American Portrait


Even with Lily Stewart’s high cheekbones, prominent eyebrows, dark brown eyes and hickory hair, because of her pale skin, most would not peg her as a Native American.

“They don’t believe me,” she said, blatantly summing up their reaction to her being part Native American.

In fact, in Lily’s seventh grade yearbook, her washed-out photo prompted one boy to nickname her “Casper the Ghost,” and publicly doubt at every turn her claim that she lived on a reservation.

"But you’re so white, you can’t live there,” he reasoned.

Almost routinely, interrogation about Lily’s “alleged” Native American blood is followed by questions about what tribe she’s part of.

“They're expecting me to say ‘Chippewa,’ ‘Ojibwe,’ or something that's more common,” she said.

But Lily is Potawatomi—Neshnabé as they call themselves—a tribe from the Algonquian family. Her father, who came from that tribe, and her mother, whose great-grandparents immigrated from France, met in the military and have been married for 18 years.

Their story contains a startling irony.

“When my mom’s ancestors were coming over from France onto the new land,” Lily said, “they were actually ambushed by a group of Native Americans. [The Native Americans] scalped all of the people in the wagon and left them for dead.”

Fortunately, another wagon came by. They found Lily’s one living ancestor, who survived. This one ancestor eventually married and had children, which brings us to the present. Well, the present minus a few years, many miles into the Southern Peninsula, slightly North of Battle Creek, specifically the Potawatomi reservation.

Lily’s house on the reservation was on a 10-acre plot of green forests, ponds, hills and a grove of pine trees with a cache of morel mushrooms underneath, that Lily’s family often cleaned and fried with butter. To add to the beautiful scenery, there was a carnival of animals: two horses, chickens, geese, ducks and three goats.

“We had one baby goat. Her name was Beatrice. I loved Beatrice the Goat,” Lily said with a lighthearted laugh. “She was so sweet… and also a little naughty.”

Lily could always count on Beatrice to get stuck in the barbed wire fence and then have to bandage her scratched leg.

“She was my little friend,” Lily said. “My mom still laughs about it today.”

When Lily wasn’t outside playing with the animals, she was homeschooled.

“Unfortunately, Native American schools are known to be really bad,” she said. “People don't have the education to teach properly. I didn't end up going to the schools, so my mom homeschooled me.”

Impressively, Lily’s mom homeschooled both her and her older brother until the sixth grade.

Between the many powwows in her community and pumpkin cookies during Ogwissimau’n no’kiya, Lily still kept up with her French heritage.

“My mom did a really good job of working through [the balancing of two cultures] with me by talking about the differences and how they're both part of [me] and that [I] need to find the middle,” Lily said. “To me, that was participating in the spiritual portions of Native American culture, but still believing in Catholicism, specifically.”

In addition to being the only Catholic household on the reservation, Lily’s was the only one with the sweet wafting scent of macarons, tarts, galettes and croissants—chef Lily’s favorite.

“I looove making [croissants],” Lily said with rapture. “They’re soo good.”

Galettes come in a close second, though.

After eight years on the reservation, of dances around bonfires during the summer equinox and of Beatrice the Goat shadowing Lily like a dog, her life significantly changed.

They were moving.

“Wait, why are we leaving? What are we doing?” little Lily wondered after her parents announced they were leaving the reservation.

“I felt left out of the decision,” Lily said, now 15 and living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I just remember feeling very sad about the whole thing. They obviously explained it to me, but I just remember not getting it, not understanding why we were leaving.”

Lily described the moment as “strange.”

“It's just a weird feeling to look around,” she said, “and the only house you've ever known is in boxes.”

Preposterously, goats weren’t allowed in Lily’s new apartment, so Beatrice was also sent packing to move into a new home—just not with Lily.

“I actually don’t know what exactly happened [to Beatrice],” Lily said. “I was too sad about it—too sad for [my parents] to tell me.”

(Lily’s suspicions point to a friend who randomly lived on an alpaca farm.)

Seven years after the move, Lily still reminisces about one thing in particular.

“I think I miss the community of it. It’s sort of like a huge family,” she said. “Everyone’s your grandma or your grandpa, so you have like 20 of them. You have all the grandmas in your house.”

It wasn’t until Lily left the reservation that she realized how much it had shaped her and her view of the world.

“I think [my time on the reservation] really opened my eyes to the struggles of more people,” she said. “I feel like even in Ann Arbor we're all kind of in a bubble—like a bubble of happiness in a way. There's less of every problem. It's not perfect, but there's less of things.”

Never one to care about vanity, clothes or even shopping, Lily was disoriented when she first walked into her middle school cafeteria and heard people chatting incessantly about clothes.

“Why are these people caring so much about what clothes they are wearing today? Or the dance?” Lily thought at those moments.

Her classmates’ focus on the shallow glitz of popularity, titles and school hierarchies utterly confused her.

“It just didn’t make sense to me,” Lily said. “There wasn't the same sort of thing in either homeschool or Native American culture.”

Most people experience the Native American culture only through history textbooks. There, every verb ubiquitously ends in “-ed,” depicting past treaties, and Native Americans’ loss of land and hunting.

“It’s not history,” Lily explained. “It’s not just what happened when Columbus came. [These events are] still affecting [Native Americans] today. [People] say, ‘It’s just history. Just forget it.’ You can’t forget it.”

A term Lily’s mom likes to use is “kid gloves.” Handling a situation with kid gloves means to be overly focused on the insignificant and miss the bigger picture.

“A lot of people who say that they're fighting for Native American rights go after names like ‘Redskins,’” Lily said. “That doesn't bother me as much. Let’s solve the actual problems. Let's be advocates for Native American problems that are actually affecting lives.”

Lily hopes for many things, but most return (shamelessly) to Beatrice the Goat.

“I hope she's happy eating her clover and that she found a friend that does not get her stuck in the barbed wire,” Lily said. “We probably bandaged her legs too many times.”

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