I initially met WeeYaa, pronounced like “Leah” with a “W”, at the recently formed writers’ group here in Orofino. As we went around the group introducing ourselves, I was fascinated with my brief acquaintance with WeeYaa. I hope you will be too.
An interview was arranged and I am on my way to visit WeeYaa Gurwell. I have been instructed to look for her place with her car parked in front, with personalized license plates of WEEYAA.
She meets me in full regalia, like nothing I had ever seen before. Pink roses, finely beaded into the softest buckskin.
We spend the next hour looking at many other outfits, all the accessories, fans, fancy shawls and headpieces. She is a prolific beader and the designs which keep appearing are all so vibrant and different in style.She has published several books of Native American beadwork and patterns.
“I’ve known since I was a little kid that I was adopted,” begins WeeYaa, ”but my parents swore up and down that I wasn’t. But I didn’t look like them. They both had blue eyes and my mom had light sandy brown hair and Jerry’s hair was grey ever since I can remember. They were in their 40’s when they ‘had’ me, but swore to each other they’d never admit otherwise, not to me or even to their families.
The story goes like this, WeeYaa’s adopted parents were married in 1947, and as they stopped to meet her parents in Montana, Dorothy was ill with the stomach flu. Her family teased her about being sick and possibly pregnant on the couple’s honeymoon. Dorothy actually had the flu, but it helped to explain the arrival of the new baby which they were blessed with so soon after their marriage.
WeeYaa said her adopted parents had sent out birth announcements and her mother had made a baby book for her, sharing all the details, right down to the number of hours she was in labor.
WeeYaa shares that the year was 1977 or ‘78, she was married, had two children, (and they would later adopt two more). She worked as an overseas escort for Korea, for Planned Loving Adaptions based out of McMinnville, OR.
“I’d travel to Korea and accompany the Korean children back to American families who were anxiously waiting to provide them love and a home upon their arrival. I knew the process and complexities of adoptions. I had helped to coach parents through the often exhausting and disheartening journey to adopt a child.” WeeYaa said she found herself questioning her own birth certificate, and finally had the resources to help her learn the truth.
“Dorothy never would talk to me about my birth certificate. It was signed by a nurse, not by a doctor and a lot of stuff was crossed out. When I asked my mom why, I was told that ‘it was the way it was done in those days.’ So I did some investigating and eventually found out I was adopted through a judge. He knew my family and remembered my situation. He was my birth mother’s oldest brother’s best friend. They were both judges. The records were re-opened which was a rare occurrence, as I learned many of the records were destroyed within six weeks of the adoption.”
A short time later WeeYaa received documentation that indeed, she was adopted. Her mother’s name was Midge Thomson. She also learned that she had been born at the Fort Peck Free Indian Clinic and was enrolled as a member of the Assiniboine Nation. “I was 27 years old. I took a year’s sabbatical and went to meet my family. Wow!
“My mother’s oldest sister’s husband was the head of the fire department and had been the Tribal Chief of Police for 40 years. My cousin is the chief of the Fort Peck Tribe. I learned I had five brothers, so I did some traveling, and went to Los Angeles to meet them in 1979 and ‘80. It was surprising to discover I was the only one who did anything to carry on our traditions. I always have, long before I was told the truth.
“It’s crazy, when I was little, and we played cowboys and Indians, I was always an Indian. I’d be the one with the band around my head, with the colored feathers. I wanted bows and arrows, and I wanted my pony to have feathers in its mane. I wanted war paint.
“I wore moccasins much to the dismay of my adopted Dad, I started making my own when he would refuse to buy them for me. He wanted me to wear cowboy boots. When I was 11, I went to the Salvation Army and found a belt that was beaded. I took the whole thing apart and re-beaded it. I taught myself to bead.
“I don’t know how I knew how to bead and create regalia, but when I made my first buckskin dress, I wasn’t living near anyone tribal, I was going ‘home’ to the reservation to meet a bunch of my family. I had been there once before but I had never been to a pow wow. I didn’t know that the Assiniboine women always make the top a two piece, no one had told me that.
“When I got there, the women came over to look at my dress. They asked me how I knew.”
‘We always make our dresses with a two piece on top and tie them under the arms. How did you know?’
“I didn’t know what to tell them,” said WeeYaa.
“I’m a primitive artist, my writing and my patterns are primitive, I’ve learned to fold the fabric so there is one seam only.
“I created my own moccasins. It took some time, but now mine fit and feel like kid gloves. I used to teach a class on making them, and I might do it again.
“I tell everyone they have to start out really tight. You put the toes in and pull up the heel. Then you have to wear them a couple of hours. When they get a little loose, you get them wet and let them dry to your foot. I used to sell my patterns and make them fit exactly.
