Many narratives about Native communities broadly, and the Myaamia community specifically, are often told through the lens of the male perspective. There are many reasons for this; for example, many of these stories are told first by the French Jesuit missionaries and later linguists and anthropologists who recorded our histories. As a result, the values of those people (including the valuing of the male perspective) are passed on through the way that they recorded these narratives. While we are incredibly proud of the Myaamia men who have fostered our continuance across time, there are stories of and from Myaamia women that are equally important and are lost or not disseminated widely.
This blog post intends to serve as a starting point for telling the narratives of Myaamia women as told through the history of the Strass family. Kara and I (Haley) have spent our lives listening to the stories our grandmother, Sue Strass, has told about our family. It has always been evident to us that the women in her family (mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, etc.) have been critical to not only the continuation of Myaamia identity and pride within our family, but also on a broader community level. In the summer of 2021, Kara and I spent some time with our grandmother, asking her to share some of these stories with us for the purposes of this blog post.
We ask that you, too, speak with the people in your families about the women who have been pivotal in the survival of our community. If you feel comfortable, share those narratives with your family and the Myaamia community in whatever ways you feel comfortable. Kara and I are always interested in hearing more stories!
Family History and Leadership
Our grandmother, Sue (Leming) Strass, told us of growing up hearing from her mother, Josephine, about what it meant to be Miami. Living in a multi-generational Miami household, she learned about her connections to her ancestors and the places that were important to them, specifically in Wiipicahkionki, ‘Huntington, Indiana’ where our family has lived for generations. Sue remembers going to extended Myaamia reunions as a child and also remembers a few relatives from Oklahoma coming to visit when she was young. As she got older, Sue became much more engaged in teaching about Miami people in the region, mostly because she was tired of hearing false narratives about Miami people being told. She worked hard sitting on committees, giving speeches, and pushing elected officials to do what she felt was right for her Myaamia community. Much of this work involved bringing together Myaamia people in Indiana to talk about what they could do to support the community. Sue talked to us about her mother and grandmothers as being strong Myaamia women who worked hard to benefit their Myaamia families, and although she wouldn’t talk about herself in that way, it is obvious to anyone who has met her, especially her own family that she too is a strong, determined woman who has dedicated much of her life to improving things for her Myaamia family.
Our great-grandmother, Josephine (Owens) Leming, was born and raised in the Lafontaine house at the forks of the Waapaašiki Siipiwi ‘Wabash River’. When she was a teenager, Josephine’s grandmother, Tahkamwa ‘Archangel Lafontaine’, moved from the house at the forks into town and Josephine moved with her to care for her until she passed away. Sue remembers hearing stories of her mother as a child riding on a horse-drawn wagon in a parade with Archangel and Kiilhsoohkwa, a well-known Myaamia elder and midwife. These stories show us the connection that Josephine had to her Myaamia family, especially the women. As she got older, Josephine too became very involved in working for the rights of her Miami family. Beginning in the 1960’s she was involved with the work of the Indian Claims Commission, pushing for Miamis in Indiana to also receive these payments. Sue describes Josephine as a strong, proud Myaamia woman who would tell it like it is. For those of you who know Sue, or other Strass family women, you likely are starting to see some family resemblances.
Our great-great-grandmother, Cecelia (Lucelia Engelmann) Owens, passed away when Sue was little, so she does not have as many memories of her, but when we asked where Josephine learned to be such a strong Miami woman, it was clear that this came from her mother Cecelia. Cecelia also lived with her extended Myaamia family at the Forks of the Wabash, and I think that it is safe to say that she learned what it meant to be Miami from this extended family.
Our great-great-great-grandmother, Tahkamwa ‘Archangel (Lafontaine) Engelmann’, also grew up at the Forks of the Wabash surrounded by her Myaamia family. Although she was quite young when her parents died, Archangel continued to be surrounded by her Myaamia family. Growing up, we often heard a story about Archangel responding to the misbehavior of one of her adult sons, threatening him with a pistol that she kept in her apron pocket. Archangel grew up in the immediate aftermath of Myaamia removal in what must have been a very difficult time for her family, but these stories make very clear that she was a force in the family that worked to ensure that her Myaamia family stayed together.
