Smart Native American Women and the Company They Keep

    by Arigon Starr

    News From Indian Country

    “I wrote a paper about you and the class loved it. My instructor is in awe over you!!!” -- Oliviane Baier, student at Salish Kootenai College.

    Oliviane is majoring in Native American Studies and Social Work and has her sights set on a law degree. Oliviane’s instructor, Dr. Lori Lambert, challenged her to write a paper detailing how Native women artists utilize their emotions in their creative work. My name was on a short list including some well-known Indian women like award-winning Jemez Pueblo artists Kathleen Wall and her mother Fannie Loretto.

    When I picked up the guitar and started writing songs I never imagined that I’d be the subject of scholarly study.

    Also adding me to her academic work is talented poet/musician/writer Carolyn Dunn. Carolyn is working towards a Ph.D in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Of Muscogee Creek, Cherokee and Seminole heritage, Carolyn grew up in Los Angeles. “My family arrived in Los Angeles sometime after the Dust Bowl and Relocation,” she said. Her parents Dora and Aubrey Dunn were passionate about education. Dora was a longtime elementary school teacher and encouraged her daughter to pursue a career in teaching. “Mom would have preferred I followed in her footsteps as teacher at the elementary or secondary school level, but I chose to teach college.”

    Dunn earned her Masters Degree at the tender age of 24 from the University of California at Los Angeles. It wasn’t until she was pregnant with her third child at age 38 that she decided to pursue her doctorate.

    Her inspiration was her uncle Dr. Phillip Linscomb who earned his Ph.D in education from Brigham Young University. “Our family would visit him in Utah during all four summers he studied at BYU. Hearing him called ‘Dr. Linscomb’ made a huge impact on me,” said Carolyn. Dr. Linscomb eventually became the Superintendent of the Pasadena School District.

    When Carolyn approached me to be part of her dissertation I was honored, but also a bit puzzled. What did a Kickapoo-Creek woman like me do to deserve this treatment?

    Carolyn explained the topic of her project as “Oklahoma Women in the Diaspora – or Okie Women Out in the World.” Also included in the project are poet/author/musician Joy Harjo (Creek) and storyteller Gayle Ross (Cherokee). Believe me, being in such talented, rarified company had me standing a little bit taller.

    Gayle Ross is a celebrated storyteller. She’s a direct descendent of famous Cherokee Chief John Ross and has appeared everywhere from the Kennedy Center to the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas and all the way to the White House. Joy Harjo is an award-winning poet and musician, touring the world as a featured speaker or with her group Poetic Justice. Gayle often performs traditional Cherokee stories and much of Joy’s work is inspired by her life growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

    My Oklahoma roots run deep. My parents were both born and raised there. My cousin Janene Alford recently remarked that our Dads both had connections to Shawnee, Oklahoma. Her father Eugene Alford was an Absentee Shawnee and my dad Kenneth Wahpecome was a full-blood Kickapoo. My mother Ruth, like Joy Harjo, grew up in Tulsa. Her experiences and those of my family were the basis of my one-woman show The Red Road, set in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, during the 1970’s.

    “Each performer writes about Oklahoma – yet doesn’t live there full time. My own creative work is inspired by the notion of home,” revealed Carolyn. “Urban Indians often romanticize home as a safe place. However, Oklahoma has a history of outlaws and lawlessness. Home was never safe. Each of the women I’m writing about use ‘home’ as a connection to culture. All three maintain connections to Oklahoma yet live and perform in the dominant, mainstream non-Indian world.”

    Dunn expects to complete her dissertation by August 2007, in addition to publishing her efforts as a scholarly book.

    In the meantime, Carolyn continues to write, teach, work and raise her family of five in Los Angeles. Carolyn’s next volume of poetry, Echo Location will be published by Painted Horse Press in January 2007.

    “By writing about Arigon, Gayle and Joy I hope to show that it’s possible to take ‘home’ with you wherever you go and continue to stay connected to community,” said Carolyn. Carolyn Dunn is online at

    I’m in awe of Oliviane Baier and Carolyn Dunn. Choosing to pursue a degree can be a tough road. Sacrifices are made on a daily basis. Yet, these intrepid Native women and others like them attack life with tenacity. Their academic gusto is inspirational. What an amazing way to honor the ancestors. Aho!

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