“My daughter is finally ready to learn how to make them, and she’ll be 25. I have tried to teach her before now, but the student wasn’t ready. I’m going to visit her Memorial Day. We’re going to make Indian tacos and fry bread. I gave her the recipe but she won’t make it until I’m standing there watching. I tried to show her when we were at the reservation.
“None of my kids have had much interest in their heritage up to this point except for my oldest son, Shawn.
“I taught him how to make a roach and a bustle and how to do beadwork. Some of the best beadwork I’ve seen have been done by men, - very precise. I kind of like the texture of uneven-sized beads. Other master beaders will take a strand of beads and sort them to size before they even begin.
“As I said I am a primitive artist, these take me approximately two hours apiece. I’ve had showings in Portland with the work I had done between 1970 and ‘78. It’s nothing fancy, just what is in my heart. I’ve never had any instruction. The drawings are images of tribal members with very expressive faces, in a myriad of headdresses and masks.
“I keep them all,” she says, “I like some a lot better than others but my children want me to keep them all. So I keep them all, all 120 of them. Some of them have colors, but I prefer the ones in black and white. The inspiration to draw comes in streaks, I’ll spend two months drawing and not pick it up again for two years.
“I’ve published three sets of paper dolls, which are for sale at the Pine Ridge Reservation. The kids are able to color the regalia for the pow wows and the traditional clothing as they like. I started designing clothes when I was young. My grandmother would give me the Montgomery Ward’s Catalogue and I would cut the girls out, paste them to cardboard so they would stand up and I would spend hours designing clothes for them.
“I’ve made dreamcatchers too,” said WeeYaa. “Many of them. We kind of think it is strange to see them in cars. They are for dreaming, which is something you shouldn’t be doing in the car.
“The Holy man who named me is dead now, but he and I spent a whole day and just talked. He wanted to know what I felt. I told him I had always felt I was Indian. He told me he believed that was because my people had been calling me for 27 years to come back. He knew I was an artist. The name he chose for me was ‘Maka Nah*i WeeYaa’, Earth Spirit Woman, the name had not been used for 200 years.
“He asked for 10 people who knew me to help name me. Most all of them wanted to name me Badger Woman, because if “she has her mind set you cannot change it - she is a badger.”
WeeYaa admits, “I am a badger - I stand for what I believe in. You’d have to kill me to make me change the way I believe.
“The Holy man said he spent a week in the desert arguing with Grandfather South Boy, who we call God, about what my name should be.
“He said he was told by Grandfather South Boy that she had to have the name, “Maka Nah*i WeeYaa”, for Earth Spirit Mother, because I already knew my culture, I already had the heart. ‘It doesn’t matter what color you are; your heart is red for our tribe,” he told me.
“I had been wearing knee high moccasins and had fringe down to here.” noted WeeYa. “I had feathers in my hair attached with roach clips. I was tough, even if I wasn’t very big!” The passion of her statement sends the jingle dress into spasms of chimes.
Once WeeYaa had received her enrollment she had another conversation with Dorothy. “She hung up on me and wouldn’t accept my calls.
“We didn’t speak for about four months before she came to visit me in Portland. My adopted mother, eventually admitted, “Okay, you are adopted, but please don’t tell anyone until after I’m dead, not my family nor your dad’s family.”
“After her death, my adopted dad’s family told me they thought dad had got some woman pregnant and brought me home and Dorothy adopted me. Dorothy’s side of the family explained that the family never knew for sure but suspected Dorothy may have had a previous affair, gotten pregnant and gave the baby up until after she was married to my adopted dad.
“I don’t have either of their blood. My mother is Assiniboine and attended the Indian school. Have you heard of them? They weren’t good. My real mother, her sisters and brothers never learned their culture. The children are taken away from their families at age five, and attend school five miles away. They never got to go home until after they graduated.
“My father is enrolled at Milk River. His great-niece told me that he was Yankton Sioux, Sisseton, and something else. She shared that she didn’t know anything about my existence, or my brother’s. We were full blood brother and sister. There were six of us. My other five brothers, now four, (a younger brother was murdered in 2007 or 2008) didn’t know about me or my younger brother.
“Our father never recognized either my brother or myself, but had fathered three girls. One daughter is dead, one lives in Great Falls, and I don’t know where the other one lives. My brother lives in Hobson, MT and doesn’t really care at this point to meet the others, the ones in California, who live in the fast lane; the ones who would perish here for a lack of things to do.”
Marty is the youngest, then Mark, was a year younger than WeeYaa. The other brothers are John, Steve, and Jeff. WeeYah asked them why they aren’t involved. “Why don’t you dance? We have at least 100 relatives...why not go home?”