Our great-great-great-great-grandmother, Pakankihwa ‘Catherine (Richardville) Lafontaine’, was the daughter of Jean Baptiste Richardville and married Francis Lafontaine. Alive during a time of great change for the Myaamia people, it is hard to imagine everything that Catherine must have witnessed. Treaties signed by both her father and husband, the resistance to but eventual carrying out of forced removal, all the while raising seven children and caring for her Myaamia family. Catherine died just a few years after removal when she wasn’t even 40 years old. Like so many other stories of our Myaamia families at this time, hers includes loss and sadness, but also hope as her family lived on, including through the strong and resilient women that we have described above.
Lessons passed on through Women
A theme obvious throughout our conversation with Sue was a sense of pride in our heritage. She spoke of the many times when she would be on the receiving end of racism and discrimination as a child and even throughout her adulthood. However, when seeking support from her mother Josephine as a child, she told her “no one is any better than you are” and this message has carried with her throughout her life. She took this as a message to be proud of who she is, no matter what other people think. Sue credits her mother and grandmother for showing her what it looks like to be a strong and proud Miami woman.
Cecelia, Sue’s grandmother (our great, great grandmother) passed away when Sue was very little. However, one of her most prominent memories of her was when Sue was staying at home with Cecelia and an insurance agent came to their house to attempt a sale. At the time, Sue was around two and beginning to learn the basics of reading and had memorized many of the books they had in the home. When the insurance agent came in, Cecelia told the agent that Sue could read. Incredulous, the agent asked to see. Then, Sue proceeded to pick up and “read” one of the books they had in the home. Dumbfounded, the agent left their house that day amazed that a two year old could read. The family laughed about this for years to come.
We also heard a story about a man from Huntington who would walk past Lafontaine’s house and Archangel would be sitting in the yard. This man would stop to talk to her and thought that she didn’t speak English. He would stop and talk to her in order to be a friendly neighbor. Archangel would pretend that she didn’t understand a word he said even though she spoke at least 3 languages at the time.
While it may seem superficial to bring up humor as evidence of a good leader, within the Myaamia community humor is an important value. It is one of the ways that we have always coped with the many stressors experienced in our lives. Humor helps us to explain the lack of seriousness in our lives. When used and timed appropriately, it is a highly effective tool in political processes and is an important part of daily life. It is evident that this was carried on through the women in our family.
Sue said that the women in her family (mother, grandmother, great-grandmother) were integral in her own identity formation as a Myaamia woman. She received messages about what it means to be a Myaamia person throughout her life and through observation of them. In discussing the overall educational efforts of the Tribe, Sue said “I think it’s great that people who want to recognize who they are can enroll. We are all one anyway.” This sense of identity is critical for the continuation of our community and this message has been passed down through the women in our family for generations.
I (Haley) like to think that these women, my family, were aware that maintaining a sense of identity was the piece of the puzzle that would keep the Myaamia community together throughout such adversity. While they didn’t know what would happen in the future, they knew that a strong identity is critical for survival and, hopefully, thriving in the future. They set the stage for us to be in the position we are in today; they are the reason we can now gather and speak our language as a community.
One of the primary ways that women have contributed to the continuance of the Tribe through leadership within the family is by keeping the family connected, whether that be through the family literally living in the same home or by organizing family gatherings.
Sue mentioned that historically, the whole family lived together [in the LaFontaine house]. At one point, Sue mentioned that Archangel, Cecelia, 5 siblings, 3 great uncles, and her grandfather were all living together in the home. Eventually, her Uncle Christie was the last one still living with them before the family no longer lived together in a multi-generational home. The home was kept up by the women within the family, connecting the family and keeping those ties close.
Sue’s mother would often take her to and/or organize gatherings within the family or even larger groups of Myaamia people. This continued on later in life with Sue organizing gatherings with her roles within the Miami Tribe of Indiana and even large gatherings of extended family (Owens, Strass, etc.). During a time in which our family was not part of a federally recognized tribe, it was critical to continue with gatherings of family in order to keep us connected with the tribal community. These gatherings are also what ultimately led to Sue’s connection with other tribal members that proved to be important connections for the tribal community.
As new storytellers within the Myaamia community, we (both Haley and Kara) think about what stories are told and who the tellers of those stories are. Our community has experienced great tragedy and loss, including the loss of knowledge and stories held by generations of Myaamia women. But in opposition to that loss, we are also both involved in the revitalization of Myaamia culture and hope that as our community continues to reclaim these parts of ourselves, that we look to the women of the past and present to help us learn how to move forward. We hope that you too take the opportunity to think about the generations that came before you, and learn and tell those stories. If you want help thinking about how to get started, you can always reach out to us.
Kara Strass (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Haley Shea (email@example.com)