recognized herself.
Of course we bought the doll.
Since then, I have found myself searching for more experiences for her like that, without much luck. Despite Native Americans being the first peoples in this land, there is very little representation of them in our media or culture. I fight to find role models for my Little Bird, and I worry that she is drinking in the stereotype that she is invisible because she looks different from the people she sees so prevalently in every form of media. It worries me more because my husband and I also belong to the ethnic majority, so she deals with looking different even in our own home.
We have combated this perceived difference in a couple of different ways. One is by talking about skin, hair, and eyes in terms of shade and not ethnicity. For instance, we like to say that Daddy’s hair is like the morning (blond), Mama’s hair is like the sunset (reddish), and her hair is like the night (black). We do the same with skin tone: my skin is about as far as you can travel to the pale side of the spectrum, while my husband’s is a goldeny color, and my daughter has gorgeous caramel colored skin. We point out the beautiful people all around us, of every hue, and we look for differences to celebrate.
Our other strategy was one that caused me a lot of trepidation at first. I always knew that it was essential for my Little Bird to be connected to her heritage. I could not be responsible for her losing such an integral part of herself. So we started taking her to powwows. The first one we went to was very small, just a gathering to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the Urban Indian Center near our home, and I was horribly nervous. There is a long, bitter history of white people taking the children of Native Americans, and I was worried I would be viewed in that way. How could I explain to them that the birth mother had felt strongly after our first phone conversation that her baby needed to be with us? How would they know how intensely I felt that my daughter needed to be raised with strong Native influences? I didn’t want to divorce my daughter from her culture or appropriate that culture for my own uses; I just wanted her to know who she was and where she came from.
As we walked into the Center, I couldn’t see any other Caucasian people there. I felt like my hair was bright orange and I glowed. But I took my daughter’s hand and walked her, beautiful in her Apache camp dress, deep into the center of the room. People made room for us, but didn’t speak much to us at first, understandably. No one knew who we were. But then they started asking us questions. Was this our daughter? What tribe was she? Had we been to a powwow before? As I answered, I felt no judgment. In fact, one woman told me it was a good thing to keep her connected to her culture the way we were trying to do.
And then the Grand Entry began.
For anyone who has never been to a powwow, the Grand Entry is where all the dancers come in dressed in their regalia while the drum circle plays and sings to kick off the festivities. I cried as I watched these majestic, joyful dancers circle the floor while the music pierced my soul. These were the people I had brought my daughter to see: people who looked like her, who knew who they were, who reached out to strangers in friendship, who lived with a deep spirituality in their daily lives, who danced clear-eyed to the heartbeat of the drum.
We have been to many powwows since then. I get teary eyed at every Grand Entry I see, and I outright cried when my daughter asked if she could dance too and went out fearlessly into an Intertribal dance when she was five. We have become more involved in the community, attending Native culture and art classes and going to family potlucks, and my heart swells when I see the tenderness in the eyes of the elders who care about her and know her by name. And there are even a few books and shows we have found that feature a Native American character in positive ways.
But we still can’t find Native American dolls. My mom bought her a doll that had a Native American look, although I’m pretty sure she was made to be Hispanic, so now we have two. Not that we need many; my daughter doesn’t love dolls. She’s not into playing mom, and her dolls are always her little sisters. But she does like to get them dressed up and ready to do different activities, even if they habitually sass her, which she complains to me about all the time. (I guess they are like their older sister.) And I like to have her see that someone out there is making something that looks like her.
So this November, Native American Heritage Month, I thought I would make an Apache dress for the Little Sisters, and I began looking for a pattern. I found nothing.
So I made it myself, based on what I was able to research about authentic Apache dresses. I thought about making a camp dress, but I wanted to do this pattern first. Maybe I’ll do a camp dress next year.
I used variegated yarn to simulate the beading that often went on these dresses and long fringe which was very common. I made two different sizes: one for the 16″ Disney doll and one for the 18″ doll.
If you’ve been looking for an Apache dress, feel free to check out the links to the patterns. But even if you’re not, I hope you find beauty in all the differences surrounding you and that you have people around you who remind you of where you come from and who you can be if you choose.
And during Native American Heritage Month, I hope you remember the beautiful people whose spirituality and stewardship are so integral to our land.