Her brother, Mark said he doesn’t want to be committed, he was a free spirit! “I didn’t even know he played guitar until four years ago. I’ve been in touch since 1980. He taught himself to play and so did I,” she smiles.
WeeYaa grabs her blue guitar and belts out Johnny Cash’s, “Folsom Prison Blues” like nobody’s business. Next she dons her mandolin and plays “I Saw the Light,” by Hank Williams, Sr. I had no idea of all the things this little woman could do.
She set the instruments down and we returned to talking about her mother.
WeeYaa learned that her birth mother died at the age of 33 in 1962. “My little brother was only seven or eight months old when she died. My aunt told me she died of a broken heart to lose the only daughter she had ever had.
“She died in Los Angeles County, where it is almost impossible to get a death certificate,” says WeeYaa,”They told me I could come to LA and that it would probably take me two to three months to search the archives.
“My aunt tells me Mom had five boys and a girl. She tells me I’m like my mother. My mother was very dark, like my daughter, Amy. I also learned she played the guitar, like me.
“When I turned 33, I wondered ‘Am I going to die?’ All I know is that she died of a broken heart, on Ventura Beach. I know where she is buried. They gave me my mother’s glasses.”
WeeYaa’s uncle from Montana, who has since passed away, gave her the pictures of her real dad, her grandmother and her sister.
“I am only what God made me… I don’t know why I am lighter skinned, I’m the fairest of the family. Nobody tells you anything. I only found out five years ago that he was my dad. I didn’t know he died in 2006, no one told me.
“I would have at least gotten to meet him, even if he did have really severe Alzheimer’s. He had been a pilot, a fighter pilot in WWII.”
WeeYaa changes into her jingle dress, I can hear her dress long before I see it.
“You can’t sit on your jingles,” says WeeYaa, “You’ll flatten them, and you can only straighten them twice before they break. Jingles are fashioned out of Copenhagen chewing tobacco lids already turned; “We used to turn them ourselves, you couldn’t buy them fancy. When you cut them you’d have to paint the edges so they wouldn’t rust. Then they are put on bias tape and the top is crimped. It’s not something that can be done on the sewing machine because of the weight. It’s a long process,” she assures me. WeeYaa’s dress has 400 cones and 375 shell casings.It weighs at least 50 pounds.
“Just about all my stuff has shell casings, everything I make.” WeeYaa said she has a friend who runs the Archer Range in Lewiston. “I told him I wanted some shell casings and I got lots of shells, a big five-gallon bucket full of them. We wear them with leggings. We wear something under the top, to absorb the moisture when we dance, because the dress can’t be washed. There’s a cone for every day of the year, but you can only purchase them by the 100, so I bought 400 and thought, ‘Why not use all of them?’ I paid good money for them. I don’t wear beadwork with the jingle dress, except for my barrettes.
“I usually bring a special little stool to the pow wows when I wear this, because the cones get caught in the arms of a regular chair. When you go to pow wows and you see all these women sitting with their skirts all hitched up, now you know why, it’s because they don’t want to crush their cones. They’re too expensive! I understand Plummer Trading Post has brass, copper and gold cones! Wow! Time to make a new one!
“But I don’t dance in this anymore. To dance in this at my age is a strenuous task. At the intertribal pow wows we actually just walk around in them. At the last pow wow I attended, when the senior women are called to dance, there was only one who came forth. I guessed her to be about 60 and she was a little heavier-built than I, but she had a jingle dress on and she was the only one who could still dance under all that weight. There’s not many left who can.”
The jingle dress is also known as a wellness dress. WeeYaa explains, “There was a woman in Canada with Stage IV cancer, and they informed her that there was nothing further they could do for her. Many people prayed and God healed her. To honor Him, she made a dress with one cone attached for everyday of the year, which she wore to dance in the pow wows.”
Women have only been dancing in the circle since the 1970’s. They could stand on the side of the circle and dance in place, but now the circle includes women too.
WeeYaa shares that an accident occurred when she worked at a tea company. A ton of loose herbal tea was dropped on her and she suffered from industrial asthma. “I was on a constant regime of steroids, my weight went up to 245 pounds. I couldn’t breathe. For 17 years, I was terminally ill. Then I heard this evangelist speak in 2006. My health came back. God gave me new lungs, I could breathe. I can dance. I dance at church and they can’t believe I’m 70. I can sing again. I can run and run fast. I started thanking the Lord. I went from a size 24 to a size 5, and I was an active 4-H Leader for years.”
As WeeYah is telling me this, the jingles start jingling, she’s excited and singing “and 11 years later I’m still here, and I’m still breathing and I’m singing and I can still out-dance most everyone my age! And guess what? I’m going to live to be 100!” she chants. I believe her.
“I didn’t really have to dive into my culture, I was already living it. I was bonded with my Indian side long before I knew I was enrolled.”